State in the eastern Baltic region, created in 1918 out of the former Russian provinces of Courland (an autonomous duchy linked to Poland until 1795), Livonia (under Swedish rule from 1629 to 1721), and Latgalia (part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1772). Between 1940 and 1991, Latvia was a republic of the Soviet Union, regaining full independence with the breakup of the USSR.
The first Jews came to Courland by sea, from Prussia, at the end of the sixteenth century and settled in the provincial towns of Hasenpot, Pilten, Grobin, and Windau (Ventspils) in the Piltene district, a separate ecclesiastical enclave until 1611. Piltene imposed no restrictions on Jews with regard to place of residence, involvement in commerce and crafts, and the maintenance of communities. The Jews of Hasenpot were granted permission to establish a synagogue in 1751 on condition that they pay a special tax to be divided between the mayor and the municipal court.
Jews came to other parts of Courland, such as the Zemagalen district, mainly from the Zamut region in Lithuania as well as from eastern Poland. Initially, they made their living primarily as peddlers, operators of leased inns, distillers, and real estate brokers. When opposition to their presence and activities intensified, the Landtag (parliament) of Courland in 1719 resolved to grant Jews the right of residence in exchange for a Schutzgeld (protection fee) of 400 guldens—an outrageous sum. In fact, the Landtag delayed its decision from one term to the next for decades, and Jews enjoyed a sort of positive status quo.
“Makabi Riga, 1918–1933.” Poster in Hebrew and Latvian. Riga, 1933. The poster advertises the Maccabiah, a worldwide gathering and tournament of Maccabi sports clubs. (Pierre Gildesgame Maccabi Sports Museum, Israel)
After the Russian Empire incorporated Courland, a law was enacted in 1799 permitting Jews of the district to reside there without interruption and engage in commerce and crafts. The Pale of Jewish Settlement included neither Courland nor Livonia, and Jews from the Pale could legally settle only under certain exceptional circumstances. Nevertheless, Courland’s Jewish population grew from around 4,581 in 1799 to 23,030 in 1835, thanks largely to migration from Lithuania. In fact, the number of Jews in Courland increased notably under Russian rule, reaching 51,000 (7.6% of the total population) in 1897. On the eve of World War I, it exceeded 64,000. Two-thirds of Courland’s Jews lived in cities and provincial towns.
Courland Jewry developed a particular cultural style, the product of the combined influence of German and Lithuanian Jewish cultures. About one-third of them cited German as the language spoken in their households, and there was a constant increase in the number of Russian speakers among university graduates. At the same time, the influence of prominent rabbis from the households of Rabiner, Nurok, Lichtenstein, and Samunov was strong. Jews cooperated with their German and Latvian neighbors in elections to the Russian State Duma, and four prominent Jews were elected as delegates on behalf of the district between 1906 and 1917.
The first Jews came to Riga (the capital of Livonia) on business during the period of Swedish rule. They were compelled to stay at a special Juden Herberge (Jewish hostel), managed by a Christian official known as the Judenwirt (Jews’ landlord). In 1743, after the district came under Russian rule, all Jews were expelled, but in 1764 they were allowed to return, with the intention of transferring them through Riga to the territories of southern Russia. The plan was never carried out, and some 50 Jews who were supposed to have taken part in it settled in Riga, outside the Herberge. They received the status of Schutzjuden (protected Jews), whose stay in the city was not limited—unlike other Jews, who were allowed to be in the city for periods no longer than six weeks. Within a few years, each group had erected its own synagogue. As of 1783, more Jews from the nearby Schlock (Sloka) district began to settle in Riga. By 1811, their total number was 736.
Owing to the economic boom experienced by the region generally and the growing importance of the port of Riga in particular, the number of Jews in the district increased from 1,221 in 1863 to 25,916 in 1881. In the late nineteenth century, Yiddish was the mother tongue of 77 percent of the Jews in the region, German of 22 percent, and Russian of 1 percent. A modern Jewish school was established in Riga in 1840, and the German Jewish educator Max Lilienthal became its principal. According to the census of 1897, there were 26,793 Jews in the Livonia district (3.5% of the district’s overall population), of whom 22,097 (80%) lived in Riga, and 4,606 (20%) in provincial towns and villages. This numerical ratio remained unchanged in later years.
In Latgalia, where Jews appeared for the first time in the latter half of the seventeenth century, Jewish culture was closer to the style of traditional Lithuanian and Russian Jewish communities, and Yiddish was the common language. In 1898, 18.5 percent of Jewish families in this district needed welfare. Most Jews who found employment were engaged in the following trades: textiles, 40 percent; shoes, 16 percent; carpentry, 11 percent; food, 11 percent; metal work, 9 percent; and agriculture, 3 percent.
Members of Daughters of Zion, a women’s Zionist organization, Dvinsk, Russia (now Daugavpils, Lat.), 1904. (The Institute for Labour Research in Memory of Pinchas Lavon, Tel Aviv)
Impressive progress in the economic field was particularly evident within the largest Jewish community of the district, Daugavpils (Rus. and Yid., Dvinsk; Ger., Dünaburg; also called by Jews Dinaburg), home to about 55,000 Jews in 1910, and representing more than 40 percent of the city’s population (in 1772, only 136 Jews had lived there). Jewish capitalists and contractors established dozens of factories and construction companies that employed tens of thousands of laborers, including many Jews. As a Jewish proletariat emerged, the Jewish workers’ party, the Bund, became particularly strong in the region, and its local branch was reported to be the second largest in all of Russia.
Lubavitch Hasidism was prominent in the traditional Jewish circles of Latgalia. Several communities established their reputation throughout the Jewish world as centers of spiritual and religious creation, including Ludza (Liutsin) and its dynasties of rabbis from the Tsiyoni and Don-Yaḥya families, and Dvinsk with such prominent religious scholars as Me’ir Simḥah ha-Kohen (1843–1926) and Yosef Rozin (known as Der Rogachover; 1858–1936).
By 1897, there were 142,089 Jews in Latvia: 64,224 in Latgalia (12.8% of the total population), 51,072 in Courland (7.6%), and 26,793 in Livonia (3.5%). Most Jews lived in the major cities: Riga, Dvinsk, and Liepāja (Libau). In 1914, on the eve of World War I, there were about 190,000 Jews in the three districts of Latvia, including approximately 34,000 in Riga. During the early stages of the war, in the spring of 1915 before the Germans captured Courland, some 40,000 Jews were deported from that district to the Russian interior at the initiative of the commanders of the Russian Army, who accused them of assisting the enemy.
The Interwar Years
During the Latvian War of Independence, and because of expulsions and flight during World War I, the Jewish population was reduced to about 80,000 (increasing to 95,675 by 1925). Some 1,000 Jews fought in the ranks of the Latvian National Army and with various partisan units. Following the establishment of independent Latvia in October 1918, representatives of Jewish parties participated in the People’s Council, the Constituent Assembly, and the Saiema (parliament) until its dissolution in 1939. According to figures from 1930, nearly half the Jews of Latvia were engaged in commerce, about one-third in industry and crafts, and the rest in the liberal professions, transportation, and agriculture.
Abram Halpern (standing, center), the commissar in charge of Jewish firemen, with family and friends, Liepāja, Latvia, 1938. (YIVO)
Based on a 1919 law granting minorities the right to operate their own schools with state financial support, a Jewish educational network known as the Jewish Education Authority was established in Latvia. About 80 percent of the Jewish children attended the authority’s schools, which included three separate school systems: the Yiddish track, supported by the Bund and administered by the TSYSHO school network; the Hebrew track, supported by Zionists and run by the teachers’ organization Ha-Moreh; and a third track, in which the language of instruction was German or Russian.
In 1928, there were 10,325 Jewish students, taught by 599 teachers, studying at the 85 authorized elementary schools. The distribution of the teaching languages was as follows: Yiddish: 4,978 (48%); Hebrew: 3,204 (31%); German: 1,438 (14%); and Russian: 705 (7%). An additional 1,697 Jewish students studied at non-Jewish institutions. At the 19 high schools, there were 2,298 students distributed as follows: Yiddish, 538 (24%); Hebrew, 427 (18%); Russian, 937 (41%); and German, 396 (17%). Additionally, 1,391 Jewish students studied at non-Jewish high schools.
The most prominent Jewish political organizations were the Bund, Agudas Yisroel, Mizraḥi, and the Socialist and General Zionists with their youth movements. The Revisionist Zionist youth movement Betar was established in Riga in 1923 by Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky and led by Aharon Propes. This movement maintained a naval school in Latvia, one of a handful of this kind in the Diaspora. Athletic clubs were very prominent as well; one such club, Ha-Koaḥ Riga, became renowned internationally.
From Trade Directory of Latvia (Riga: The Latvian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 1939). Three of the four businesses advertised feature Jewish proprietors. (YIVO)
Following the coup d’état by Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis in 1934, subsidies to Jewish schools were curtailed, and the task of supervising Jewish education was assigned exclusively to Agudas Yisroel. Youth movements, Zionist parties, and the Bund continued to operate in a semiunderground fashion and under different names. At the same time, Mordekhai Dubin, the leader of Agudas Yisroel and its longstanding representative in the Saiema, who had been a friend of Ulmanis since before the revolution, gained strength and consolidated his public position. The daily newspaper Haynt, the only Jewish newspaper that continued to be published with the permission of the authorities, also came to be controlled by Agudas Yisroel.
Competition between Jews and Latvians in the economic sphere, which had begun in the 1920s and took a turn for the worse following the Ulmanis coup, intensified during the worldwide economic crisis in the 1930s. Most prominent in anti-Jewish incitement were nationalist circles, and in particular the Perkonkrust (Thunder Cross) organization as well as the paramilitary organization Aizsargi (Homeland Guard). At the same time, Latvia absorbed hundreds of Jewish refugees from Central Europe, and after the outbreak of World War II from Poland as well. During this period, the concentration of the Jewish population in the major cities increased. In 1939, about two-thirds of the Jews of Latvia lived in the three major cities: Riga (about 43,000), Daugavpils (about 13,000), and Liepāja (about 9,000).
World War II
When the Red Army entered Latvia on 17 June 1940, numerous attacks were launched against Jews, and local nationalists accused them of welcoming the invaders. The new Soviet administration denounced antisemitic attacks on the one hand, but on the other hand it disbanded Jewish parties and political and public organizations (just as it disbanded similar non-Jewish organizations). The Hebrew and religious education system was abolished. Kampf, the only Jewish newspaper published by the Communist Party while rigged elections were being held, was closed down immediately following the voting in July. The State Jewish Theater of Riga did continue to operate, with notable artistic accomplishments.
Wife and daughters (front row) of Abram Halpern, the commissar for Jewish firemen in Liepāja, with non-Jewish friends or acquaintances, Latvia, 1939. (YIVO)
With these few exceptions, the public life of Jews came to a standstill. Although Soviet authorities did not interrupt the work of historian Simon Dubnow (who had lived in Riga since 1933), he remained isolated and could hardly press on with his scholarly work. Many Jewish youngsters joined the Komsomol and other Communist Party and Soviet state organizations, including the Workers Guard—a sort of armed auxiliary police force.
Among the 15,000 Latvian citizens deported in June 1941 in freight cars to remote areas of the USSR as “hostile elements,” Jews made up not less than 11.7 percent, more than twice their percentage in the general population. Some Jewish sources give a much higher estimate of 5,000. Prominent among them were former members of the Saiema; leaders of disbanded parties and organizations; and merchants, industrialists, and bankers. Following the Nazi invasion of the Baltic States in late June of that year, many Jews, especially from Riga and the eastern parts of Latvia, managed to reach the USSR. The number of these refugees was estimated at about 16,000. Most of the men of conscription age fought in the ranks of the Red Army; about 4,000 of them belonged to units of the 301st Latvian Corps.
