ESTONIA (Est. Esti), independent state from the 1990s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, bordering on the gulfs of Finland and Riga. Estonia was an independent republic from 1918 to 1940. From 1940 to the dissolution of the U.S.S.R., with an interval of German occupation (1941–44), Estonia was a Soviet Socialist Republic. Until 1918 part of Russia (Estland and the northern part of Livland), the area of Estonia was not included in the Pale of Settlement. In 1897 some 4,000 Jews lived on this territory, including about 1,200 in *Tallinn (then Revel). The nucleus of this community was founded by Jewish soldiers after their demobilization from the army of Czar Nicholas I (see *Cantonists), who established a Jewish cemetery in the town in 1856. There were approximately 1,800 Jews living in the university town of *Tartu (known among Jews by its German name Dorpat), about 480 in Narva (then belonging to the district of St. Petersburg), and about 400 in Pärnu, on the Gulf of Riga. (See Map: Jews in Estonia.) Jews took part in the struggle for Estonian independence. In independent Estonia, the Jews numbered 4,566 in 1922 and 4,381 in 1934 (about 0.4% of the total population), of whom 2,203 lived in Tallinn, the capital, and 920 in Tartu; 923 (57.4% of those supporting families) were occupied in commerce, 484 (30.1%) in industry and crafts, 159 (9.9%) in the liberal professions, 26 (1.6%) were house owners, and 16 (1.0%) were religious officials. About 642 of the total were employees (officials and laborers) and the remainder were self-employed.
Estonia was the only country in Eastern Europe to fulfill its obligations toward its national minorities according to the concepts of the Minorities Treaties (see *Minority Rights), even though it had refused to become a signatory. The law on national-cultural autonomy was confirmed by the Estonian parliament on Feb. 5, 1925, and four minorities – Russian, German, Swedish, and Jewish – were accordingly recognized. The Jewish autonomous institutions, headed by a Cultural Council, were established in 1926. However, only 75% of Estonian Jewry (about 3,252 persons in 1939) registered with the Jewish minority list; the remainder ranged themselves with other nationalities, in particular Russian. The first Cultural Council was composed of 12 Zionist representatives, nine Yiddishists,
and six Independents. Subsequently the Zionists gained in strength, and by 1939 held 20 of the Council's 27 seats. After a severe struggle within the Council on the issue whether the language of instruction in Jewish schools should be Hebrew or Yiddish, the supporters of Hebrew finally prevailed, and most of the Jewish schools were affiliated to the Hebrew Tarbut educational network, including the two secondary schools of Tallinn and Tartu. About 75% of the Jewish children attended Jewish schools. A chair for Hebrew language and literature was established at the University of Tartu. There were three Jewish cooperative banks in Tallinn, Tartu, and Narva, with a total of 625 members in 1935. Estonian Jewry attained important national achievements, but because of its small numbers remained culturally dependent on the neighboring Jewish populations of Latvia and Lithuania. During the 1930s, a Fascist movement was formed in Estonia which launched an antisemitic propaganda campaign. The hardening anti-Jewish attitude was reflected in the decrease of the number of students at the University of Tartu, from 188 in 1926 to 96 in 1934.
After the annexation of Estonia to the Soviet Union in 1940, the Jewish institutions were liquidated and the political and social organizations disbanded. On the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, some 500 communal leaders and affluent members of the congregation were arrested and deported to the Russian interior. Due to the efforts of the Soviet army to halt the German advance on Leningrad, the conquest of Estonia took about two months. Tallinn was not occupied until Sept. 3, 1941, and about 3,000 Estonian Jews succeeded in escaping to the Russian interior. All the Jews remaining in the zone of German occupation were murdered by the end of 1941 by the Einsatzkommando 1a with the active help of Estonian nationalist Omakaitse units. On October 12 all men aged 16 and above, about 440, were murdered, and in the last weeks of 1941 the others were liquidated – in all, 936 Jews according to the report of Einsatzgruppe A, from January 1942. This left Estonia "judenfrei," a fact which was reported in the Wannsee Conference at the same time. In 1942 and early 1943 about 3,000 Jews, mainly from Germany, were sent to the extermination camp in Kalevi Liiva. By May 1943 Heinrich *Himmler had ordered the cessation of mass shooting and the erection of forced labor camps. The main camp in Estonia was Vaivara, commanded by Hans Aumeier (sentenced and executed in 1947). About 20,000 Jewish prisoners, mainly from Vilna and Kaunas (Kovno), passed through its gates to labor camps at Klooga, Lagedi, Ereda, and others. The inmates were employed in mining slate and building fortifications. The successful advance of the Soviet army led to the evacuation of the camps to Tallinn and from there to *Stutthof from where a "death march" of 10,000 took place along the Baltic coast. Other camps were also liquidated (2,400 killed at Klooga and 426 at Lagedi). On Sept. 22, 1944, Estonia was finally liberated. The Germans attempted to burn the bodies of their victims to conceal their crimes.
After the war, Jews from all parts of Russia gathered in Estonia. The Jewish population numbered 5,436 in 1959 (0.5% of the total) of whom 1,350 (25%) declared Yiddish as their mother tongue, about 400 Estonian, and the remainder Russian; 3,714 Jews (1.3% of the total population) lived in Tallinn. As in the rest of the Soviet Union, there was no organized Jewish life in the Estonian S.S.R.
[Yehuda Slutsky /
Shmuel Spector (2nd ed.)]
Revival of Jewish Life
There were an estimated 3,200 Jews in Estonia at the end of 1993 and 1,800 in 2001.
Jewish communal life was renewed in 1988 with the creation of the Jewish Cultural Society in Tallinn, the first of its kind in the Soviet Union. The Society organized concerts and lectures, and a Jewish school going up to the ninth grade was opened in 1990. Jewish culture clubs were also started in Tartu, Narva, and Kohtla-Järve. Other organizations followed, like the Maccabi sports club and the Jewish Veterans Union. Courses in Hebrew were offered. The Jewish Community was established in 1992 as a voluntary umbrella organization; its charter was approved on April 11, 1992. The community published a Jewish newspaper, Hashakhar ("Dawn"), and the radio program "Shalom Aleichem" was broadcast monthly. A synagogue was also reopened, attended mostly by the elderly.
In November 1993, an Estonian translation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, giving no details of the publisher, appeared in Tallinn bookshops. After the protests of the Jewish community and the Estonia-Israel Friendship Society, the book was withdrawn by the bookshop owners. However, in August 1994 the nationalist weekly Eesti published an article by Juri Lina, an Estonian émigré in Sweden, claiming that the Protocols were authentic and demanding to lift restrictions on their publication.
A more serious danger for the future of the small Jewish community in the country lay in the activities of Russian extremists in Estonia. An antigovernment demonstration, organized by ethnic Russians in Narva (North East) in December 1993, displayed anti-Jewish placards; two parties which are counterparts to Zhirinovsky's LDPR in Russia – the harshly
Another potentially dangerous phenomenon in Estonia was the continuing romanticization of the Estonian military units which, during World War II, fought together with Nazi troops, some of them in the SS; many of them were guilty of murderous acts against Jews.
K. Jokton, Di Geshikhte fun di Yidn in Estland (1927); N. Geuss, Zur Geschichte der Juden in Eesti, 2 vols. (1933–37); idem, Bibliografie fun Yidishe Druk-Oysgabn in Esti (1937); Yahadut Latviyyah (1953), 310–1; Ershter Yidisher Kultur Kongres, Paris (1937), 65–66, 196–200; I. Garr, in: Algemeyne Yidishe Entsiklopedie, 6 (1963), 395–401; M. Dworzecki, Maḥanot ha-Yehudim be-Estonyah (1970), with Eng. summ.; U. Schmelz and S. DellaPergola, in: AJYB, 1995, 478; Supplement to the Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, 2, 1995, Jerusalem; Antisemitism World Report 1994, London: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 139; Antisemitism World Report 1995, London: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 112–113; Mezhdunarodnaia Evreiskaia Gazeta (MEG), 1993. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: PK. WEBSITE: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.