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Jews in Riga and Vidzeme

Jews in Riga and Vidzeme

....The first mention of Jewish merchants in Riga occurs in 1536. An independent Jewish settlement began to form in 1638. Every day, at the close of business, Jews had to leave the city; they were allowed to return the next morning when the markets opened. The prohibition against living in Riga remained in force even after Riga and Kurland were annexed to Russia. Nevertheless, the Jewish traders who supplied St. Petersburg with wood and the royal court with jewellery succeeded, in the middle of the eighteenth century, in gaining permission to live in Riga for six weeks.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were 700-800 Jews in Riga. As merchants and craftsmen, they played a vital role in the economic life of the city. Many Jews campaigned for the right to gain full status as citizens and landlords. The German city council was reluctant to make these concessions because it did not want to share its privileged status with the Jews. However, the Jews' petitions to St.Petersburg were heeded, and in 1841 the Russian Senate passed a law giving the Jews of Riga, who were permanent citizens there already, the right to be registered in the city. The law also required the Jews to give up their distinctive style of dress - long coats, distinctive hats, and cloaks; henceforth, they were to appear in the streets of Riga dressed like typical German burghers.

In 1835 the Russian government allowed Jews to settle in the Vidzeme region (they already resided there) and to engage in commerce, crafts, and the professions. By the middle of the nineteenth century, there were 4,500 Jews in the Latvian part of Vidzeme, including Riga.

Jewish Role and Life in Nineteenth-Century Latvia

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, manufacturing and a market economy started to develop in Latvia. Supply and demand increased. These conditions significantly enhanced the role of Jews. They became the chief intermediaries between the city and the farming community by supplying farmers with needed goods. Every day thousands of small tradesmen visited their customers on horseback or on foot even to the most remote rural areas. This interaction fostered wide contacts between Jews and Latvians. Commerce facilitated the development of farming. The reforms of Alexander II in 1860-1870 created a favorable environment for the Jews. For example, they were allowed to buy property in Riga, Liepaja, and other cities and to join the guilds of merchants and craftsmen. These factors contributed to the growth of a well-to-do middle class. Wealthy Jews in Riga established banks and engaged in wide-ranging international commerce. Yakov Gindin, the owner of Riga's alcohol manufacturing company, was extremely rich; he purchased some Arab territory in Palestine for those Jews who wished to return to their homeland. Jews who engaged in the export of grain, timber, or flax became especially prosperous. A heavy influx of Jews from Lithuania, Belarus, Poland, and Ukraine began in 1876. The number of Jewish craftsmen increased sharply. In Latgale, approximately two-thirds of all craftsmen were Jews. During the reign of Alexander II in the 1880s, Jewish rights were curtailed again. Jews who were not permanently registered in a city were expelled, and registration requirements were made more stringent (e.g., only those belonging to specified professions could register). Latvia's spiritual leaders did not support anti-Semitism and continued to socialise with Jews. On December 11, 1881, Krisjanis Valdemars wrote in the newspaper “Baltijas Vestnesis� that Latvians and Jews were two orphaned people who should support each other. He also invited readers to learn from the Jews how to prosper. In Latvian society as a whole, two opposite attitudes developed toward the Jews - sympathetic and supportive, on the one hand, critical and negative, on the other. The same dichotomy prevailed in many European countries.
Jews in the Revolution of 1905

At the end of the nineteenth century, 142,315 Jews lived in the territory of Latvia. They comprised 7.4% of the total population. In Rezekne and Ludza, 54% were Jews; in Daugavpils, 46%; and in Bauska, 42%. Jews were represented in almost all social classes and groups. For example, 10% of the students at Riga Polytechnic Institute were Jews. In Riga and Daugavpils several thousand Jews were common labourers. The concepts of socialism took root among them and various craftsmen. A Jewish Workers' Party called the Bund was established in 1897 in Vilnius; local Latvian chapters spring up in Daugavpils (1899), Riga (1900), and subsequently in Liepaja, Jelgava, and Ventspils. By 1904 there were approximately 1,000 members of the Bund in Daugavpils. From the first days of the Revolution of 1905, many Jews united with Latvian and Russian revolutionaries to topple the tsar. Five Jewish youths were among the 70 demonstrators who were shot on January 13, 1905, at Riga's Iron Bridge. All in all, the revolutionary struggles of 1905-1907 gave birth to friendship and co-operation between Latvian and Jewish democratic powers.

Jews in World War I

Shortly before World War I, the rapid expansion of manufacturing in Latvia created the need for more workers. Thousands of Jews arrived to fill the need. At that time there were approximately 170,000 Jews in Latvia - of these, 80,000 were in Latgale; 68,000 in Kurland, and 21,000 in Riga. At the beginning of the war, the resident Jewish citizenry declared their loyalty to Russia; however, in the spring of 1915, when the German army defeated the Russian army and forced it to retreat from Poland and Lithuania, Anti-Semites and chauvinists spread the rumor that Jews spying for Germany were responsible for the German victory; in this way, incompetent Russian generals sought to exculpate themselves from their defeats. On April 17, 1915, Grand Duke Nicolay Nikolajevich, the Russian commander-in-chief, ordered all Jews to be expelled in twenty-four hours from the front-line areas in the Duchy of Kurland. More than 40,000 Jews were evacuated from their homes. When the German army occupied Kurland and Zemgale, those Jews who had managed to escape deportation greeted the occupiers as liberators. The German attitude toward the Jews at that time was relatively tolerant. In the summer and fall, the front reached the Daugava River. Because of the relocation of industries caused by the devastation of war, there was a massive exodus of Latvians and Jews from Riga and Daugavpils to the inner Russian provinces. Under duress or voluntarily, about 127,000 Jews left Latvia during the war. Only one-third of them returned after the war...

Jews during the Latvian Republic (1918-1940)

Role in the War for Independence. When the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed on November 18, 1918, the resident Jews became full-fledged citizens for the first time. Like other Latvian minorities, they had the right to vote, to hold public office, to form political parties and organisations, to run their own press, and to fashion their own cultural autonomy. Eleven Jews were members of the National Council, and the lawyer Paul Mintz was Government Comptroller (from June 1919 to June 1921) in the administration of Karlis Ulmanis. More than 1,000 Jewish soldiers (including a student battalion and children's company) fought in the Latvian army during the War of Liberation, notably in the battle against the White Guards' army of Bermondt-Avalov in Riga and Liepaja, as well as against the Bolshevik Red Army in Latgale. Four Jewish soldiers, including Joseph and Samuel Hopi, received the Order of Lacplesis (the highest military honour), and eleven Jews were awarded the Three-Star Order (the highest national honour). Fifty Jews gave their lives for Latvia's independence. In the 1930s monuments were erected in Riga's Smerli Cemetery and the Jewish Cemetery in Liepaja to honour the fallen Jews. Jewish Contribution to Latvia's Development. Jewish life changed drastically in independent Latvia. Many thousands moved from the villages of Latgale and Kurland to Riga, where they enjoyed a wider scope for economic enterprises. Between 1920 and 1935, the number of Jews in Riga increased from 24,000 to 44,000. While the number of
Jewish small artisans and small traders decreased, the number of service employees and blue-collar workers, as well as medium- and large-scale proprietors, increased. According to the census data of 1925, 36.27% of private proprietors and 8.4% of businessmen were Jews, although Jews constituted only 5% (95,600) of the population. There was a high proportion of Jews in commerce, the timber industry, the textile industry, flax processing, and the export trade. Before the declaration of Latvia's independence, Jews had saved up considerable capital in gold and West European currencies whose value had increased. Even returning refugees had some income. Moreover, resident Jewish capitalists had wide contacts with American and British businessmen and bankers who gave them aid or loans at advantageous rates. All these resources were invested in renewing and modernising Latvia's economy. Jewish-owned factories and firms were highly competitive. Banks established by experienced Jews laid the foundation for Latvia's banking and credit system. Five of six banks established and managed by Jews were highly successful; the sole unsuccessful one completely settled accounts with all depositors. To be sure, there were also some unscrupulous operators, but they were not typical of Jewish businessmen as a whole. After 1920 many Jews became wealthy enough to afford houses, summer homes, cars, and luxurious apartments. Still, a considerable number of indigent Jews received assistance from Jewish foundations and other religious organisations.
Jewish Political Parties and Organisations.
Jewish political organisations represented a wide spectrum of views regarding Latvia as a nation and the chief mission of Jews. Many Jewish organisations declared Latvia to be their only homeland and vowed to work on its behalf. Such, for example, were the Society of Jewish Liberators of Latvia (founded in 1928) with over 700 members and the University of Latvia's student group Vetulia. Jewish political parties participated actively in Latvia's Constitutional Assembly and four Saeima elections, in which they presented their candidates as members of Parliament. The sympathies of poor Jews were attracted to the illegal Communist Party. In 1921 the Jewish section of the Latvian Communist Party was established. It sponsored the legal, Jewish cultural centre Arbeiterheim (Workers' House), which had approximately 3,000 members in Riga, Daugavpils, Liepaja, and Rezekne. Because these Jews were inimical to the Latvian state and sympathetic to Soviet Russia, the Workers' House was shut down in 1923. A Zionist-organised trip to Palestine had a positive historical significance; more than 5,000 Latvian Jews emigrated there. Zionists were also instrumental in establishing the state of Israel. In 1933 the future Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, visited Riga and encouraged Jews to return to their ancestral homeland.
Jewish Education and Culture in Latvia.
As a result of implementing the December 8, 1919, law on the education of minorities, the Hebrew society, with the aid of the Latvian government's financial support, established its own Jewish school system. The number of Jewish elementary schools increased from 21 in 1914 to 100 in 1933; the number of secondary schools during the same period increased from 4 to 18. Eighty-two percent of Jewish children studied in these schools. Initially, lessons were conducted in Russian and German, but by 1930 45.82% of pupils had their lessons in Yiddish, and 36.05% in Hebrew. The proportion of Hebrew continued to increase. In general, the education level of Jews was high. In 1936, 10.6% of all secondary pupils were Jewish; in 1931, 8.77% of all students were Jewish. Among the graduates of the University of Latvia between 1920 and 1937 12.8% were Jews. Jews distinguished themselves in various fields. There were many notable Jewish scientists, as well as the eminent historian Shimon Dubnov, who wrote a ten-volume history of the Jewish people, and philologist Judel Marx, who compiled a ten-volume Yiddish dictionary in the United States. Many Jews were prominent in medicine - for example, the surgeon Vladimir Mintz. Jews during the Authoritarian Era of President Ulmanis. After the coup d'etat of May 15, 1934, Jewish activity diminished as political parties and many organisations were shut down. Still, patriotic and Zionist societies functioned freely. Especially active was the Zionist youth organisation Betar, which provided military training for combat in Palestine. The government of President Ulmanis supported Zionists and their goal of returning to their homeland. However, the government's course toward national capitalism curtailed Jewish economic activity to a certain extent. For this and other reasons, Jewish dissatisfaction with the “Ulmanis Era� increased despite a general improvement in their standard of living. Events of 1939 alarmed the Jews in Latvia and caused them to fear Hitler's possible aggression against the Baltic States. Thus, the Jews were hoping to receive aid from the Soviet Union. They had an illusory, erroneous concept of the Soviet Union, and they were unaware of the Stalinist campaign of terror, which exterminated tens of thousands of Jews. Many Jews supported the October 1939 treaty between Latvia and the Soviet Union; even in June 1940, when the Soviet army occupied Latvia, quite a few Jews greeted it joyfully, expecting the Red Army to defend Latvia against the German Nazi army. This reaction proved that Latvia's authoritarian government had been unsuccessful in persuading the majority of Jews to make common cause with the Latvian nation.

Jews during the Soviet Occupation

Already in 1940 many Jews began to experience the devastating effects of the Soviet occupation. Their private property was expropriated, their civic and religious societies shut down. In the mass deportations of June 1941, about 5,000 Jews were transported to the USSR. Of all the ethnic groups under Soviet rule, the Jews were the most repressed. Regrettably, among those who perpetrated these acts of political repression were also Jews; however, the majority of the Chekist Jews had immigrated from the Soviet Union and had no links, directly or indirectly, with the Jews of Latvia. When the German army made a sudden incursion into Latvia in June 1941, only 15,000 Jews managed to escape. The majority remained in Latvia and died in the Holocaust. Approximately 5,000 Latvian Jews fought in the Soviet army against Nazism; 2,000 of them died in battle. In 1944 and 1945 approximately 14,000 Jews from the East and West returned to Latvia. It was extremely difficult for them to resume their lives since their homes were occupied by strangers and thousands of their murdered relatives lay in mass graves.

Outstanding Jews in Culture

Adolf Metz (1888-1940) is widely known in Latvian music as a violoncellist and, after 1922, as a professor of music at the Conservatory of Latvia. His star pupil, violinist Sarah Rashin, was prominent in the 1930s. They both died in the Holocaust. In popular music, Oscar Strok, the “King of Tango,� charmed pre-World War II audiences throughout Europe with his melodies. Starting in 1936, Leonid Zahodnik (1912-1988) won acclaim for his leading roles at the National Opera. After the war he helped to train the new generation of singers, including Laima Vaikule and Zorzs Siksna. Numerous choirs and orchestra directors studied under Mendel Bash. He trained approximately 60 outstanding musicians, including Imants Kokars. Another influential music teacher was a pupil of Jazeps Vitols, Lija Krasinska, who from 1945 to 1993 taught music theory and music history. Likewise, the piano virtuoso Herman Braun (1918-1979) trained an entire generation of concert masters. Inese Galante is a world-class opera singer. After a brilliant debut at the National Opera, she continued to perform both at home, especially at the opera festival in Sigulda, and abroad at the Mannheim and Dusseldorf opera houses. A survey of Jewish musicians would be incomplete without mention of Tovij Livschitz, who founded and directed the Latvian Chamber Orchestra for 26 years. The Jewish contribution to Latvia's theatre is equally noteworthy. Director Pavel Homski has done much to establish a theatre for young people, and the incomparable Adolf Shapiro brought it to its zenith of fame. In the Russian theatre, outstanding personalities include veteran actress Jekaterina Bunchuk and director Arkady Katz, whose performances from 1960 to 1980 were especially popular. In our day, the director of the Valmiera theatre, Felix Deitch, is beloved by actors and theatre-goers alike. Eminent personages in the film industry are director and script writer Herc Frank, whose 1965 film “The Year in Review� marked the beginning of realistic and objective documentaries in Riga. Among his films that have achieved international recognition are Lifetime (about E.Kaulins), Forbidden Zone, Supreme Court, and Jewish Street. Abram Kletskin is widely respected in Europe as a film critic; he has also done much to champion freedom of _expression for Latvia's journalists. In architecture, Paul Mandelstam has gained distinction with his buildings at 8 Dome Square, 1 Smilsu Street, and 51 Elizabetes Street. Famous artists include Alexander Dembo, who is a professor at the National Academy of Art, and designer Herbert Dubin (1919-1993). These and other Jews have made a lasting contribution to Latvia's treasure chest of culture. In this sphere the designation “a Latvian of Jewish origin� is particularly apt for numerous scientists, doctors, teachers, and athletes. Outstanding Jews in Science, Politics, and Sports

Mechislav Centnerschwer (1874-1944) - professor of physical chemistry at Riga Polytechnic Institute and the University of Latvia; member of the Polish Academy of Sciences; director of the Institute of Physical Chemistry; died in Warsaw during the German occupation. Mordechai Dubin (1889-1956) - leader of Riga's Jewish congregation during Latvia's first period of independence; leader of the Agudat Israel Party; deputy in the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Saeimas; personal friend of President Karlis Ulmanis; arrested and exiled in 1941 by Soviet authorities; died in a concentration camp. Solomon Hiller (1915-1975) - chemist; founder and director of the Organic Synthesis Institute of the Latvian Academy of Sciences; professor at the University of Latvia and Riga Polytechnic Institute; academician of the German natural science research academy Leopoldina; developed of anticancer drugs. Max Laserson (1887-1951) - eminent specialist in international law; participant in shaping legal theory in Latvia; professor at Columbia University in the United States. Paul Mintz (1868-1941) - specialist in law; Professor of Criminology at the University of Latvia; headed the committee that prepared the Latvian Criminal Code (1919-1921); State Comptroller in the administration of Karlis Ulmanis; died at Taishet concentration camp. Mordechai Nurok (1879-1962) - chief Rabbi of Jelgava; leader of the Mizrahi Movement; deputy in the First, Second, Third, and Fourth Saeimas; organiser of the World Jewish Congress; member of the Knesset from 1949 to 1962; Minister of the Postal Service (1952) in Israel. Mihail Tal (1936-1992) - winner of the European chess championship in 1957, 1961, 1970, 1973, and 1977; winner of the world chess championship in 1960 and 1961. Text: Leo Dribins, the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology