History of Jews in Latvia

The earliest encounters between local residents and Jews are dated back to the 14th century, when Latvia was ruled by the knights of the Livonian Order. However, special decrees banned the Jews from settling down here for more than  200 years.

The first Jewish settlements appeared on the map of Kurzeme (Courland) in the late 16th century. The first Jewish community was formed in 1571 in Piltene, where Jews were allowed to purchase property and build homes and prayer houses. By the 19th century, some 23,000 Jews lived in Courland.

The first Jews came to Latgale from Western Ukraine and Belarus in the mid-17th century. The Jewish community in Riga started forming in the late 18th century. 

The positive contribution of the Jewish community to the swift development of industry and trade in Latvia in the late 19th century cannot be overestimated. The biggest woodworking factories, the majority of timber and grain trading, large flax mills, flax export companies and distillery businesses, were concentrated in the hands of Jewish business people. The Jewish community owned 10 banks in Riga.

After 1881, a wave of anti-Semitism hit the Russian Empire. In accordance to new laws, the Jews living in Riga, Mitau, and Libau, whose actual trade was different to their officially registered one, were forced to move back to the pale of settlement. Jews were banned from working in the Government organizations and their access to university education was restricted. Antisemitic views were quite frequent in conservative parts of Latvian society. However, democratically orientated Latvian public figures, such as Krishjanis Valdemars, Augusts Deglavs, Rudolfs Blaumanis, Rainis, and others, sympathized with the Jews and stood against antisemitism.

There were different reactions to these negative changes. Many Jews emigrated, mainly to the USA, Great Britain and South Africa. Some of them joined various socialist political groups. Various Zionist groups also started operating.

WWI had a catastrophic impact on Latvian Jews. In accordance to the orders of the Russian military command, tens of thousands of Jews were deported into midland provinces of the Russian Empire in 1915, on suspicion of espionage in favor of Germany. Some 75,000 Jews became refugees. The majority of them settled in Russia. Less than half of them left, returning to their homeland after the war.

Independence of the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed on the 18th of November 1918. More than a thousand Jewish soldiers and officers fought for the independence of their home country in 1918–1920.

All the ethnic minorities of independent Latvia were guaranteed equal political rights and cultural autonomy. The Jewish citizens of the newly born country were highly politically active, and the spectrum of Jewish political parties was rather broad. During several years between 1922 and 1934 3 to 6 members were elected to the Saeima (Latvian Parliament) from Jewish political parties. Several Town and City Councils had elected Jewish members.

The Management Department for Jewish schools was opened within the Ministry of Education.

The contribution of the Jewish community to Latvian culture was priceless. The Folk Jewish Academy of Music functioned in Riga in the early 1920s. During the 1920s–1930s, two Jewish theatre groups performed here. Many well-known Latvian musicians were of Jewish origin.

Despite the fact that the Jewish community of Latvia was quite Europe orientated and secular, religious life was also highly active. There were some 200 Jewish religious communities in the country.

Latvian Jews played a crucial role in the formation and development of the State financial system. During the 1930s, almost half of Latvian Jews worked in retail and sales, about one third in industry, significant numbers worked as medical and freelance professionals and others in the transport industry.

When Karlis Ulmanis came to power on the 15th of May 1934, all political parties and public organizations, including the Jewish ones, were disbanded. The economic activity of Jews was restricted. This policy resulted in withdrawal of the Jewish investments and emigration of Jewish business people and professionals. At the same time Latvia took in several thousand Jews, who fled Nazi occupied Europe. 

By the end of the 1930s, some 93,000 Jews lived in Latvia. Almost half of them, 43,000 people, resided in Riga.

Latvia fell under Soviet rule in 1940. All the banks, industrial plants and retail businesses, including the Jewish owned ones, were nationalized. Among the 15,000 Latvian citizens deported to Siberia on the 14th of June 1941, about 2,000 were Jewish. 

Nazi troops occupied Latvia in early July 1941. There are more then 200 sites in Latvia, where mass executions of Jews were carried out during WWII. More than 70,000 Latvian Jews as well as Jews deported from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other European countries were exterminated here. 

Only 14,000 members of the Latvian Jewish community survived the WWII. Jews from other regions of the Soviet Union relocated to post-war Latvia and by 1959, its Jewish population increased to more than 36,000 people.

Latvia became one of the centers of the Zionist, dissident, and Jewish national movements in the Soviet Union. Jewish activists struggled for the right to emigrate to Israel and to openly honour the memory of the Holocaust victims. Many activists were arrested for printing Jewish books, newspapers, and magazines, and learning Hebrew and Jewish history, which were all made illegal under Soviet rule. More than 1/3 of Latvian Jews emigrated to Israel, the USA, and Western Europe in the 1970s.

Jewish life in Latvia revived from nonexistence during the 1980s, when the social and political systems of the USSR became more liberal. Jewish communities was established in Riga, Daugavpils, Liepaja, Rezekne, Jurmala, Ventspils, Jekabpils, Ludza and Jelgava. The Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia was founded in 2003 and unifies 13 communities from 9 Latvian cities.

 

At present, the Jewish community of Latvia has 10,000 members, which makes it the largest among the Baltic States.

 

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