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LATVIA (Lettish Latvija; Rus. Latviya; Ger. Lettland; Pol. Łołwa), one of the Baltic states of N.E. Europe; from 1940 to 1991 the Latvian S.S.R. The nucleus of Latvian Jewry was formed by the Jews of Livonia (Livland) and *Courland, the two principalities on the coast of the Baltic Sea which were incorporated within the Russian Empire during the 18th century. Livonia, with the city of *Riga, passed to Russia from Sweden in 1721. Courland, formerly an autonomous duchy, was incorporated into Russia as a province in 1795. Both these provinces were situated outside the *Pale of Settlement, and so only those Jews who could prove that they had lived there legally before the provinces became part of Russia were authorized to reside in the region. Nevertheless, the Jewish population of the Baltic region gradually increased because, from time to time, additional Jews who enjoyed special "privileges," such as university graduates, those engaged in "useful" professions, etc., received authorization to settle there. In the middle of the 19th century, there were about 9,000 Jews in the province of Livonia. By 1897 the Jewish population had already increased to 26,793 (3.5% of the population), about three-quarters of which lived in Riga. In Courland there were 22,734 Jews in the middle of the 19th century, while according to the census of 1897, some 51,072 Jews (7.6% of the population) lived there. The Jews of Courland formed a special group within Russian Jewry. On the one hand they were influenced by the German culture which prevailed in this region, and on the other by that of neighboring Lithuanian Jewry. Haskalah penetrated early to the Livonia and Courland communities but assimilation did not make the same headway there as in Western Europe. Courland Jewry developed a specific character, combining features of both East European and German Jewry. During World War I when the Russian armies retreated from Courland (April 1915), the Russian military authorities expelled thousands of Jews to the provinces of the interior. A considerable number later returned to Latvia as repatriates after the independent republic was established.

Three districts of the province of Vitebsk, in which most of the population was Latvian (Latgale in Lettish), including the large community of *Daugavpils (Dvinsk), were joined to Courland (Kurzeme) and Livonia (Vidzeme), and the independent Latvian Republic was established (November 1918). At first, a liberal and progressive spirit prevailed in the young state but the democratic regime was short-lived. Influenced by Fascism in Western Europe, the nationalist and chauvinistic elements of Latvia grew more arrogant. On May 15, 1934, the prime minister, Karlis Ulmanis, dissolved parliament in a coup d'état, the leaders of the labor movement and the activists of the socialist and progressive organizations were imprisoned in a concentration camp, and Latvia became a totalitarian state.

Ulmanis was proclaimed dictator and "leader" of the nation. His government inclined toward Nazi Germany.

Jewish Population in the Latvian Republic

Before World War I there were about 190,000 Jews in the territories of Latvia (7.4% of the total population). During the war years, many of them were expelled to the interior of Russia, while others escaped from the war zone. In 1920 the Jews of Latvia numbered 79,644 (5% of the population). After the signing of the peace treaty between the Latvian Republic and the Soviet Union on Aug. 11, 1920, repatriates began to return from Russia; these included a considerable number of Jewish refugees. By 1925 the Jewish population had increased to 95,675, the largest number of Jews during the period of Latvia's existence as an independent state. After that year the number of Jews gradually decreased, and in 1935 had declined to 93,479 (4.8% of the total). The causes of this decline were emigration by part of the younger generation and a decline in the natural increase through limiting the family to one or two children by the majority. Between 1925 and 1935 over 6,000 Jews left Latvia (the overwhelming majority of them for Ereẓ Israel), while the natural increase only partly replaced these departures. The largest communities were Riga with 43,672 Jews (11.3% of the total) in 1935, Daugavpils with 11,106 (25%), and Libau (*Liepaja) with 7,379 (13%). (See Table: List of alternative names for places shown on map.)

List of alternative names for places shown on map List of alternative names for places shown on map

Latvian Old German Old Russian
name name name
Aizpute Hasenpoth Gazenpot
Bauska Bauske Bausk
Dagda Dagda Dagda
Daugavpils Duenabuno Dvinsk
Jaunjelgava Friedrichstadt Fridrikhshtadt
Jekabpils Jabobstadt Yikobstadt
Jelgava Mitau Mitava
Karsava Karsau Korsoevka
Kraslava Kraslau Kreslavka
Krustpils Kreuzburg Kreitsburg
Kuldiga Goldingen Goldingen
Liepaja Libau Lubava
Livani Livenhof Levengof
Ludza Ludsen Lyutsyn
Plavinas Stockmannshof Shtokmangof
Preili Preli Preli
Rezekne Rositten Rezhitsa
Riga Riga Riga
Talsi Talsen Talsen
Tukums Tukkum Tukkum
Varaklani Warklany Varklene
Ventspils Winday Vindava
Vilaka Marienhausen Mariengauzen

Economic Life

Jews already played an important role in industry, commerce, and banking before World War I. After the establishment of

Jewish communities in Latvia (borders of 191840). Population figures for 1935. Jewish communities in Latvia (borders of 1918–40). Population figures for 1935.

the republic, a severe crisis overtook the young state. The government had not yet consolidated itself and the country had become impoverished as a result of World War I and the struggle for independence which Latvia had conducted for several years (1918–20) against both Germany and the Soviet Union. With the cessation of hostilities, Latvia found itself retarded in both the administrative and economic spheres. Among other difficulties, there was running inflation. Jews made a large contribution to the upbuilding of the state from the ruins of the war and its consequences. Having much experience in the export of the raw materials of timber and linen before World War I, upon their return from Russia they resumed export of these goods on their own initiative. They also developed a variegated industry, and a considerable part of the import trade, such as that of petrol, coal, and textiles, was concentrated in their hands. However, once the Jews had made their contribution, the authorities began to force them out of their economic positions and to deprive them of their sources of livelihood. Although, in theory, there were no discriminatory laws against the Jews in democratic Latvia and they enjoyed equality of rights, in practice the economic policy of the government was intended to restrict their activities. This was also reflected in the area of credit. The Jews of Latvia developed a ramified network of loan banks for the granting of credit with the support of the *American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and the *Jewish Colonization Association (ICA). Cooperative credit societies for craftsmen, small tradesmen, etc., were established and organized within a central body, the Alliance of Cooperative Societies for Credit. However, the Jewish banks and cooperative societies were discriminated against in the sphere of public credit and the state bank was in practice closed to them. These societies nevertheless functioned on sound foundations. Their initial capital was relatively larger than that of the non-Jewish cooperative societies. In 1931 over 15,000 members were organized within the Jewish societies.

Jews were particularly active in the following branches of industry: timber, matches, beer, tobacco, hides, textiles, canned foods (especially fish), and flour milling. About one-half of the Jews of Latvia engaged in commerce, the overwhelming majority of them in medium and small trade. About 29% of the Jewish population was occupied in industry and about 7% in the liberal professions. There were no Jews in the governmental administration. The economic situation of the majority of Latvia's Jews became difficult. Large numbers were ousted from their economic position and lost their livelihood as a result of government policy and most of them were thrust into small trade, peddling, and bartering in various goods at the second-hand clothes markets in the suburbs of Riga and the provincial towns. The decline in their status was due to three principal causes: the government assumed the monopoly of the grain trade, thus removing large numbers of Jews from this branch of trade, without accepting them as salaried workers or providing them with any other kind of employment; the Latvian cooperatives enjoyed wide governmental support and functioned in privileged conditions in comparison to the Jewish enterprises; and Jews had difficulty in obtaining credit. In addition to the above, the Jewish population was subjected to a heavy burden of taxes.

Public and Political Life

Latvian Jewry continued the communal and popular traditions of Russian Jewry, of which it formed a part until 1918. On the other hand, it was also influenced by the culture of West European Jewry, being situated within its proximity (i.e., East Prussia). In its spiritual life there was thus a synthesis of Jewish tradition and secular culture. From the social-economic point of view the Jews of Latvia did not form one group, and there were considerable social differences between them. They engaged in a variety of occupations and professions: there were large, medium, and small merchants, industrialists, and different categories of craftsmen, workers, salesmen, clerks, teachers, and members of the liberal professions such as physicians, lawyers, and engineers. All these factors – economic and spiritual – were practically reflected in public life: in the national Jewish sphere and in the general political life of the state. The Jewish population was also represented in the Latvian parliament. In the National Council which was formed during the first year of Latvian independence and existed until April 1920, there were also representatives of the national minorities, including seven Jews, among them Paul *Mintz, who acted as state comptroller (1919–21), and Mordecai *Dubin (Agudat Israel). On May 1, 1920, the Constituent Assembly, which was elected by a relatively democratic vote, was convened. It was to function until Oct. 7, 1922, and included nine Jewish delegates who represented all groups in the Jewish population (Zionists, National Democrats, Bundists, Agudat Israel). The number of Jewish delegates in the four parliaments which were elected in Latvia until the coup d'état of 1934 was as follows: six in the first (1922–25), five in the second (1925–28) and the third (1928–31), and three in the fourth (1931–34). Among the regular deputies were Mordecai Dubin (Agudat Israel), Mordecai *Nurock (Mizrachi), Matityahu Max Laserson (Ze'irei Zion), and Noah *Meisel (Bund). The last two were not reelected to the fourth parliament.

Culture and Education

On Dec. 8, 1919, the general bill on schools was passed by the National Council; this coincided with the bill on the cultural *autonomy of the minorities. In the Ministry of Education, there were special departments for the minorities. The engineer Jacob Landau headed the Jewish department. A broad network of Hebrew and Yiddish schools, in which Jewish children received a free education, was established. In addition to these, there were also Russian and German schools for Jewish children, chosen in accordance with the language of their families and wishes of their parents. These were, however, later excluded from the Jewish department because, by decision of the Ministry of Education, only the Hebrew and Yiddish schools were included within the scope of Jewish autonomy. In 1933 there were 98 Jewish elementary schools with approximately 12,000 pupils and 742 teachers, 18 secondary schools with approximately 2,000 pupils and 286 teachers, and four vocational schools with 300 pupils and 37 teachers. Pupils attended religious or secular schools according to their parents' wishes. There were also government pedagogic institutes for teachers in Hebrew and Yiddish, courses for kindergarten teachers, popular universities, a popular Jewish music academy, evening schools for working youth, a Yiddish theater, and cultural clubs. There was a Jewish press reflecting a variety of trends.

With the Fascist coup d'état of May 15, 1934, Jewish autonomy was abolished. All political organizations were outlawed, except for *Agudat Israel. The supervision of the Jewish schools was entrusted to the latter, which closed all the secular Yiddish schools, while the curricula of the secular Hebrew schools were emptied of their content. The teachers were compelled to wear skullcaps; they were forbidden to teach *Bialik and even to use S. *Dubnow's history. With the establishment of the Soviet regime in Latvia in June 1940, even these sad remnants of Jewish autonomy were liquidated. Upon the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Latvia was compelled to sign a treaty with the Soviet Union, and placed air bases in various parts of the country at its disposal. In June 1940 a Communist government was set up and in July Latvia was proclaimed a Soviet Republic, and was incorporated within the Soviet Union.


M. Schatz-Anin, Di Yidn in Letland (1924); L. Ovchinski, Geschikhte fun di Yidn in Letland (1928); I. Marein, 15 Yor Letland 19181933 (1933); AJYB, 32 (1930/31), 266–75; Yahadut Latvia, Sefer Zikkaron (1953); M. Bobe, Perakim be-Toledot Yahadut Latvia (1965). HOLOCAUST PERIOD: M. Kaufmann, Die Vernichtung der Juden Lettlands (1947); Jewish Central Information Office, London, From Germany to the Riga Ghetto (1945); IMT, vols. 23, 27, 37, indexes; I. Levinson, The Untold Story (1958); J. Gar, in: Algemeyne Entsiklopedie, 6 (1963), 375–94; G. Reitlinger, The Final Solution (19682); index S.V. Baltic States; R. Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (19672), index; E. Avotins, J. Dzurkalis-V. Petersons, Daugavas Vanagi, Who Are They? (1963). CONTEMPORARY PERIOD: U. Schmelz and S. Della Pergola in AJYB, 1995, 478; Supplement to the Monthly Bulletin of Statistics, 2, 1995, Jerusalem; Antisemitism World Report 1994, London: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 141–142; Antisemitism World Report 1995, London: Institute of Jewish Affairs, 163–164; Mezhdunarodnaia Evreiskaia Gazeta (MEG), 1993. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Dov Levin (ed.), Pinkas Hakehilot Latvia and Estonia (1988).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.