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Jelgava

(Ger., Mitau), city in Latvia; provincial capital of Courland. Founded in the thirteenth century by the Livonian Order of German (Teutonic) Knights, Jelgava, along with the Duchy of Courland, was taken over by the Russian Empire in 1795. Jews are known to have lived in the town from the seventeenth century. Earlier tombstones, dating from the fourteenth century, mark the graves of Jewish merchants who passed through the region.


At the end of the seventeenth century, Jews were permitted to live on just one street in Jelgava, the Judengasse. In 1710, they were given permission to found a cemetery. In response to appeals by Christian merchants, however, there were short-term expulsions of Jews in 1713 and 1758. In 1780, Jews were explicitly permitted to live and trade within the town, and in 1784 they were allowed to build a synagogue. A few Jewish merchants managed to achieve high social status and influence among the local nobility; David Bamberger, for example, achieved prominence in the mid-eighteenth century as a supplier of goods to the Russian army.


The Jews of Jelgava tried to improve their situation by appealing to the Landtag (the highest legislative body in the Duchy of Courland). Thus, the beadles Aharon Lipman Levi and Yitsḥak Mosheh Ides submitted a petition in 1793 requesting an edict of tolerance. The petition was favorably discussed in committee but remained unapproved because the duchy lost its independence from Russia in 1795. However, in 1799 a Russian law improved the position of Courland’s Jews by removing economic restrictions and by granting them residence and certain civil rights. As part of Courland, Jelgava was not included in the eventual Pale of Jewish Settlement. In theory, therefore, Russian Jews, except for first-guild merchants, were forbidden to settle there.


During the 1800s, the Jewish population of Jelgava included both traditionalists and people sympathetic to the Haskalah. Thus, in the mid-nineteenth century, Orthodox rabbi Mordekhai Uri Samunov of Windau (Lat., Ventspils) served as official rabbi but was not fully accepted and was forced to return to his hometown after three years. He was replaced, temporarily (1858–1859), by Re’uven Yosef Wunderbar (Vunderbar), who favored Haskalah ideas and became well known as the historian of the Jews of Courland.


In 1859, Rabbi Shelomoh Fokher was appointed rabbi of Jelgava and served for the next 34 years. He also promoted Haskalah ideas, particularly regarding secular education. He was instrumental in the founding of a central synagogue for the town, the architectural character of which resembled a church and aroused the ire of Orthodox Jewish circles. After much contention—including a ban on praying in the new structure issued by Rabbi Eliyahu Lieder of Zagare, and even the intervention of provincial authorities—certain changes were made in the building and the controversy subsided. With the new structure, Jelgava had three synagogues. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Jelgava’s Jews held a number of public positions. Rabbi Fokher served as a member of the city council, and the banker Leo Leib Muna was a member of the board of the mortgage society.


According to the 1897 census of the Russian Empire, there were some 6,000 Jews in Jelgava (17% of the total population). The town also had a number of Jewish welfare institutions, supported by the korobka (a tax on kosher meat) and donations by individuals. These included a bikur ḥolim (visiting of the sick) society, and eventually an infirmary, a 25-bed hospital, and a free soup kitchen, as well as a home for the elderly, a free loan society, and other aid societies.


During World War I, the Russian government expelled the Jews of Jelgava in May 1915, along with all the Jews of Courland, into the interior of the empire. When Jews returned after the war, their numbers did not exceed 2,000. In 1935, there were 2,039 Jews living in the town (6% percent of the total population).


The German army occupied Courland on 29 August 1941. Although many Jews had managed to flee earlier, the majority were trapped and murdered by the Nazis and Latvian collaborators. In 2000, no Jews were known to live in the city and virtually nothing remained of the cemetery.

Suggested Reading

Andrew Ezergalis, “Latvia,” in Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, ed. Israel Gutman, vol. 3, pp. 849–852 (New York, 1990); Esther Hagar, “Yalgavah / Jelgava,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Latviyah ve-Estonyah, ed. Dov Levin, pp. 149–159 (Jerusalem, 1988).

Author

Translation

Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson