Community in Latvia - World Jewish Congress

Latvia

According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola, Latvia is home to between 5,000 and 12,000 Jews, making it the largest Jewish community in the Baltic region. Today's Jewish community traces its roots to survivors of the Holocaust, Jews who fled to the USSR to escape the Nazi invasion and later returned, as well as Jews who immigrated to Latvia more recently from the former Soviet Union. Though overall, the Latvian government has maintained a positive relationship with the Latvian Jewish community, there has been tension between the Jewish community and broader Latvian society due to the continued honoring of Latvian veterans of SS Divisions from World War II. The Jewish community in Latvia is represented by the Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia – the Latvian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate

Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia

Telephone: +371 672 85 601
Email: jewishlv@gmail.com
          secretary@lvjewish.lv

President: Arkady Suharenko
Executive: Yuri Gelfgat


Community News


History

The history of the Jews in Latvia can be traced to early Jewish communities in the principalities of Courland and Livonia, with the first Jewish colony established in Piltene (Courland) in 1571. These settlers came from Germany and were generally well educated and wealthy. Almost immediately, they were permitted to purchase property and build prayer houses by officials in the region. By the middle of the 17th century, Jews began arriving in the Eastern region of Latvia from Western Ukraine and Belarus. These territories changed hands many times over the course of history, and the situation of the Jews there was always dependent upon the ruler in power. Latvia's geography also meant that its Jews were exposed to German, Russian and Eastern European influences while developing their own distinct characteristics.


In this regard, the early Jewish settlers in the Western and Eastern regions of modern day Latvia were diverse, with Jews in Courland speaking German and the Jews in the eastern portion of the country speaking Yiddish.


Jews contributed to Latvia's development until the Northern War (1700–1721), which decimated Latvia's population. The Jewish community reestablished itself in the 18th century, mainly through an influx from Prussia, and came to play a principal role in the economic life of Latvia. Latvian Jews were especially influential in the development of industry and trade in the late 19th century, though a wave of anti-Semitism dampened such progress. Because of such discrimination and persecution, many Jews to immigrated to countries such as the US and Great Britain.


Despite such developments, Latvian Jewry prospered at the turn of the century. However, World War I saw the Jewish community in Latvia dramatically dwindle in numbers, as a majority of Latvian Jews fled the country during the war and less than half of those who left returned.


In 1918, the independent state of Latvia was formed out of the former Russian provinces of Courland (an autonomous duchy linked to Poland until 1795), Livonia (under Swedish rule from 1629 to 1721), and Latgalia (part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth until 1772). Under an independent Latvia, the Jewish community flourished. Jews formed political parties, participated as members of parliament, and had the right to send their children to schools using Hebrew as the language of instruction, as part of a significant network of minority schools.


During the interwar years, Latvia was an important center of Jewish life and learning. Zionism was especially widespread among the Latvian Jews of Latvia, and Riga was the birthplace of the Betar youth movement, spawned by Jabotinsky in 1923.


On the eve of the Shoah, there were some 85,000 Jews in the country—40,000 in Riga, 10,000 in Liepaja (Libau), and the rest scatted in other communities, most notably Daugavpils (Dvinsk). World War II and the Shoah devastated Latvian Jewry. In the aftermath of the German defeat, Latvia once again came under the control of a foreign power; this time the Soviet Union. Not much is known about the Latvian Jewish community under Soviet rule, but there was a general distrust of “foreign” religions under communism and Jewish life in Latvia maintained a steady decline in the decades following the war.


In the 1970s, Riga became a major center of Jewish dissident activity in the Soviet Union. This was mainly seen in the form of Jewish underground national and Zionists movements. After the collapse of Communism and the resurrection of independent Latvia in 1991, all restrictions on Jewish life were removed and Jewish communal life in Latvia was reestablished.


Today, Latvian Jews enjoy a sense of religious expression not afforded during the country’s time as a Soviet satellite. President Guntis Ulmanis, who served from 1991 to 1999, formally apologized for Latvia’s role in the Holocaust. A majority of Jews in the country are descendants of those who came to Latvia from other parts of the former Soviet Union during the decades of Soviet rule. As a result, the community is largely dominated by Russian-speakers.

The years of the Holocaust

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.

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated that there were between 4,700 and 12,000 Jews in Latvia as of 2015. The vast majority of Jews in Latvia live in Riga, the nation’s capital. There are smaller communities outside Riga, including some in Dvinsk and Liepāja.

