Capital of Latvia. Founded at the beginning of the thirteenth century, Riga was a member of the Hanseatic League. Jewish merchants became active in the city from the mid-sixteenth century, although opposition from local merchants forced them to live on the outskirts of the town. After the Russian conquest at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Jewish commercial activity expanded. The Jewish population continued to grow in both Riga itself and neighboring Sloka despite several expulsion orders, and Jews played a central role in economic and commercial life, engaging in trade, industry, and finance.
Geometry lesson at the First Municipal Jewish School, Riga, 1925. Photograph by H. Taubkins. (YIVO)
During the eighteenth century, a synagogue and cemetery were organized; however, Riga did not have a rabbi, cantor, shoḥet (ritual slaughterer), or heder until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Jewish community received formal recognition from the authorities only in 1842. An orphanage, hospital, home for the aged, and other institutions were established in the second half of the nineteenth century.
In the 1800s, the Riga Jewish community took on a Western orientation, mostly Germanic, and a pluralistic character. As a community of immigrants with no fixed religious or cultural traditions, Riga exhibited cultural openness, and the economy made it an attractive destination for Jews from Russia, Lithuania, Poland, and Prussia. Many who held the right to settle in the city, as well as those who were only permitted to engage in business, adopted a German orientation. This atmosphere served to promote the Haskalah, and the first Haskalah-oriented school opened in Riga as early as 1840, with the German Reform rabbi Max Lilienthal as its director. In addition, some influential modern rabbis, such as Aharon Pompianski (who served from 1873 to 1893), Shelomoh Pucher (1893–1898), and Yehudah Leib Kantor (1909–1915), worked in the community. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, many Riga Jews became attracted to Russian culture. At the same time, Zionist, socialist, and other circles also grew active.
From Trade Directory of Latvia (Riga: The Latvian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, 1939). Three of the four businesses advertised feature Jewish proprietors. (YIVO)
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the number of Jews in Riga grew rapidly, reaching more than 30,000 before World War I. During that war, approximately one-third of the Jews left, though many later returned. Under the Latvian regime, the community included some 40,000 Jews. The Riga community preserved its pluralistic cultural and economic character in this period, and young men and women attended a variety of educational institutions run in German, Russian, Yiddish, or Hebrew. Local synagogues also reflected the town’s cultural diversity: there were two grand choral synagogues, a range of neighborhood synagogues, and some small Hasidic prayer houses. One of the largest branches of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE) was active, as were a Jewish academy of music and a Jewish theater. Many Yiddish newspapers, the best known of which was Dos folk, were published in the town.
The variety of Jewish youth movements reflected the deep political divisions within the city’s Jewish community (as elsewhere in Eastern Europe). Active political parties included Revisionist Zionists, religious Zionists, Tse‘ire Tsiyon, Agudas Yisroel, Po‘ale Tsiyon, the Folkspartey, the Bund, and the General Zionists. Among the outstanding Jewish public figures were the professors (and brothers) Pauls and Vladimirs Mincs (Mintz), Aryeh Disenchik, Rabbi Menaḥem Zak, and the four Jewish members of the Latvian Parliament: Mordekhai Dubin; the brothers Mordekhai and Aharon Nurok, both also rabbis; and attorney Simon Isaac Wittenberg. The historian Simon Dubnow also lived in Riga from the beginning of the 1930s.
Economic prosperity continued until the end of the 1920s. As members of the upper middle class, Jews established and managed businesses, factories, and plants that produced a variety of goods, including tobacco, food products, textiles, and wood products; Jews also imported and exported raw materials. Many established, managed, or worked in banking and other financial institutions; in addition, the liberal professions, including medicine and law, were also standard options.
“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)
Between June 1940 and June 1941, Riga fell under Soviet occupation. During this period, restrictions were placed on all institutions and activities of religious or national significance. The Germans occupied Riga in July 1941, and Jews were immediately subjected to arrests, physical abuse, and murder. Local groups, such as the Commando Arajs, participated in these actions. Synagogues were burned down and the organized murder of Jews was instituted in forests outside the town. A large ghetto was established in October 1941; another was set up a month later. Many Jews from German towns were brought to Riga. An Altestenrat, headed by Mikhael Elishov, managed daily affairs; a Jewish underground also emerged.
At the end of November and the beginning of December 1942, the Nazis carried out Aktions. Some Jews were murdered immediately; others were taken to concentration camps and nearby killing sites, including Salaspils, Rumbula, and Bikernieki. At the beginning of 1943, Jews from Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary were brought to the Kaiserwald concentration camp not far from Riga. The ghetto was wiped out at the end of 1943, and the concentration camp was destroyed in the fall of 1944.
Toward the end of the 1950s, there were 30,000 Jews in Riga. However, many emigrated, leaving only about 13,000 at the beginning of the 1990s. After the fall of the Communist regime and the emergence of an independent Latvia, Jewish communal activity was revived. Educational and charitable institutions were established, the Museum of the History of Latvian Jewry was founded, and the local synagogue became a center of Jewish activity.
Levi Avtsinsky, Toldot yeshivot ha-yehudim be-Kurland mi-shenat 1561 ‘ad 1908 (Vilna, 1912); Mendel Bobe, The Jews of Latvia (Tel Aviv, 1971); Anton Buchholtz, Geschichte der Juden in Riga bis zur Begründung der rigischen Hebräergemeinde im Jahr 1842 (Riga, 1899); Leo Dribins, Armands Gutmanis, and Margers Vestermanis, Latvia’s Jewish Community, History, Tragedy, Revival, trans. Inese Skrivele (Riga, 2001); Binyamin Eliav, ed., Yahadut Latviyah: Sefer zikaron (Tel Aviv, 1952/53); Dov Levin, “Rigah / Riga,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Latviyah ve-Estonyah, pp. 242–295 (Jerusalem, 1988); Max Michelson, City of Life, City of Death (Boulder, 2001); David Philipson, Max Lilienthal (New York, 1915); Shmuel Tseitlin, Dokumental’naia istoriia evreev Rigi (n.p. [Isr.], 1989); Margers Vestermanis (Marger Vesterman), Fragments of the Jewish History of Riga: A Brief Guide-Book with a Map for a Walking Tour (Riga, 1991).
Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson