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Jews of Latvia fighting for Latvian Independence 1918-1920

The cover of the Jewish Liberators Society almanac "The Liberator"

The cover of the Jewish Liberators Society almanac “The Liberator”

During the war of independence the new Latvian Republic faced many enemies and nearly impossible task to form own Latvian armed forces. The Bolsheviks wanted Latvia as part of the new Worldwide Socialist republic, while the Baltic Germans striven for Baltic Duchy. However, Latvian Provisional government managed to form an army capable to secure our independence. Not only Latvians fought under the Latvian banner. Latvia was a multi-ethnic country and many national minorities also came to help. One of them were Jews. During the war for freedom more than 1000 Jews fought in the lines of the Latvian army. Some of them received highest state awards. 22 men lost their life’s. Many continued their service after the war. This is a story about them. Some of these soldiers were my personal relatives that make this story even more special.

Latvian Jews were at first quite skeptical about the new Latvian state. Many did not believe it could last for long, others still had a sentiment for collapsed Russian empire or even the new Bolshevik regime. Many searched ways to escape conscription and acquired the citizenship of the short lived Peoples Republic of Belarus and Ukraine. Some just declared allegiance to  non-bolshevik Russia, that was still legally acceptable. However, there were people who joined the Latvian army voluntarily or did not resist conscription.  Some Jews gave charity to Latvian army in Ludza the most contributors for the funds to buy a new flag of Latvia were the local Jews.

On Autumn 1919 most Jews started to support the Republic of Latvia. The support rose sharply during the attack of the Army of Bermont.  Jews understood that the free democratic Latvia is the best form of rule for them. The chance for autonomy of education, political and economic freedoms were more tempting than the brutal Bermont rule and the Red terror.

According to latest research 1000- 1200  Jews took part in the war of freedom. With them 12 officers, 19 medics and war employes. Jews also took part in the Latgalian Partisan Regiment. There were also Jews serving the Landeswerh and German land guard.  The most oldest Jewish soldier was 59 year old Haims Šteins and the most youngest was 10 year old Kopel Gorelik. He could be the youngest Latvian soldier ever. He took part in the 2th Cesis Battalion, later 2th Ventspils battalion where he fought the Bolsheviks for four months. He died in Riga in 1935. Jēkabs (Jakovs) Rics was 13 year old when he joined the 4th auto service. Many young Jewish boys either joined or were conscripted. Some had wrong birth date in the passports Mozus Dobrins was considered as 16 year old, while really he was 3 years younger. He was wounded near Jelgava on 20 November 1920 and later discharged as underage.

Many 18-19 year old’s took part. Hiršs Hermanis from Dobele took joined by his own will already on March 1 1919. He was lost in action against the Bermont army on October 9 1919, in the same day 18 year old Hiršs Hirholm also auxiliary soldier lost his life. Many Jews joined simply because they were unemployed and short of money.

On July 1919 when the Estonian army entered Vidzeme, a mobilization for Latvian armed units were issued. From 40 Jewish families, 20 youths showed at the draft point on the first day. Most of them were sent to 4th company, that was nicknamed the “The Mozes Squad”. In the battles of Cēsis 1 man was lost and six were wounded 2 Jews with them. Some Jews from Estonian towns were also called in the Latvian ranks. Jews supported Latvian army in the Latgalian front and joined the partisan units. Others helped in field hospitals. Many Jewish schoolboys defended the city of Liepāja during the Bermont attack, later they came to Latgalian front.

After the war Jewish veterans formed their own societies. Jewish Liberators of Latvia were active society releasing the journal “Liberator” where they gathered all the info about the Jewish soldiers. Also Jewish retired soldier’s society was present.  At the end of the war there were 84% of Latvians, 5,6% Germans, 3,9% Russians, 1,8% Poles, 1,3% Belorussians, and 1,7% Jews. It was a rather high number knowing the situation. Most Jews were only soldiers or private first class (dižkarievis), first class sergeants were Movša Hemohs Maļeckis, Sergejs Mahmoņiks, Jēkabs Zilberbrants, sergeants Boriss Kessels, Mirons Solomonovičš, Boriss Joffe, Leo Goldarbeiters, Šloms Taube, Rafails Sļedzevicš, Josifs Aļšvangs, corporal Oskars Goldblats, Nahmans Hiršovičs, Leiba Models, Nikolajs Zilberts, Nahmans Jakubovicš, Zamuels Klemptners, Jozefs Taics, Šloma Sandlers and others.

According to information gathered by the Jewish organizations 37 men lost their life’s for Latvia. Their names were imprinted on memorial stone made in 1935 in the Riga Old Jewish cemetery.  However, the latest research concludes that actually 23 Jews lost their life’s, 3 died from other causes, one was part of the Landeswerh unit before it was submitted to the Latvian command. One actually survived. 4 men were not Jews, who simply had surnames that resembled Jewish surnames. 4 others may not be Jews. That however does not wash away the courage and dignity of each of these men who gave their lives for Latvia.

Four Latvian Jews received the highest Latvian military award – The Order of Lāčplēsis. All of them were awarded with 4th Rank of the order.  Josifs Hops born on 1898 was from Parnu Estonia and was mobilized into Latvian forces. Before he served in the Russian armed forces. He was admitted to the 1st Valmiera infantry regiment. He fought the Bolsheviks and the army of Bermont. From September 1 1919 he was the squad commander. He was promoted to private first class. He was decorated  with 4th Rank of the Order of Lāčplēsis  for crossing the enemy lines from behind, cutting the telephone wires and assaulting the Mamoņu house. Under heavy crossfire they first reached the enemy post and captured the machine gun along with its crew. After that they turned the machine gun towards the enemy and retreated leaving behind many dead and wounded soldiers. After retiring from office in 1921 he and his brother who also served returned back to Parnu Estonia. In 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded Estonia he joined the Soviet destroyer battalion where he was lost in action.

His brother Zamuēls Hops born on 1890 also served in the Russian army was medic, he then was admitted to Latvian army where he gained the rank of sergeant. He was decorated for his outstanding service as a medic. He survived the Holocaust by evacuating to Russia. He then returned to Estonia where he died on 1962.

Robrts Simons Maļeckis born in 1899 September 17 in Riga was mobilized on October 3 1919. Together with his brother Herman he was admitted to the 1ts Liepāja Infantry regiment. He was decorated for outstanding courage against the Bolsheviks. His brother lived in Soviet Russia and was a high rank official. He joined his brother in USSR and became a communist party member. He and his brother was killed in Great purge of the 1937.

Maksis Gringūts was born in 1896 in Jēkabpils. Served in the Russian ranks, was decorated with the Cross of St George fourth rank. On 1919 he was mobilized in the Latvian army North Latvian brigade. He fought both Germans and Bolsheviks. He received the award for entering the enemy lines from behind and with a rifle fire he dispersed the whole enemy squad allowing for attack to continue and capture two enemy canons. He was later suffered a concussion  and was sent to Border guard. After retiring was caught in smuggling over the Estonian border and fined. He went to France on 1923, later on 1935 returned. He was soon arrested for using fake Czechoslovakian passport. He was jailed from 1936 to 1938 and was dishonored by the Jewish Liberators society. He died in Riga on 1941. Latvian first foreign minister Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics was a Jew from a fathers side, but considered him a Latvian.

Four Latvian Jews received The Order of Three Stars. They received the 5th rank. Hiršs Berkovičš  was from Estonia and voluntary joined the Latvian army. He was a brave soldier who was assigned to difficult tasks and left memoirs of his action in the field. Eliass Rihters fought the Bermont army in Ķemeri, Rīga and Jelgava and was outstanding first line soldier. Zālmans Levinsons and Dāvids Bērs also were awarded.

Nine others were nominated for the order but did not received. Filips Farbmans was a Lithuanian citizen, but joined the Students Company. He showed courage at the battles near Jelgava and Kalnciems. Later he joined the Lithuanian army, but went back to Latvia after the war. Beiness Bērmans a lieutenant of the 5th Cēsis regiment and sergeant Leopolds Šalīts who was the member of the Oskars Kalpaks special Latvian battalion were among the nominated.   The corporal of 4th  Valmiera infantry battalion Jāzeps Binders also my distant relative received the award for capturing the enemy machine gun and as a skilled mechanic he repaired it and used against the enemy. He fought both Bermont and Bolsheviks. Later he was a member of Aizsargi (Civil Guards) and received the Civil Guard cross. From the same 4th Valmiera infantry regiment Zālamans Levitāns made an outstanding act of courage by capturing two Red army soldiers and their machine gun with out using a single weapon. Mozus Lihmans was captured by the Soviets, but escaped captivity. Together with other Latvian soldier he for nine days in cold and hunger reached back his army lines. Leiba Blumbergs was part of the original Kalpaks battalion. Mozus Špungins was one of the first who joined the Latvian army by his own will. Izāks Jāzeps Usikers was nominated to be awarded posthumously.

There was some deserters among the Jews, however their numbers were low. Some Jews fought in Latvia in the enemy ranks mostly in the Bolshevik army together with Latvian Red Riflemen. The Latvian Army was not always tolerant to Jews, there was event of looting the Jewish shops and assaults. Polish army who was present at Daugavpils also made many robberies were Jews suffered. However, in this hard years were Latvia faced many enemies and little support the outstanding courage of these men is to be remembered for ever.

Memorial to fallen Jewish soldiers who fought for free Latvia

Memorial to fallen Jewish soldiers who fought for free Latvia

Selected Sources:

Jēkabsons, Ēriks (2013)  Aizmirstie karavīri – ebreji Latvijas armijā 1918.-1940. gadā.Rīga : Biedrība “Šamir”

 Atbrīvotājs : almanachs : Žīdu tautības Latvijas atbrīvotāju biedrības izdevums.  (1931-1933.) Rīga : Žīdu tautības Latvijas atbrīvotāju biedrība.

Dribins, Leo. (2002)  Ebreji Latvijā. Rīga : Elpa

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The 1905 Revolution in Latvia

Piektais gads (Cirulis)

The 1905 revolution in Russia is mostly known for its Bloody Sunday and the Battleship Potemkin and the Jewish pogroms. But in Latvia, then part of the Russian Baltic provinces the revolution of 1905 was a wakeup call and the beginning of social and national liberation. The revolution took place on the streets of the cities, rural areas and forests. Latvian revolutionaries fought Czarist police and Baltic German landlords. Not only that, the fire of the revolution lighted up in Helsinki and London as the actions of the Latvian revolutionaries reached international level. There are many aspects of this revolution that need separate articles. This is a concise survey of the 1905 revolution that took place in Latvia.

In Russia the causes for the revolution was the great social inequality, the defeat in Russo-Japanese wars, national divide and authoritarian government by Czar Nicolay II. For Latvia, one of the main reasons was the national inequality between Latvians, Jews and the Baltic Germans. Despite many Latvians enjoying relative freedom for education and carrier, the overall situation was still against them. In rural areas Latvian peasants were still fed up with the Baltic German landlords, from whom they had to rent their lands and work for them. The movement by intellectual Latvians faced many restrictions. Latvian press was censured; the rights for political activities were stripped down and the use of Latvian language was limited in public places. Latvians faced double oppression from Baltic German elite and Russian administration. Also Jews and Poles in many cases felt the same oppression. Latvians were also no strangers to war with Japan; many Latvians were sent to frontlines and the Russian navy that was destroyed in Tsushima, originally left from the port of Liepāja.

However, the main movement for revolution was not the nationalists, but social democrats who aspired from teachings of Marx. At the end of the 19 century the New Latvian movement had lost it original power for it could not answer the new emerging problems caused by industrialization. The New Latvians were mainly middle class intellectuals, descendants of the Latvian farmer families. Their main strives were education, making their own business and national conservation. The rising working class needed different answers and many found them in internationalist social democracy. The main pushers of this new kind of thinking were The New Current movement that expressed their views in the newspaper “Daily Sheet”. The main person behind the paper was the new student Jānis Pleikšāns who called himself Rainis. He and his colleges took the ideas of social democracy from Germany where there was already an official Social Democrat party. Their ideology was internationalist and was based mainly on working class of whom only 5,6% were Latvians. While they certainly talked about the rights of the Latvian landless peasants and Latvian education, their cosmopolitism did not go along well with Russification policies that weakened the Latvian national strength. Latvian social democrat slogan was: “The worker has no fatherland!”

On 1897 at Vilnius the Jewish social democrats founded the General Labor Bund party. In 1898 the Russian Social Democratic party was born. Latvian Social Democrats became more and more inspired by their Russian and Jewish colleges. On 1899 Russian Authorities closed down the “Daily Sheet” newspaper and forced Rainis and his colleges to exile.

The one of the first Latvian political movements emerged in 1903 in Switzerland. Latvian exiles founded the Latvian Social democratic Union. Their first congress took place in Riga on December 29-30 1905. The party did not last long and was outmatched by Latvian Social Democratic Workers Party that was founded in 1904. There was a great difference between these two parties: the LSDU was more national oriented while LSDWP was overall internationalist. Their main leaders were Miķelis Valters, Ernsts Rolavs and Kārlis Skalbe. Their political platform was full rights of self-determination, the formation of Latvian parliament, and in case of break up of Russian empire – the formation of independent Latvian state. The LSDWP did not believe in full independence, but fought for free Latvia in united free Russia. As their colleges in Russia they desired to overthrow the Czarist regime and then establish autonomous social democratic Latvia. In the end the LSDWP was the main force behind the 1905 revolution.

The start of the 1905 revolution in Latvia is considered the January 13 (26 January according to Western calendar) when in Riga a large crowd of people marched along the Moscow Street to the city center. A day before a general strike was called in Riga and other cities. The action was inspired by the bloody events in Petersburg at 10 (23) January. The crowd singing revolutionary songs and waving red flags were stopped by junior officer squad at the Iron Bridge near river Daugava. As the protestors tried to break trough the soldiers opened fire killing 73 protesters and injuring 65.

The general strike was one of the biggest in whole Russia. However, after winter passed the fires of revolution reached the country side. Thousands of landless peasants were united by the revolutionary ideas of equal rights and mainly the free land for all. Land workers started strikes against German landlords. Demonstrations waving red flags took place near churches sometimes protesters invaded the church mess and held revolutionary gatherings. Such sights were not common in Latgalia where Catholic and Orthodox churches were respected. The Lutheran church was associated with the Baltic Germans.

The peasant demonstration at Dundaga 1905

The peasant demonstration at Dundaga 1905


On 15 (28) June almost at the same time when mutiny on battleship “Potemkin” took place, the Russian sailors at Liepaja took arms. The reason was the same as in case of “Potemkin” – maggots in meat. Sailors took over the guardhouse and forced commanding officers to flee. However, on 17-18 (30-1) June reinforcements came from Riga and disarmed the sailors. 138 men were taken to war tribunal.

When Baltic Germans started to took arms to protect themselves, the blood spilled on the countryside. In Sesava church two barons opened fire against people calling “Down with the Czar!” and in return Latvians killed one of then injuring the other one. Baltic Germans asked for help from Russian army. Russia sent ruthless Cossacks, Germans themselves formed self-defense squads. Latvian peasants attacked the German mansions, took away their arms and money. In August LSDWP formed fight groups. In Riga 1000 men joined the ranks. On the night of 6 -7 September (19-20 Sept) a group of 52 men raided the Riga Central prison rescuing two of their comrades Lācis and Slešers. In this daring raid few Jews from Bund also helped their Latvian comrades. Latvian Jews took active part in the revolution. While in other places in Russia bloody Jewish pogroms took place, there was a relative unity between Latvian and Jews. Instead on 22-23 October Latvian social democrats helped to stop rioting in Riga Moscow district that could turn in Jewish pogrom. The main leader of the Latvian Jewish revolutionary movement was Simon Nachimson.

At 12-13 (25-26) October General Strike in whole Russian empire took place. Latvians also took place in it. Czar Nicolay II was forced to issue a “October manifesto” where he promised to give people freedom of speech and meeting. Also a freely elected State Duma parliament was promised. Latvians met this with great joy and gathered in many demonstrations. At the Grīziņkalns Park in Riga 80 -100 thousand people gathered to celebrate “freedom”. However, there were bloodsheds between loyalists and revolutionists. At countryside locals abolished local Czarist municipalities and elected their own people. The October Manifesto did not ease the situation but heated up it as people were asking for more. In the end Czar was forced to  use armed force and break up the revolt.

 At November great battles erupted in Courland. For a short time Russian authorities only controlled Liepaja and Jelgava. A large bloody battle took place in the city of Tukums. Latvian militia managed to chase away the dragoon squad and infantry. Then Russian forces tried to recapture the city, Tukums was bombarded by cannons. Revolutionaries were forced to retreat. Russian suffered great causalities. Similar events followed in town of Talsi. The last bloodiest battle took place at Aizpute on 16 (29) December. Revolutionaries lost 100 men.

On 17 (30) January 14 revolutionaries raided the Riga Secret Police headquarters. The aim was to rescue LSDWP Central Committee member Jānis Luters ‘Bobis’ and Pēteris Liepa. The Secret Police building was located at Aspazijas Boulevard in the city center. The building was guarded by 160 soldiers and there were more on the city streets. 14 men managed to slip trough the heavily guarded streets and invade the secret police building by surprise. Six men with them Jānis Luters ‘Bobis’ and Teodors Kalniņš were rescued. Police men fled the scene, but 160 Russian soldiers barricaded in their rooms.

Situation in Latvia was so extreme that the Russian authorities decided to send reinforcements. On 12 December 1905 a state of war was issued. The Russian punishment corpus lead by general Orlov entered Latvia to completely suppress the revolution. At the morning of 20 December revolutionaries raided the rubber factory Provodnik where 60 Russian dragoons were located. In four minutes 30 revolutionaries killed 17 and injured 20 dragoons.

General Orlov the leader of the Punishment corpus

General Orlov the leader of the Punishment corpus

In the country side the revolution had gone to extreme. Latvian peasants started to execute the German barons and burn down their mansions. Many architectural wonders like the castle of Stāmeriene were burned to ashes. 449 mansions were burned down. As the Orlov men came the bitter fights and executions erupted all around. The core of the Orlov army were Cossacks from North Caucasus. People were tortured and executed. For the first time some few thousand Latvians were sent to Siberia.

The burned down mansion of Stameriena

The burned down mansion of Stameriena

The revolution was completely defeated in 1907. 2041 revolutionaries lost their lives, 7-8 thousand men were imprisoned, 427 were executed and 2652 were sent to Siberia. The fires of the 1905 revolution reached the outside world in the following years. Latvian revolutionaries escaped Russia and continued their fight. Jānis Luters Bobis was the leader of the attack on Helsinki (Helsingfors) bank and lead the arms smuggling from the West. On 26 February 25-30 Latvian fighters invaded the bank owned by Russian state in the main city center. Their gain was 100 to 150 thousand rubbles. Social democrats called the bank robberies- “expropriations”. Joseph Stalin also started his revolutionary carrier with expropriations. Latvians managed to bring in to Latvia a large numbers of arms, explosives and money.

Some years later in December 1910 a group of Latvian anarchists lead by the Peter the Painter or Peter Piatkow started a wave of attacks on jeweler’s shops in London killing two officers. On 2 January 2 police became informed about their hiding spot at Sidney Street they blocked the street and started siege. Despite being outnumbered revolutionaries had superior weapons and showed stiff resistance. The Tower of London was called for backup and Home Secretary Winston Churchill arrived. He directed the siege and after six hours of shooting the field artillery strike set the building where Latvians were hiding alight. Churchill prevented fireman to dose the flames, instead he waited for Latvian attempt for escape. But, no doors ever opened and instead they found two burned bodies. There was no sign of Peter the Painter however.

The mystery of the Peter the Painter still lies unsolved. There are no clear facts of what happened to him after the Sidney Street siege or what  was real his identity. Some historians associate him with later Cheka agent Yakov Peters. British historian Philip Ruff first suggested that Peter the Painter was Latvian painter Gederts Eliass, however in his latest book he points to Latvian far leftist Jānis Žāklis.

The revolution in Russia in 1905 was a peoples and nations revolution. Similar national sentiment was present in Estonians, Lithuanians, Caucasians, Poles and Jews. Many Latvian Social democrat leaders exiled and continued their fight against Russian czarist regime. Some became anarchists. While others came to conclusion that international revolution is not the answer and started to fight for full national independence. In 1914 the First World War erupted and in 1915 it came to Latvia. It was the time of next Latvian national awakening – formation of the Latvian national rifleman regiments and the birth of Latvian Republic in the end.

Monument of the 1905 revolution at Grīziņkalns park in Riga where many demonstrations took place

Monument of the 1905 revolution at Grīziņkalns park in Riga where many demonstrations took place

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Latvia’s national minorities in Latvian caricatures 1920-1934


Jews, Russians and Germans shown as the main rulers of Latvian government.
From Svari 1925

The parliamentary period of independent Latvia had two common things the vast ethnic diversity and great freedoms for press. Latvia with her many national minorities outlined in whole picture of Europe. For centuries in the small geographical area of Latvia Germans, Russians and Jews lived side by side. All of these minorities had its own culture and national elite that made Latvia a multi-ethnic nation. According to national census made in 1935 Latvia was inhabited by 75% Latvians, 10,59% Russians, 4,79% Jews, 3,19% Germans and 2,51% Poles.

The founding fathers of Latvia had to cope with these minorities and since the very start at November 18, 1918 Kārlis Ulmanis said these words: “All citizens, without no ethnic distinction are asked to help, for all nationality rights will be ensured in Latvia. It will be democratic country of justice where they cannot be any repression or injustice!” It was a strong promise that had to kept in order to gain support from non-Latvians who were skeptical about new Latvian state. The goal of founding Latvian right-wing politicians was to form a national democratic nation with emphasis on Latvian language and culture, but to give equal rights to all national minorities including them in the state political and social system.

Steps were made for this. The citizenship made in 1919, granted citizen rights to all who lived in Latvia before 1914 without any national restrictions. Already in 1925 96% people of Latvia held citizen rights. The main step towards the minorities was the Law about minority school autonomy issued in 1919, that granted minorities to get education in their maiden language and maintain their own schools. Also the election the law  that did not require no 5% barrier and needed only 100 people to found a party made relative easy to be elected in to parliament.

As for unknowing observer this may seem that national relations in Latvia were quite good and there were no serious problems. However that was only on paper. The nationalistic calls in newspapers, anti-minority talks in parliament and even some national violent outbursts (that were still pretty rare) and rise of radical nationalist movements showed that there is something wrong within Latvians and the minorities.

The cause for this was cross national economical and ethnic rivalry. In every ethnically uneven country it’s not matters how sizable is the minority, but how much influence does it have in state level. And this was the main problem in Latvia. For centuries Latvians faced economical and political discrimination from foreign rulers. Latvians were mainly limited to agriculture sector, in finance and industry Latvians were minority. Still at the end of 19 century and the beginning of 20 century Latvian middle and upper class was still weak and unfolded.

After gaining independence Latvians were still behind the minorities in many sectors. In 1935, of all commercial companies 58% belonged to Jews, 24% to Germans and 5,4% to Russians. Jewish tradesman were present in Riga and the province and Germans owned the large industrial companies. This made many Latvians envious and unsure about their position in their own country. From saying: “Everything belongs to Germans and Jews, we Latvians still are not the masters of our land”   a slogan came “Latvia for Latvians!”. And this were the caricatures come in that shows pretty much what Latvians thought about their national minorities.

Caricatures were integral part of every newspaper at those times. Satirical art was favored by the readers and there many caricaturists. In this article we only will take a look on caricatures published in satirical magazines, for almost all main newspapers had caricatures. Satirical magazines were usually a hobby contribution of many caricaturists who came to together. The magazines consisted from caricatures, anecdotes and funny stories.

From all 40 satirical magazines that came out between 1920-1934 some can be mentioned with distinction. “Svari” (Scales) was the biggest magazine that came out from 1920 to 1931. It first came out already in 1906 in Petersburg, and after short live of fame was banned by Czarist authorities. The main authors of the caricatures were Roberts Tilbergs, Rihards Zariņš and Jānis Zeberiņš. It is worth to note that first version of “Svari” was leftist minded, but after the 1920, the journal became more nationalistic and anti-Semitic. Caricatures were made in national realist style. A contrary to “Svari” was “Ho-Ho!”  a magazine made by young generation artists – expressionists, Cubists and suprematists. Something that was strongly opposed from “Svari” artists. The main artists of “Ho-Ho!” was Romāns Suta, Sigusmunds Vidbergs, Otto Skulme and Aleksandra Belcova. It was extraordinary magazine in arts and style and leftist minded. However leftists were pretty anti-German at those times. The journal came out from 1922 to 1924 after went bankrupt. The third main journal was “Sikspārnis”  (The Bat”) Journal came out with gaps from 1922 to 1940. A nationalist minded it was a big journal and was very found of satirizing Jews.

According to my calculations the most depicted minority in caricatures were Jews a satirized a  total of 204 times, Germans were depicted 204 times, Russians 19, Gypsies 5 times, and Poles 3 times in a period between 1920 to 1934. Before the World war and the Holocaust there was no political correctness towards the minorities, nobody expected the tragic events that would happen with Jews and other minorities. And minorities themselves did not mind much about caricatures and there were no or less complaints registered from them. Today a anti-Semitic or anti-Islamic caricature would cause a large scandal or even violence. None of this was present before the world  war.

A dream by "Svari" editor about removing the Orthodox cathedral and put Monument of Freedom in place From Svari 1930

A dream by “Svari” editor about removing the Orthodox cathedral and put Monument of Freedom in place
From Svari 1930

As the biggest minority in Latvia the Russians were often associated with old Czarist past. The past Russifaction  policies made a large resentment towards Russian language and Russian culture. Caricatures showed antipathies towards Russian monarchists who wanted to restore Russian Empire. “Sikspārnis” suggested to kick them out of Latvia back to Russia. Satirical press praised the removal of Orthodox chapel in Riga Railroad station square in 1925 (it was done to extend the square and chapel was intended to be moved to Pokrov Russian cemetery, but Orthodox church wasted the money and chapel was lost forever). But, that was not enough as “Svari” even wanted to remove the Orthodox cathedral in city center and place a Monument of Liberty there. The church was a symbol for Czarist past for many. Interestingly enough Russians were not associated with Soviet Union at those times.

The Lachplesis fighting against the German baronFrom "Ho-Ho"! 1922

The Lachplesis fighting against the German baron
From “Ho-Ho”! 1922

Germans were lesser than Russians and Jews but held a large influence. They still played a great role in national politics and economy. The past experience the myth of 700 years of slavery made Germans as the main Latvian enemy. Germans were shown constantly plotting against Latvia and Latvians. Great anger was made against Germans that still held large influence and took important governmental posts. The political demands by German parties that were constant were depicted as a threat to Latvian nation. Satirical magazines praised the controversial took away of St. Jacobs and Riga Dome cathedral from German congregations. The most noted German politician Paul Schiemann know for his liberal policies and progressive national ideas was shown as a German nationalist and chauvinist. While Scheimann really had a progressive liberal views he still played the role of German national right defender.

