Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the


(Ger., Windau), town in northwestern Latvia on the shore of the Baltic Sea. From 1561, Ventspils belonged to the Duchy of Courland (Kurland) and was under the sovereignty of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until it was annexed to the Russian Empire in 1795. The first Jews came to Ventspils in the second half of the eighteenth century from neighboring localities as well as from Prussia and Lithuania. A burial society and cemetery, however, were not established until 1831. Later a synagogue and a bet midrash were built.

In 1835 there were 485 Jews in the town and its surroundings. Among the best-known rabbis of the community were Eliyahu Ya‘akovson, Mordekhai Uri Smunov and his grandson Efrayim, Yehoshu‘a Falk, and Ruvn Rubinshteyn. In 1864, the number of Jews in Ventspils reached 920, and by the beginning of World War I the total had risen to about 5,000. Although the community generally adopted modern German Jewish forms of religious life, many Jews in Ventspils were Bundists and Zionists. Struggling to attain the equality of Russian subjects, Jews closely cooperated with the non-Jewish community. In 1907, Ya‘akov Shapira was elected as a delegate to the Second Russian Duma.

In 1915, during World War I, the Jews of Courland were expelled to the interior of Russia. Hence, in the independent Latvian Republic in 1920, Ventspils’s Jewish community population fell to 863, or 11 percent of the town’s population. In 1935, there were 1,246 Jews, of a total population of 15,671. The municipality started a Jewish elementary school while the Jewish community established a secondary school. Among the many youth and sporting clubs, the Ventspils Maccabi branch was the largest chapter in Latvia.

During World War II, German forces captured Ventspils on 1 July 1941; the Jewish population at that point was 1,000. All local Jews were then concentrated in a few buildings in a ghetto located near the Venta River. The community was annihilated in several stages by the Nazis later that year. Most were murdered in the nearby Kazyn Forest.

Suggested Reading

Mendl Bobe, Perakim be-toldot yahadut Latviyah (Tel Aviv, 1965); Dov Levin, ed., “Ventspils,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Latviyah ve-Estonyah, pp. 123–128 (Jerusalem, 1988); Erwin Oberländer and Ilgvars Misāns, eds., Das Herzogtum Kurland, 1561–1795: Verfassung, Wirtschaft, Gesellschaft (Lüneburg, Ger., 2001). Archival materials on Ventspils are housed in Muzejs un Dokumentacijas Centrs “Ebreji Latvija,” Riga, Latvia.