When the Nazis captured Latvia in early July 1941, some 70,000 Jews remained there. Even before the Germans entered the cities and provincial towns, many Jews were brutally slaughtered by local Latvians. In Riga, local attackers murdered 400 Jews, and most synagogues were destroyed. Similar attacks took place across all of Latvia. In July and August of that year, the majority of the Jewish population of the cities and provincial towns was systematically eradicated. In several towns, including Tukums and Jelgava, Jews were locked in synagogues and burned alive. In other places, such as Zilupe and Rēzekne, Jews were concentrated in town squares and then marched to nearby cemeteries and forests, where they were shot. The Latvian auxiliary police, who worked with Einsatzkommando 2/17, were routinely responsible for the actual execution of those massacres.
In Daugavpils, a ghetto was established in July 1941, and Jews from nearby towns such as Kārsava and Ludza were incarcerated there. Of the 15,000 Jews in the Daugavpils ghetto, the majority were slaughtered in four shooting operations, three in August and one in November. Only about 1,000 people remained alive. A similar number survived in Liepāja. In Riga, 32,000 Jews were incarcerated on 25 October in a ghetto established in an area known as the Muscovite Suburb; it existed for just 37 days. The overwhelming majority of the occupants were murdered, mainly in shooting operations that took place in late November and early December in the Rumbula forest. By the end of 1941, some 9,000 Jews remained in Latvia, about half of them in the Riga ghetto (4,500 men in the so-called “small ghetto” and 300 women in a special block of houses). The rest were incarcerated in the ghettos of Liepāja and Daugavpils and in various labor camps. Subsequently, about 15,000 Jews from Central Europe were transported to Riga. Some were executed immediately on arrival; others were housed in the larger ghetto of Riga, which came to be known as the German ghetto or the Reichsjuden ghetto (the ghetto of the Jews from the German Reich).
In January 1942, about 200 occupants of the Riga ghetto established an anti-Nazi underground organization. Eleven of its members headed east on 28 October 1942, seeking to contact Soviet partisan units, but they were apprehended. In retaliation, the German authorities murdered 108 Jews along with 38 Jewish policemen whom they accused of assisting the underground. In June 1943, the rest of the group was rounded up after its arms stores were discovered.
On 2 November 1943, the Germans conducted the last shooting operation in the Riga ghetto, in preparation for its final destruction. About 2,300 Jews considered unfit for work were executed, and the remaining occupants were transferred to the Kaizerwald concentration camp and its various extensions. In August 1944, as the Red Army advanced on Latvia, German authorities evacuated the remaining prisoners and camp inmates to Germany by sea. Of those evacuated, less than 1,000 survived, and only a handful returned to Latvia when the war ended.
The Postwar Period
Unidentified Jewish family at a meal, Latvia, 1936. There are matzot on the table so it is likely that this photograph was taken during Passover. (YIVO)
Latvian Jews who had reached the Soviet interior during the war were able to return. The census of 1959 counted 36,592 Jews in Latvia—1.7 percent of the total population. They were located primarily in Daugavpils, Riga, and Liepāja. Yiddish was cited as a mother tongue by 48 percent, while 50 percent cited Russian, 1.5 percent Lett (Latvian), and 0.5 percent other languages. These proportions remained almost unchanged in the census of 1970.
Latvia in general and Riga in particular were centers of the national awakening that gradually intensified among Soviet Jews in the 1970s. Jewish activism was reflected, among other things, in public demands for the construction of appropriate monuments at Holocaust mass-murder sites; demonstrations at central government offices in Moscow, where Jews demanded exit visas; and efforts to disseminate Hebrew culture. By 1980, a total of 13,153 Jews had managed to leave Latvia, of whom about 11,000 migrated to Israel. In 1989, Latvian Jews established a Jewish center in Riga (Likor), a periodical in Russian (Vek), and a Jewish school, as well as other institutions, even as emigration continued.
In 1994, there were 13,325 Jews in Latvia—10,325 in Riga, 760 in Dvinsk, 276 in Liepāja, and the rest in five much smaller communities. In each, at least one synagogue survived and was used for prayer services. Jewish activity was particularly prominent in Riga, where some 500 children attended the Jewish school. The Biker Khoylim hospital occupied the renovated building where the same institution had been located prior to World War II. Each year, memorial services are held at the sites of mass murder during the Holocaust. However, despite protests, veterans of the Latvian SS legion that fought against the Allied forces in World War II regularly held their annual parade along the main streets of Riga.