Community Life

Jewish communal affairs in Latvia are effectively organized. The Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia, the Jewish community’s umbrella representative body, is made of several regional bodies that represent Latvian Jewry throughout the country. It works to represent Latvian Jews on both a national and international stage, while also working to ensure a sense of Jewish religious life in Latvia in addition to integrating the community. Structurally, it currently consists of 13 communities from 9 different cities, and together with more than 20 Jewish organizations of Latvia, each community closely cooperates with the Council. Additionally, the Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia has a charity organization status.


In that regard, Jewish life in Latvia is entirely centered around such organizations, as they offer Jewish educational, cultural, social, historical opportunities to Latvian Jewry. The Riga Jewish Community acts as the heart of Jewish life in Latvia.


The activities of the Riga Jewish Community are primarily aimed at preserving and promoting the cultural heritage of Latvian Jews, supporting youth movement and educational programs, helping low-income members of the community, and promoting social integration.

Religious and Cultural life

The Peitav-Shul synagogue is the only active synagogue in Riga and one of the two active synagogues in Latvia (the other one is located in Daugavpils). Rabbi Natan Berkhan currently serves as the Chief Rabbi of Riga and Latvia.


In 1997, the state transferred the Choral Synagogue (Peitav-Shul) to the Riga Jewish religious community and the synagogue became the heart of Jewish religious life in Latvia. In 2007 and 2008, the synagogue building was fully renovated, thanks to the financial support of the European Union, government of the Republic of Latvia, Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia, and donations from private investors.

Jewish Education

Jewish education is available in Latvia in many forms, including Jewish day schools and private institutions. This includes educational activities offered by the JCC in Riga and the Chabad Jewish Private School, which was founded by, and still is associated with, the “Chabad-Lubavitch” community.


“Motek” Kindergarten offers early Jewish educational opportunities, operating out of the Riga Jewish Community. The Riga Shimon Dubnov Jewish Secondary School, founded in 1989, was the first Jewish school in the Soviet Union and the first ethnic school in Latvia. In recent years, it has experienced an increased growth of pupils. In terms of curriculum, the school offers primary education (grades 1-9) program and general secondary (grades 10-12) education program. Additionally, the University of Latvia does have a Center for Judaic Studies.


There is a large focus on Holocaust education in Latvia. The Latvian History Commission researches crimes committed in Latvia between 1940 and 1956, focusing on both the Nazi and Soviet regimes. The Commission also helped develop a curriculum for high school teachers. Each year, memorial services are held at sites of mass murder during the Holocaust. However, controversy regarding an annual parade in Riga honoring veterans of the Latvian SS legion shows that there is still much to be taught in Latvia.

Youth

Despite the small size of Latvian Jewry, there are several Jewish youth programs in the country. This includes the Federation Jewish Communities of the CIS operating summer camps and the Union of Jewish Youth of Latvia, which works to promote Jewish education, address anti-Semitism, and develop Jewish community youth leadership. Latvia’s Shalom Club, which is sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Center for International Cooperation and the Israeli Embassy, offers community educational programs and charity projects.

Jewish Media

The Jewish community of Riga has its own monthly newspaper. 

Information for visitors

There are a number of notable Jewish sites in Latvia. Museums such as the “Jews in Latvia” museum in Riga and “Jews of Dugavpilis and Latgale” museum in Dugavpilis, and a number of Jewish cemeteries throughout the country, including the Riga New Jewish Cemetery “Smerli,” detail the deep presence and history of Jews in the country. There are also a number of historical synagogues across Latvia, including the recently restored Green Synagogue in Rezekne.


Latvia also has a number of memorials commemorating victims of the Holocaust. The Bikernieki Memorial honors victims of the Nazi genocide in the Bikernieki forest, the largest place of mass extermination and burial in Latvia, and the Rumbula Memorial honors the murdered prisoners of the Riga ghetto. There is also a memorial and museum in Riga that is dedicated to Zanis Lipke, a port worker who managed to save more than fifty people from the Nazis.

Israel

Latvia and Israel maintain full diplomatic relations, with the latter having recognized Latvian independence almost immediately in 1991.


Israeli Embassy in Riga, Latvia
Elizabetes iela 2, 3rd floor
Riga 1010
Latvia


Telephone: (+371) 676 355 00
Fax: (+371) 676 355 55
Email: press@rig.mfa.gov.il

Updated

August 2018

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