Children from a children’s home maintained by the Central Jewish People’s Relief Committee in Liepāja, a center of Jewish life in Courland, on a forest outing, ca. 1920s. Photograph by E. Jacubovits. (YIVO)

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Liepāja

(Ger., Libau), Baltic port and the second largest city in Latvia. Jews began to arrive in Liepāja in 1795 and numbered more than 10,000 before World War I (for population, see Table 1).


When the town was taken over by Russia in 1795, only 19 male Jews had managed to find residence in Liepāja. In 1799, regulations were issued that granted Jews the right to settle in the town. By 1835, there were 1,348 Jewish residents, including a group of prominent persons from Germany. The Jews of Liepāja made their living mainly in commerce and industry, and the population of the town grew dramatically after a railway line linked it with Russian industrial centers. During World War I, 36,000–40,000 Jewish refugees arrived there.


Table: Jewish Population of Liepāja

From 1800 until the 1860s, the Jews of Liepāja were mainly under the cultural influence of German Jewry. The community’s educational system included both traditional religious bodies and institutions dedicated to the ideas of the Haskalah. Aharon ber Nurok served as the rabbi starting in 1907; indeed, he and his brother, Mordekhai, headed the rabbinate for all of Latvia. After pogroms grew rampant in southern Russia in the 1880s, Liepāja absorbed many refugees. The community established special relief institutions to deal with the newcomers. When a modern-style school opened in Liepāja in 1885, the Hebrew grammarian Mordekhai Manischewitz taught Hebrew language and literature. That same year, a local Ḥoveve Tsiyon association was founded, and a Bund group became active at the turn of the century.


In the interwar period, Jews in Liepāja founded a number of banks and credit institutions. In 1924, a private Jewish bank was established, called the Merchants Bank of Libau, and at about the same time the Jewish-owned Liepāja Bank was founded to replace the exchange institution that had been destroyed during the war. The Liepāja Bank became one of the six largest banks in Latvia, holding more than 60 percent of the private bank capital in the country.


Abram Halpern (standing, center), the commissar in charge of Jewish firemen, with family and friends, Liepāja, Latvia, 1938. (YIVO)

In 1935, there were 7,379 Jews in Liepāja. In 1940 the town—along with all of Latvia—was annexed by the Soviet Union. Liepāja came under German occupation in July1941; very few Jews managed to escape. In July of that year, Jews were held in the town’s prison and were shot to death by the Nazis. During the first month of the German invasion, at least 1,000 Jewish men were murdered. By November 1941, only 3,890 Jews were still alive.


After Liepāja was liberated in May 1945, a series of photographs was discovered among Gestapo documents, depicting the murder of 2,800 local Jews in December 1941. The victims had been taken to Skeden, a fisherman’s village north of Liepāja, and murdered there in ditches by the Germans, assisted by Latvian policemen. After these murders, about 1,000 Jews had remained in the town, of whom some 250 were killed immediately while the remainder were forced into a ghetto at the beginning of July 1942. The ghetto was liquidated on 8 October 1943, on the eve of Yom Kippur, and its inhabitants were sent to the Kaizervald concentration camp. Some Jews, including children, were hidden by local peasants. When the Red Army entered Liepāja on 9 May 1945, it found between 20 and 30 Jews. Although several hundred tombstones remain in the cemetery, in the year 2000 no Jews were known to be living in Liepāja.

Suggested Reading

Esther Hagar, “Leyepayah / Liepaja,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Latviyah ve-Estonyah, ed. Dov Levin, pp. 170–186 (Jerusalem, 1988); Esther Hagar, “Liepāja,” in Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, ed. Israel Gutman, vol. 3, pp. 874–876 (New York and London, 1990); Leni Yeḥil, Ha-Sho’ah: Goral yehude Eropah, 1932–1945, vol. 2, pp. 391, 419 (Jerusalem, 1987).

Author

Translation

Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson