When the Red Army entered Latvia on 17 June 1940, numerous attacks were launched against Jews, and local nationalists accused them of welcoming the invaders. The new Soviet administration denounced anti-Semitic attacks on the one hand, but on the other hand it disbanded Jewish parties and political and public organizations (just as it disbanded similar non-Jewish organizations). The Hebrew and religious education system was abolished. Kampf, the only Jewish newspaper published by the Communist Party while rigged elections were being held, was closed immediately following the voting in July. The State Jewish Theater of Riga did continue to operate, with notable artistic accomplishments.
With these few exceptions, the public life of Jews came to a standstill. Although Soviet authorities did not interrupt the work of historian Simon Dubnow (who had lived in Riga since 1933), he remained isolated and could hardly press on with his scholarly work. Many Jewish youngsters joined the Komsomol and other Communist Party and Soviet state organizations, including the Workers Guard—a sort of armed auxiliary police force.
Among the 15,000 Latvian citizens deported in June 1941 in freight cars to remote areas of the USSR as “hostile elements,” Jews made up not less than 11.7 percent, more than twice their percentage in the general population. Some Jewish sources give a much higher estimate of 5,000. Prominent among them were former members of the Saiema; leaders of disbanded parties and organizations; and merchants, industrialists, and bankers. Following the Nazi invasion of the Baltic States in late June of that year, many Jews, especially from Riga and the eastern parts of Latvia, managed to reach the USSR. The number of these refugees was estimated at about 16,000. Most of the men of conscription age fought in the ranks of the Red Army; about 4,000 of them belonged to units of the 301st Latvian Corps.
When the Nazis captured Latvia in early July 1941, some 70,000 Jews remained there. Even before the Germans entered the cities and provincial towns, many Jews were brutally slaughtered by local Latvians. In Riga, local attackers murdered 400 Jews, and most synagogues were destroyed. Similar attacks took place across all of Latvia. In July and August of that year, the majority of the Jewish population of the cities and provincial towns was systematically eradicated. In several towns, including Tukums and Jelgava, Jews were locked in synagogues and burned alive. In other places, such as Zilupe and Rēzekne, Jews were concentrated in town squares and then marched to nearby cemeteries and forests, where they were shot. The Latvian auxiliary police, who worked with Einsatzkommando 2/17, were routinely responsible for the actual execution of those massacres.
In Daugavpils, a ghetto was established in July 1941, and Jews from nearby towns such as Kārsava and Ludza were incarcerated there. Of the 15,000 Jews in the Daugavpils ghetto, the majority were slaughtered in four shooting operations, three in August and one in November. Only about 1,000 people remained alive. A similar number survived in Liepāja. In Riga, 32,000 Jews were incarcerated on 25 October in a ghetto established in an area known as the Muscovite Suburb; it existed for just 37 days. Most of the occupants were murdered, mainly in shooting operations that took place in late November and early December in the Rumbula forest. By the end of 1941, some 9,000 Jews remained in Latvia, about half of them in the Riga ghetto (4,500 men in the so-called “small ghetto” and 300 women in a special block of houses). The rest were incarcerated in the ghettos of Liepāja and Daugavpils and in various labor camps. Subsequently, about 15,000 Jews from Central Europe were transported to Riga. Some were executed immediately on arrival; others were housed in the larger ghetto of Riga, which came to be known as the German ghetto or the Reichsjuden ghetto (the ghetto of the Jews from the German Reich).
In January 1942, about 200 occupants of the Riga ghetto established an anti-Nazi underground organization. Eleven of its members headed east on 28 October 1942, seeking to contact Soviet partisan units, but they were apprehended. In retaliation, the German authorities murdered 108 Jews along with 38 Jewish policemen whom they accused of assisting the underground. In June 1943, the rest of the group was rounded up after its arms stores were discovered.
On 2 November 1943, the Germans conducted the last shooting operation in the Riga ghetto, in preparation for its final destruction. About 2,300 Jews considered unfit for work were executed, and the remaining occupants were transferred to the Kaizerwald concentration camp and its various extensions. In August 1944, as the Red Army advanced on Latvia, German authorities evacuated the remaining prisoners and camp inmates to Germany by sea. Of those evacuated, less than 1,000 survived, and only a handful returned to Latvia when the war ended.
World War II ended the prominence of the Jewish Community in Latvia. Under Stalin, Jews, who formed only 5% of the population, constituted 12% of the deportees. This paled in comparison to the Holocaust, which killed 90% of Latvia's Jewish population.