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RIGA (Lettish Riga), Baltic port, capital of Latvia; under Russian rule from 1710 to 1917, capital of Livonia (Livland); 1944–1991 in the Latvian S.S.R. The first documentary evidence of Jews in Riga – the record of a sale of merchandise to a Jew named Jacob – is dated 1536. During Polish and Swedish rule in Livonia (1561–1621 and 1621–1710, respectively) restrictions were imposed on Jewish residence, but in the course of time a number of Jewish merchants arrived there. By 1645 there was a special Jewish inn in the city where visiting Jewish merchants had to stay. In 1710 the Livonia region was incorporated into Russia and, according to reports by English merchants dating to 1714, Jews and Catholics then enjoyed religious freedom. In 1725 a few privileged Jews were given the right to reside outside the Jewish inn. In that same year they were permitted to bury their dead in Riga, whereas previously they had to be taken to *Courland for burial. Despite requests from the city authorities and the provincial governor, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna's decree of 1742, ordering the expulsion of Jews from *Russia, was also applied to the Jews in Riga. It was not until 1766, under Catherine II, that Jewish merchants were allowed into Riga, although they were restricted to a visit of six weeks and to residence at the Jewish inn; a few privileged Jews were given special permission to stay elsewhere.

Permission was granted for Jews to reside at Sloka (Ger. Schlock), a nearby town, in 1785, where in 1792 they were permitted to open a prayer room. A few managed to settle in Riga, although the official ban was still in force. In 1798 there were seven Jewish families living in Riga, and by 1811, 736 Jews in the city and suburbs including over half in Sloka. As Riga was outside the *Pale of Settlement, it continued to be difficult for Jews to enter the city. However, in 1813 the Jews of Sloka were given the right to settle there. The same year a community is mentioned. In 1822 Jews were permitted to engage in crafts. The "Jewish statute" of 1835 (see *Russia) confirmed the permanent residence rights of part of the population. In 1840 Sloka Jews were allowed to open a school in Riga which became one of the few modern institutions in Russia at that time. Max *Lilienthal was invited to Riga to become principal of the school and rabbi of the "German" synagogue. After he left there, Reuben *Wunderbar became principal of the school.

In 1841 Jews were allowed to register officially as inhabitants of the city, and later were permitted to build synagogues, own real property, and engage in commerce and trade; an organized community was officially founded in 1842 and continued to function until 1893. In 1850 the community asked for permission to buy land for a synagogue, on which building commenced in 1868. The number of Jews increased from 5,254 in 1869 to 22,115 (8 percent of the population) in 1897 and 33,651 (6.5 percent) in 1913. They played an important role in commerce, the export of goods (especially grain, timber, and flax), in industry, banking, and the various crafts. Jews owned timber mills, tanneries, and engaged in clothing and shoe manufacture. Before the outbreak of World War I the majority of dentists and 20 percent of the physicians were Jews, while only a few practiced as lawyers. There were a number of synagogues and ḥasidic prayer rooms, schools, ḥadarim both of the traditional and the reformed type, a library, charitable institutions, and various clubs and societies. Zionist activities were organized at the end of the 19th century and a delegate from Riga attended the First Zionist Congress. In 1898 the third branch of the *Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews in Russia (after St. Petersburg and Odessa) was formed in Riga. Among the official rabbis (see *kazyonny ravvin) were two Hebrew authors, A.A. Pomiansky (1873–93) and J.L. *Kantor (1909–15). During the war, in 1915, Riga Jews gave refuge to the Jews from Courland, who had been driven out of their homes by the czarist authorities. During the war and the subsequent changes of regime in the area the Jewish population in Riga decreased.

After the establishment of the independent Latvian Republic, Riga became the capital of the new state; its Jewish population grew from 24,721 (13.6 percent of the total) in 1920 to 39,459 (11.68 percent) in 1925, 42,328 (11.20 percent) in 1930, and 43,672 (11.34 percent) in 1935. In 1935 Riga Jews formed approximately 47 percent of the total of Latvian Jewry. The increase was largely the result of internal migration, especially from the province of Latgale. Riga was the economic, political, cultural, and social center of Latvian Jewry.

Under the democratic regime of the country (1918–34), an autonomous Jewish school system was administered from Riga. A manifold network of Hebrew and Yiddish elementary and secondary schools was established. These included around 12 Hebrew and Yiddish schools, mainly supported by the city council; private secondary schools whose language of instruction was Russian or German; two vocational schools, one of *ORT and one of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews in Russia; a pedagogical institute; and a Froebel institute for kindergarten teachers where a large number of students were from Lithuania who returned to teach there. There was also a "Jewish university." The yeshivah in Riga was headed by its chief rabbi Menahem Mendel Sack, who was also active in the general communal affairs of Latvian Jewry; he perished in the Holocaust.

Chairman of the community was Mordecai *Dubin, leader of Agudat Israel and its representative in parliament. For a short time Riga was the center of the Lubavitch Ḥasidim where their leader Joseph Isaac *Schneersohn stayed for several years after leaving the Soviet Union. Several charitable institutions, among them Jewish hospitals, were established by contributions of philanthropists. The Yiddish theater of Riga was known even outside the borders of Latvia for its high level of artistic performance. There were also several sports clubs, headed by Maccabi. Two or three Yiddish daily newspapers were published, and newspapers and various periodicals in other languages were published by Jews: the best known was Frimorgn (1925–34), edited by J.Z.W. *Latzky-Bertholdi and Jacob *Hellman. The general Russian newspaper Sevodnya, which was known among Russian readers outside Latvia, was owned by Jews and devoted considerable space to Jewish affairs. There were a number of Karaites in Riga, among them owners of two cigarette factories. The Jewish share in the commercial, industrial, and banking activities of the city was substantial; the central office of the Association of Latvian Jewish Credit Cooperatives was situated in Riga. Jews sat on the city council, and there were Jews on the teaching staff of Riga University and the state music conservatory.

Holocaust Period

During the first period of Soviet regime in Latvia (from June 1940 to June 1941), Communist rule was introduced: Jewish, especially Zionist, public activity ceased, and Jewish commerce and industry were nationalized. After war broke out between the U.S.S.R. and Germany, Riga was occupied on July 1, 1941, and persecution began of the 40,000 Jews there. Anti-Jewish attacks were organized by the Einsatzgruppen, aided by Latvian fascists, resulting in the death of 400 persons; mass arrests of Jews took place and the synagogues were set on fire. In the period September–October 1941 a walled ghetto was established in the Moscow quarter to which 30,000 Jews were confined. On Nov. 30, 1941 (10 Kislev, 5702), approximately 10,600 Jews were shot in a nearby forest by Einsatzgruppe A; later similar Aktionen took place on December 7–9; a total of 25,000 Jews were killed, about 80 percent of the ghetto population (one of the victims was the historian Simon *Dubnow). The first ghetto (also known as the "large ghetto") was then liquidated, and the 4,000 remaining male Jews were put into a forced labor camp (the "little ghetto"). Women were imprisoned in a separate camp.

At the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, Jews deported from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia began arriving in Latvia; most of them were murdered in the forests. About 15,000 of the deportees were put into a special camp in Riga (the "German ghetto") under a special Judenrat whose authority was later imposed on the whole ghetto. Several Jewish labor camps were also established in Riga and the vicinity. On Nov. 2, 1943, an Aktion took place in the Riga ghetto, in which the old, the very young, and the sick were murdered. Afterward the ghetto was liquidated, and the surviving Jews taken to the Kaiserwald concentration camp, near Riga. Latvian and other local inhabitants collaborated with the Nazis in the persecution and murder of Jews. In the summer of 1944, as a result of the Soviet offensive in the Baltic area, the Kaiserwald concentration camp was liquidated, and the remaining Jews deported to various camps in Germany; few of them survived. After the war the survivors chose to stay in the camps for *Displaced Persons rather than return to Riga (which was occupied by the Soviet Army on Oct. 13, 1944). Eventually most of them settled in Israel, and some in the United States and other countries.


Dubnow, Hist Russ, 3 vols. (1916–18), index; A. Bucholtz, Geschichte der Juden in Riga (1899); YE, vol. 13, pp. 478–87; L. Ovchinski, Toledot Yeshivat ha-Yehudim be-Kurland (1908); M. Schatz-Anin, Yidn in Letland (1924); idem, in: Sovetish Heymland, 11 (1971), issue 4, 164–71; Yahadut Latvia, ed. by B. Eliav et al. (1953); J. Gar, in: Algemeyne Entsiklopedye, Yidn, 6 (1963), 330–74; M. Bobe, Perakim be-Toledot Yahadut Latvia (1965); M. Kaufmann, Vernichtung der Juden Lettlands (1947); G. Movshovich, 25 Yor Yidishe Prese in Letland (1933), 60–66. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Levin (ed.), Pinkas ha-KehillotLatvia and Estonia (1988).

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