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Courland, Latvia

COURLAND (Ger. Kurland), region of West and South Latvia, between the Baltic Sea and Western Dvina River. Throughout the centuries control of this region frequently changed hands and the attitude toward Jewish settlement there varied accordingly. During the 12th century, the local tribes were subdued by the Livonian Knights whose statutes prohibited the presence of Jews within their territories. Jewish tombstones of the 14th century confirm that there were exceptions in the case of individual Jews. The Order could not withstand its external enemies and was liquated in 1561. Under the suzerainty of Poland, Courland became a duchy. The act of surrender of the Order to Poland stipulated that "it is forbidden for the Jews of Livonia to engage in commerce or to lease the collection of taxes"; yet it was impossible to close to them the southern border between Courland and Poland-Lithuania where Jews had settled from the 13th century.

Duchy of Courland

Internal political partition resulted in a varied attitude toward Jewish settlement within the duchy. The region of Piltene, owned by the head of the Church of Courland, was regarded as the bishop's private property. The promise of gain induced him to authorize wealthy Jews to settle there. Because of its geographical position, Jewish merchants also arrived in the region by sea, from Prussia. In 1559 the bishop sold the region to the king of Denmark, who transferred it to his brother, Duke Magnus von Holstein. Piltene thus became a kind of enclave within the duchy of Courland – a situation which resulted in disputes, including military clashes with Poland. In 1585 the region was sold to Poland and two provinces were formed from the area: the province of Piltene with a Jewish population under the jurisdiction of Poland, and the other parts of Courland, where the prohibition of 1561 remained in force. The Jews in the province of Piltene were permitted to found organized communities and engaged in commerce and crafts. Following an alliance between the duke of Courland and the province, the status of the Jews deteriorated, and in 1717 an annual tax of two talers per person was imposed; it was doubled in 1719. Between 1727 and 1738, expulsion decrees were issued, but they were only partially applied. In 1750 the Polish Sejm decided to authorize Jewish residence in the province in exchange for a payment of 1,000 albertustalers. Its collection was entrusted to Jewish tax farmers. In 1783 the tax was fixed at 400 talers and the Sejm published an order on the "maintenance of the civic and economic rights of the Jews" since they paid the taxes levied on them. In 1795 when the province, together with Courland, became part of Russia, the Jews were authorized to register themselves in the merchant guilds and participate in the municipal elections, although without elective rights. In 1817 they were granted the same rights as the other Jews in Courland.

In the parts of Courland outside the province of Piltene, the number of Jews increased during the 17th century. They were regarded as "foreigners" and subjected to open hostility, especially on the part of the merchants and craftsmen, who considered them rivals. The attitude of the nobility was more tolerant: Jews acted as intermediaries in the sale of the agricultural produce of the estates of the landowners, and imported goods which were not locally manufactured; the sums collected from them to authorize their residence, or from fines, enriched the treasuries of the nobility. In times of emergency, even the duke did not refrain from leasing the collection of customs and interest to the Jews – an act which aroused the opposition of the Landtag, the legislative council of the duchy, on which sat delegates of the Church, the nobility, and the towns. In 1713 an expulsion order was issued and Jews who remained despite the order were compelled to pay one taler a day both for themselves and for those who did not pay. In 1719 Jewish residence was authorized in exchange for an annual payment of 400 talers. The payments were not made as agreed, and by 1727 the arrears amounted to 2,000 talers. The collection of these arrears was often a subject of discussion at meetings of the Landtags. Jewish assessors were appointed to collect the tax. In 1730 the residence of Jewish craftsmen and persons engaged in commerce was authorized. This did not prevent the publication of expulsion orders in subsequent years. The situation especially deteriorated in 1760, when the expulsion was brutally carried out. During the last years of the duchy's existence, the question of granting rights to the Jews was a subject of controversial polemics.

Within Czarist Russia (1795–1917)

In 1795, after the third partition of Poland, Courland passed to Russia. The number of Jewish males in Courland numbered 4,581 in 1797. When the Senate in St. Petersburg requested information on the number of Jews, their occupations, and the existing laws with respect to them from the governor of the province, the governor, influenced by the German inhabitants, sent a negative report. The "foreigners" had been living in the region illegally for several centuries; their economic situation was degenerate, and it was doubtful whether they could be transformed into useful citizens. The Senate was not convinced by his conclusions and issued instructions that regulations similar to those applicable in other parts of the country be prepared. In 1799 a law was ratified according to which the Jews of Courland became citizens with the right to reside in the province, to establish communities, and to engage in commerce and crafts. Courland was not included within the *Pale of Settlement in 1804, and the law of 1799 was therefore interpreted as applying only to those Jews who had lived in Courland at the time of its publication and to their descendants. By 1850 the number of Jews had increased to 22,734. Their material situation was unfavorable, and 2,530 persons immigrated to the agricultural colonies of southern Russia in 1840.

With the Russian economic recovery in the second half of the 19th century, the condition of the Jews in Courland improved. Their share in the import and export trade, and in commerce and industry, increased, and many Jews from neighboring areas settled there illegally; under the instructions issued in 1893, they were authorized to remain. The Jewish population of Courland numbered 51,072 (7.6% of the total population) in 1897, and approximately 68,000 on the eve of World War I. Several communities, notably those of Libava ( *Liepaja ), Mitava ( *Jelgava ), and Vindava ( *Ventspils ), were prosperous. Links with nearby Lithuania had some influence on Jewish life in Courland. A number of noted rabbis officiated in communities there; prominent rabbis of *Bauska included Mordecai *Eliasberg and Abraham Isaac *Kook .

In conformity with agreements with the other minorities, Courland sent a Jewish deputy to all the *Dumas which sat during the czarist period. The defeats suffered by the Russian Army during World War I aroused unfounded suspicions that the Jews were involved in treason. This resulted in the expulsion of the Jews from western Courland in May 1915. The number of those expelled to the provinces of the Russian interior reached 40,000. In 1918 Latvia, which included Courland, was proclaimed an independent republic. Some of the refugees and expellees returned, and in 1925 – when the highest Jewish population is recorded in Latvia – the number of Jews in Courland amounted to 22,548, still a decrease of 65% compared with the pre-war figure. For the history of the Jews in Courland from 1918, see *Latvia .

The prolonged duration of Jewish settlement in the same provincial locality, strict observance of Jewish tradition without profound comprehension of its relevance, and German Romantic cultural influences combined to create a specific type of "Courland Jew" who spoke a "Courland Yiddish" vernacular with more German elements.


R. Wunderbar, Geschichte der Juden in den Pro vinzen Liv-und Kurland (1853); Yahadut Latviyyah (1953); E. Avotins et al. (eds.), Daugavas Vanagi, Who Are They (1963); M. Bobe, Perakim be-Toledot Yahadut Latviyyah (1965).

[Mendel Bobe

Sources:Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.