Jew as the ruler as the worldFrom Pūcsspieģelis 1923

Jew as the ruler as the world
From Pūcsspieģelis 1923

The main satirical slur was headed towards the Jews. While Jews had no political claims against Latvian state and no past as a Latvian oppressor, their influence in trade and finance was so clearly seen that they got themselves many enemies. There were many myths about Jews in Latvia that were present in caricatures. Satirical magazines outlined the uneven Jewish role in Latvian society; while being overly present in economy and education almost no role in state sector and army. The magazine “Lapsene” (The Wasp) called Jews the artificial insects and asked how to destroy them. Jews were accused of speculating the new Latvian currency and later even taking over all Latvian money capital.

Another paranoid view since gaining independence was that the many Jews from Russia that never lived in Latvia before, came in large masses along with Latvian refugees. That was partly true, but it should  noted that the Soviet government and the Checka simply loaded many undesired people on the refugee trains to get rid of them. Another thing is that many of the Jews really lived in Latvia before the war. But satirical magazines were talking about the “new Palestine” in Latvia and influx of swindlers. It all came to climax at 1927, when the changes in citizenship that extended the list of people eligible for citizen rights were made. Nationalist parties initiated a referendum to turn down the changes. The nationalists insisted that even more Jews will gain citizen rights.  For whole year till December that was the main theme in satirical press. The referendum failed to reach its purpose as the quorum was not reached.

Jews were also accused of being communists and plotting against Latvia. While there were really some underground Jewish communists and Soviet agents their role and size was not significant as depicted in caricatures. Latvian communists were more a threat and larger in size.

Mordehajs Dubins visits the US president Herbert Hoover From Kultūras Bals Satīriskais kalendārs 1931

Mordehajs Dubins visits the US president Herbert Hoover
From Kultūras Bals Satīriskais kalendārs 1931

One of the most remarkable Jewish personality was rabbi Mordehajs Dubins who was also a Orthodox Jewish politician. He was elected in all parliaments was a personal friend of Kārlis Ulmanis and talented businessman. He even gained audience to US President Herbert Hoover office a something that could not be done by many Latvian politician. He was true leader of Latvian Jewry. In so the Latvian satire depicted him as oligarch and real mover of many governments. Sometimes he even was show as a President or Prime Minister. He really had a large influence on governmental decisions, but his power was overestimated by Latvian satires.

The disinfection of the parasites of the earthFrom Intīmās politiskās aizkulises 1933

The disinfection of the parasites of the earth
From Intīmās politiskās aizkulises 1933

One interesting siting in Latvian satirical press was a journal “Intīmās poltiskās aizkulises, jeb mazas piezīmes par “lieliem” vīriem”  (Intimate political back scenes, or a small notes on “great” men”) with such peculiar name you could not guess that this journal was published by United Latvian Nationalsocialist Party a small political party inspired by Nazi Germany. This was one of the most anti-Semitic publisher of caricatures calling for complete “disinfection of Earth parasites” and removal of “council of Elders of Zion”. Jews were accused of selling cocaine, seducing Latvian women and harming the Latvian state. Party was short-lived from 1933 to 1934 and did not gain any significant popularity but its journal its example of the limits of Latvian anti-Semitism.

The caricatures showed that national question in Latvia was actual and hardly addressable. A Latvian desire for “being masters in their own land” and the presence of nationalism was clearly seen. Despite the fact that caricatures could be accused of spreading the hate not always they called for violence. In place of that a notion was seen that these problems could not be solved by democratic meas. But without democracy no political satire was possible. After Kārlis Ulmanis took power by coup all political satire and anti-Semitic remarks were banned. A national problems were solved simply by not talking about them. That was a proof that Latvia between 1920 to 1934 was very democratic country that allowed freely talk about the national issues.

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Holocaust in Latvia

The Holocaust memorial in Bikernieki forest in Riga

Throughout the history many nations had become victims of mass killings. The slaughters made by the Assyrians, Mongols and the destruction of native Americans have its bloody mark in the history. Then there was genocidal actions by the Christian church against non-believers and enemies of the church. The massive scale of the Communist genocide has not yet been fully witnessed. But the most “famous” genocide was a Nazi Germany action against the Jewish nation. Its large scale the industrial character of the killings was the most extreme genocide in the 20th century. In every part of Nazi captured lands Jews were predestined for destruction. Their age, gender or social status did not matter every Jewish person had to be killed. It was different from other genocides that often had a random pattern of killings.

National socialist  antisemitism was based on many false beliefs. The concept of superior Aryan race was German ultra nationalism. Adolf Hitler personally blamed Jews for German defeat in 1918 the so-called “stab in back legend” that was created by the German military to put the blame on others for the their defeat. Also Nazi antisemitism was based on economic reasons, the belief that Jews share an unequal portion of state market.

In Latvia antisemitism was mostly marginal before 1920. Latvians and Jews lived together and shared the same national status while Baltic Germans and Russians had ruling rights. After 1920 Latvians became the main political nation in the country. Despite of this Jews had influence in finance, culture and politics throughout the years of Latvian independence. That was met with resentment from Latvian nationalists. Latvian – Jewish relations were not violent but very tense in the questions of economy, politics and traditions. By reading the newspapers of provincial towns you can see that in places where Jews and Latvians lived together; they often had quarrels and disagreements.

However the radical anti-Semitism was rather low. It was mostly present in radical newspapers. But they were radical nationalist groups like the Latvian National Club and the Thundercross that sparked violent actions against the Jews. Both of these organizations were banned. They were popular among the youth but never gained enough popularity to tackle the  ruling regime. Before 1940, Latvia was ruled by authoritarian president Karlis Ulmanis. While he tried to make certain nationalist policy and repressed some Jewish organizations, he was generally friendly to Jews. He helped thousands of German and Austrian Jews to escape from the Nazi regime and suppressed antisemitism in state media. In so the independent Latvian state was never capable to make direct actions against the Jews, it was the Nazi Germany who set the necessary climate for such actions.

The Jewish killings started on  June 22 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded in the Soviet Union. The task was entrusted to four special security  service groups the Einsatzgruppe EG. In Latvia the Einsatzgruppe A with 990 members took action. The large number was intended for the Jewish community of Leningrad. The commander of the Einsatzgruppe was Walter Stalhlecker. Also all local German power structures such as police and army took part in the actions.

First killings begun in June 22 near Grobina Courland. 6 Jews were killed by Germans. Soviet army was retreating rapidly so German military set command posts and issued ant-Jewish orders. Jews were prohibited to appear on the streets, go to the shops and all were registered and marked. After that the murders begun in Durbe, Priekule, Asite and Riga, nearly every place captured by the Germans.

However the systematic killings only begun a few weeks later. The Germans needed to take complete order of Latvian territory. First days of the war were rather chaotic, the battles with Red army and increased activity of Latvian paramilitary formations. Jews were first killed in towns and villages and the first wave of murders continued till August. Germans used local Latvian collaborators to assist the crime.  Local administrations registered the Jewish citizens, the self-defense and Latvian SD units took direct action the crimes.

In June- August approximately 30 000 people were killed. However SS Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler was not pleased with “rather slow” temps of the killings and sent SS obergruppenfuhrer Friedrich Jeckeln to boost up the killings. The previous leader Walter Stalhecker left Latvia in Leningrad front where he was killed by Soviet partisans in 1942. The obergruppenfuhrer H. A. Prinzmann was removed from office because he wanted to spare a quantity of Jews for slave work. Jeckeln was known for his actions in Babi Jar in Ukraine where his man killed 33 00 Jews from Kiev.

Jeckeln gathered all Jews from Riga Ghetto and with help of German order police and four Latvian units killed 24 000 Jews of Riga in Rumbula forest in  November 30. Only 6000 Latvian Jews were kept alive after it for slave work. They were stationed in the remains of old Ghetto and various concentration camps. In 1944 what was left by then were sent to camps in Germany. Along the way Jews from Western Europe were sent to Latvia and murdered there.

Riga Ghetto 1941

Germans also killed mentally ill people and Gypsies in Latvia. People were taken from mental hospitals and killed. Gypsy killing was not systematic, because Nazis could really sort out whether Gypsies were members of lower race or not. Because they originated from India, they could be Aryans either way. They were killed until 1943 when Himmler changed his mind and issued that Gypsies have positive racial element. The killings of Gypsies in Latvia were not consequent, they were killed in Liepaja, Kuldiga, Tukums, Ludza and other places.

One of the bitter questions of the Holocaust is local Latvian involvement in the crime. The Jewish saviors were minority because of tough sentences for such actions. A majority of Latvians were neutral and did not take any action in the crime. Those who were involved were either shooters or guards who escorted Jews to killing spot. Others took part in registration of the Jews. Many people robbed the houses of their Jewish neighbors.

The self- defense   (Selbsschutz) units were gathered from Latvian national partisans who took arms in the first days of the war. They were man lusting for revenge against the Soviets and had a desire of restoration of Latvian independence. The scale of Soviet crimes in 1940 – 1941, was so high that the majority of Latvians greeted the Germans as liberators. The Germans had no intention for Latvian independence, Latvia was to become part of the Nazi empire. So Latvian units were put under German control and used for their crimes. In August 1941 almost all of these units were disbanded because they were no longer useful. Also the Latvian Support police took part.

The main Latvian unit was the  Latvian SD commando lead by Viktors Arajs. They were the main Latvian killers who traveled all Latvia to kill Jews in various places. The typical scenario of Latvian involvement was such: local self-defense units “gathered” all Jews to one place. Then the Latvian SD unit arrived and killed the Jews. Even if all the orders were carried out by the Germans, it was rare that Latvians resisted to take part in the killings. A known exception was the head of the local self defense guard at the town of Aknīste Jānis Valdmanis. He refused to take part in the killings and directly asked: “Is this  the order by the state of Germany?” In result he and his unit was replaced by other Latvian unit who carried out the killings instead of them.

Latvian involvement was necessary for Germans carry out their crime. It may be several thousand Latvians who were involved in those actions. However it’s not right to give the collective fault to Latvians and Latvia for the Holocaust. The intention came from Germany and those who were involved in this were pure criminals a shame of the Latvian nation. Every nation has their criminals and they should not be compared with the whole nation.

From 1941 to 1945 a 90 000 Jews were killed. Among them Latvian Jews, Lithuanian Jews and Jews from Western Europe. It was the largest criminal act ever done in Latvian history. Today is the remembrance day of the Jewish holocaust in Latvia. July 4 was the day when the Germans with Latvians burned down the  Jewish synagogues in Riga.  As long as there is a Jewish community in Latvia this crime will not be forgotten.

The Ruins of main Jewish synagogue in Riga

Selected Sources:

Ezergailis, Andrievs. (1996) The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944 : the missing center. Riga : History Institute of Latvia ;Washington, DC : US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Ezergailis, Andrievs. (2005)Nazi/Soviet disinformation about the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Latvia : Daugavas Vanagi–who are they? Rīga : Latvijas 50 gadu okupācijas muzeja fonds.

Barkahan, Menachem (Ed.) (2008) Extermination of the Jews in Latvia, 1941-1945. Riga : Society “Shamir”.

Nollendorfs, Valters. (2007) The hidden and forbidden history of Latvia under Soviet and Nazi occupations 1940-1991 : selected research of the Commission of the Historians of Latvia. Rīga : Institute of the History of Latvia Publishers.


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The Jews in Latvia

Main Jewish Synagogue in Riga 1870-1941.

Every nation has its own historical territory that has been inhabited by them for centuries. Unfortunately because of wars and other calamities some nations have lost their homeland and are forced to scatter around the world. Most notable of them are Jews. Jews originated from the Middle East and settled in Palestine. There they established the Kingdom of Israel that was ruled by such notable leaders such as David and Solomon. However, the kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and Persians. The first Jewish Diaspora was deported Jews from Palestine to Babylonia. They later returned and had autonomy. But when the Palestine was conquered by Romans Jews had a hard time. Jews were known for their specific religion- Judaism. They worshiped only one god while others had many gods. Jews disobeyed all attempts of converting to pagan religions. Therefore they caused bitter hate by the Romans who could assimilate other cultures with ease. Roman attempts to ban Judaism caused Jewish revolt from 66 to 73 CE. The war ended in the tragic destruction of Jerusalem and caused Jewish exodus to Roman Empire.

Since them Jews have settled in all continents around the world. The State of Israel founded in 1948 is too small to hold all Jews living on the planet if they ever want to come back all at once. Jews have left a notable heritage in Western culture. Christianity has long roots in Judaism. Jews have great influence in academic fields, culture and finances.

When Latvian land became part of German controlled Livonia, Jews were banned to enter its territory. Crusades made the rise of antisemitism in medieval Germany, first antisemitic violence occurred there. The situation changed after the end of Livonian war when Livonia was added to Poland-Lithuania. Poland was generally friendly to the Jews so they settled there in large masses. In 1559 Bishop of Courland Johan von Munchausen allowed Jews to settle in the district of Piltene. In 17 century 3 thousand Jews from Germany entered the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. They were craftsmen, traders, money lenders and also official employees.  Jewish presence was disliked by German nobles who asked to expel Jews from Courland. However no expulsion was ever realized.

In 18 century more Jews came to Courland because of favor of future Russian Empress Anna Ivanovna who ruled the duchy in 1710-1730. She appointed German Jew Levy Lipman as her financial advisor who brought foreign credits and specialized Jewish workforce.  Furniture designers, glass makers and Jewellers helped duke Johann Biron to build a marvelous castle of Rudale and the Academy of Peter in Mitau (Jelgava). Biron invited over 200 educated Jews to his duchy. Courland Jews spoke in Yiddish with German accent but could speak well in German. In 18 century 9000 Jews lived in Courland and Semigallia most of them in rural areas. Such towns as Jacobstadt (Jekabpils) and Friedrichstatd (Jaunjelgava) had a large Jewish population.

After Courland was added to the Russian Empire, Jewish rights were downsized. The Russian government after annexation of Poland suddenly got problems with a large Jewish population. Jews had to pay more taxes and live there only if they were registered. About 2500 Jews from Courland went to inner Russia in Volga and Uralian region. However many Jews came to Courland from Poland and Lithuania. In middle of 19th century the province of Courland was inhabited by 23000 Jews. They established schools and build many synagogues in the large centers. They organized their societies to help each other. According to the census of 1897 51000 Jews lived in Courland and Semigallia a 7,6% of the whole population. In Friedrichstadt they were a majority of citizens. Jews had a large part in economic and owned many fabrics. Most of Courland Jews spoke in German that’s why they were mistrusted by the Russian government in 1915 when 40000 Jews were deported to Ukraine and Inner Russia.

Notable Jewish presence was in Latgalia. In 17 century mass migration of Jews in Latvia took place because of bloody uprising led by Ukranian cossack Bogdan Chmelmnitsky. Cossacks massacred hundreds of Jews in Ukraine, South Poland and Lithuania. Those who migrated were refugees from Ukraine. In 18 century 5000 Jews lived in Latgalia where they established their self-governments qahals. They could settle minor offences and cast taxes.

After Latgalia was added to Russia all Jews were made to move to cities. Russian laws harmed Jews by forcing them to move to Southern Russia and make Jewish man to enter army from 12 years. They could leave army only when they reach 25 years. It was done to convert Jews to Orthodox Christianity. Jews tried to escape army by hiding and bribing army officials. To prevent this government banned qahals in 1844. Despite this Jews kept their religion. A popular among Latgalian Jews was a Hasidic movement that offered a more positive way of practicing Judaism. Jews had large families and in 1897 there were 64239 Jews in Latgalia. The main Latgalian city Dvinsk (Daugavpils) had 50% Jewish population while Latvians were minority. Many other Latgalian cities had a Jewish majority.

Because of tough policies met by Czar Alexander III revolutionary movements were popular among Jews. In 1898 a Jewish Marxist party Bund was founded and operated in Daugavpils. During the revolution of 1905 Jews were active in the revolutionary movement. After the defeat of the revolution they were forced to emigrate to US and Canada. Because of first Zionist sentiments some left Latgalia for Palestine.

In Riga and Vidzeme even after the collapse of Livonia Jews was forbidden to enter. Riga town council however allowed Jewish traders to enter Riga for a small period of time. They were allowed to live in a special building outside city walls. After Riga was captured by the Russians the wartime Governor Alexander Menshikov allowed the family of Hirch Israel to live in Riga. Others were allowed to live outside the city walls in a Moscow suburb. In 1727 Empress Katrina II issued to expel Jews from Riga but because of resistance from Germany and Netherlands such step was never taken. There were 60 Jews living Riga at that time.

However in 1742 Empress Elizabeth Petrovna ordered to expel Jews from Riga and despite the resistance of town council the order was met. Things changed when empress Katrina II allowed Jews to come back. 36 Jews from Germany entered Riga but were forced to live outside the city wall. In 1780 the first synagogue was built in Riga. In 1784-1785 many Jews came from Courland city Sloka to Riga. Sloka was added to Vidzeme province. Sloka Jews could live in Riga for 6 weeks. In 1811 736 Jews lived in Riga a 429 of them came from Sloka.  When Napoleons army invaded Latvian territory they were deported as “unchecked foreigners” but after Napoleons retreat were allowed to come back.

In 1840 the first Jewish state school was opened in Riga. Because of rapid industrial growth more Jews came to Riga from Poland, Lithuania and Belarus.  In 1871 the Large Horal Synagogue was built-in Riga. Also many other synagogues were built in Riga most notably in Old city district in 1905. In 1897 21963 Jews lived in Riga.

Because of the rise of antisemitism in Russia and the pogroms that happened there Jewish nationalism sparked in Riga. In 1890 Zionist group was founded in Riga. Also Marxist Bund operated in Riga that had close ties with the Latvian Social Democratic party. Jews took place in armed attack on Riga Central Prison and other revolutionary activities. In 1906 a right-wing Jew founded Jewish constitutional democratic party led by Paul Minz. In 1907 Jews opened newspaper “National Zeitung” written in Yiddish. Because of First World War about 11 000 left Riga for Russia.

In Vidzeme Jews came only in the end of 19 century because of strict laws that allowed to arrest Jew if he comes near Cesis. Before the war Vidzeme was inhabited by 6000 Jews.

New era for Latvian Jews came in 1918 when the Latvian Republic was proclaimed. New state granted equal rights for all minorities. On December 8 1919 Jews were allowed to have school autonomy. However at first, Jews did not believe that the Latvian state could properly function. Only Jewish National Democratic party sent Izak Rabinovich  to represent the Latvian Peoples Council. About 100 Jews joined the German Landesver army. Leftist Jews supported the Latvian Soviet Government led by Peteris Stucka. But the soviets harmed many wealthy Jews and pursued Zionists.

After Latvian victory of Cesis in 1919 democratic Jews supported Latvian government. Paul Minz became State Controller. 14 Jews took part in Peoples Council. More than 1000 Jews took part in the war for independence on the ranks of Latvian army. 4 Jews were decorated with Order of Lachplesis, 11 received the Order of Three Stars.  50 Jews died in action.

Democratic laws allowed Jews to have Latvian citizenship. In 1935 92,46% Jews were citizens of Latvia. After the war 95000 Jews lived in Latvia. For the first time Jews had unrestricted civil rights to participate in politics and the economy. 60% of Latvian bank capital belonged to six Jewish banks. I. Friedman and Doctor B. Zivs were finance advisors that helped to establish national value- Lats. 20, 2% of industrial companies belonged to Jews. Jews also owned 28, 5% of shops and 36% of stock companies. Despite the fact that almost 40% taxpayers were Jews a large of part of poor people was Jews, especially in Latgalia.

Leader of Latvian Jewry Mordehai Dubin

Jews were active in politics.  The most prominent Jewish politician was Mordehai Dubin who led the religious Orthodox party Agudat Israel party. He took part in all Latvian Parliaments and had a large influence among Latvian Jewry. Dubin fanatically defended the rights of every Latvian Jew. His greatest effort was rescue of famous Hasidic “Lubavicher” Rebbe Yosef Shneersonh from Soviet imprisonment and Nazis in Poland. He also helped thousands of German and Austrian Jews to escape Nazi repressions. He had close friendship with Karlis Ulmanis and achieved high prominence during the Ulmanis dictatorship. Also Mordehai Nurok a religious Zionist was presented in all parliaments. Zionists were active in Latvia. Maxis Lazerson led leftist Zionist party Ciere-Cion. Right wing Jewish Revisionists led by famous Zeev Zhabotinsky were active in Latvia. Militant Zionist organizations Betar and Brit Trumpeldoor were core for future army of Israel.  About 4500 Jews left Latvia for Palestine.

Visible Jewish presence in the Latvian economy sparked minor rise of antisemitism among Latvians. In 1920 Jews were attacked by hooligans in Riga parks. In 1922 Jewish students in the Latvian University were attacked by antisemitic study mates. In 1922-1925 a national-radical organization Latvian National Club sparked antisemitic propaganda. After members of the club unintentionally killed young Jewish social democrat, the club was banned. In the thirties a national-radical party “Thunder-cross” made some attacks on Jews. It was banned by Ulmanis regime. Antisemitic remarks were common among Latvian press however antisemitism never reached a critical point. After Ulmanis took power by coup antisemitism was officially banned, but the Ulmanis government suppressed many Jewish organizations and made limitations on school autonomy. Ulmanis was friendly to Orthodox Jews and Zionists but repressed Jewish leftists. Because that some of them started to support communist party that was illegal in Latvia. Ulmanis also tried to suppress the Jewish presence in the economy but Jewish businessmen mostly kept their place in company director seats.

Soviet occupation in 1940 was celebrated by leftist Jews. Many Jews took place in  June 17 Riots when Soviet tanks entered Riga. The people that came to greet the tanks eventually started a biggest riot in Latvian history. However, the majority of rioters were actually local Russians. Jews took place in occupation regime and took responsible seats. Among them Alfon Novik and Simon Shustin were part of the local NKVD that organized deportation of  June 14 1941. However, the Jewish presence in Soviet government has been exaggerated, only a small number of Jews took most important offices. Many of them were not locals, but from Russia that came along with the Soviets. Jews hoped that Stalin’s regime will be friendlier to Jews than Hitler’s but on June 14 1941 1200-1300 Jews were deported to Siberia.

Memorial Site for killed Jews in Bikernieki forest Riga 1941

On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Invaders planed to exterminate all Jews in Soviet Union. In Latvia the extermination was led by SS brigadierfurer Walter Staleker. The director of German SD Reinhard Heydrich ordered to use antisemitic Latvians in killings to make look like it was done only by them. The Germans gathered 200 Latvian emigrants with antisemitic notions to make contact with locals. The Germans already had a list of 700 Latvians that needed to take part in the operation.

About 16000 Jews escaped Nazi occupation.  Many Jews did not know about Nazi intentions and stayed. First Jews were killed on  June 24 in city of Grobina in Courland. After all Latvia was occupied by Nazis, the killings were done in all Jewish inhabited places. They were done by SS einzac-groups and local self defense units. Latvian shooters were strictly controlled by German authorities. Most notorious Latvian unit was Arajs commando led by Viktors Arajs. Large killings took place in Riga and Liepaja. Synagogues were burned in all Latvia sometimes with people inside. In July 1941  Germans ordered to build Ghetto in Riga to enslave those Jews that were still alive. In September Heinrich Himler ordered to bring Jews from Germany to Latvia to destroy them. On November 30 2600 Jews were killed in a forest of Rumbula in Riga.

73000 Latvian Jews were destroyed in Latvia. After the return of Soviet occupation 14000 Jews returned to Latvia. Soviet regime suppressed the Jewish national movement. Jewish schools and organizations were banned the use of Yiddish was disliked. Many Jews came along Soviet immigrants that entered Latvia during Soviet occupation.  They spoke only Russian and had little connection with Latvian Jewry. However many among them were well-educated and took part in the Soviet elite.

Soviet government was also antisemitic. In the 1949 campaign against cosmopolitanism hit Latvian Jewish intelligence, many writers, artists and scientists were arrested.  In 1953 “Doctors Plot” triggered massive antisemitic campaign. Leaflets saying “Beat the Jew!” was found in Jurmala. Many historians say that Stalin ordered massive deportation of Jews to Siberia. There are documents that reveal that also Latvian Jews were intended for deportation.  However his death in 1953 cancelled these plans and campaign against Jews were halted. However throughout the Soviet Era Soviet government was generally hostile to Jews. In seventies campaign against Zionism sparked waves of antisemitism.  Publications describing the Zionist conspiracy were published in masses. Holocaust studies were excluded from academic fields and remembering the Holocaust was illegal.

Jews resisted by organizing underground Zionist organizations helping Jews to leave the Soviet Union. 400 Latvian Jews illegally left the Soviet Union in 1945-1946 Religious activity was also underground and repressed by the KGB. Israel victory in Six Day War 1967 sparked rise the of Jewish national awakening. A 40% of demands to leave the Soviet Union for Israel came from Latvia. Because of foreign attention Soviets were forced to allow Jews to leave. 16000 Jews left Latvia to Israel and other Western countries. In 1989 22900 Jews remained in Latvia.

Jewish community divided on the question of restoring Latvian independence. Jewish journalist Mavrik Vulfson was first to publicly call the events of 1940 as Soviet occupation in 1988. Jewish 1st congress supported Latvian Peoples Front and called for democracy. Latvian Jewish Culture Society supported the fight for Latvian independence. However those Jews who came from Soviet Union supported the communist party and Interfront movement.

In 1989 Jewish High School was founded. In the stormy events in 1991 when independence movement was in danger Jewish organizations supported Latvian independence. After restoration of independence Jews once again had a free hand. 12000 Jews left Latvia for Israel. The Latvian Jewish community was founded in 1992. Also important Jewish organization is Shamir that is publishing books on Jewish history. Religious movement was restored in Riga and Daugavpils. In the times of independence Holocaust studies has taken an important role in Latvian historiography.

Jews have taken a role in Latvian politics. Most of them are taking part in left pro-Russian parties. Notable Jewish politicians are Boriss Cilevics from Harmony Center and Jakovs Pliners from PCTVL. Jews still have the role in Latvian economy; Valerie  Belokon is owner of English football club Blackpool. Kirov Lipman is president of the Latvian Hockey Federation and owner of pharmaceutical company Grindex. For a long time largest national Latvian bank Parex was owned by Valery Kargin and Victor Krasovitsky. The current leader of the Latvian Jewish Community is Arkādijs Suharenko. The center of Jewish community is located at Riga Skolas Street 6.

Antisemitism in modern Latvia has been mostly marginal. Antisemitic remarks have been visible in the radical nationalist press and internet. The synagogue in Riga has been bombed by unknown forces. There are unproven theory that the synagogue was bombed not by radicals but by members of organized crime, who were trying to disgrace the minister of interior to stop his crackdown on them. Relative rise of antisemitism has been caused by bankruptcy of Parex bank that triggered financial crisis in 2008. Bank was owned by Jewish bankers. Since 2006 discussions about the return or compensation of the lost property of the Jewish organizations, has been unsolved problem, sparking even governmental instability.

By the census 0f 2000 there were 10336 Jews living in Latvia. The last census in 2011 counted 6437 Latvian Jews.  . Most of them are in senior years, speaking in Russian and are atheistic. Original Latvian Jewry has been mostly extinct. However, because of the active support from Israel a new generation of Latvian Jews are emerging who are rediscovering their religious and national identity.   Jews have left notable signs in Latvian history and will not be forgotten.

Only working synagogue in Pietava Street in Old Riga

Selected Sources:

Mendels Bobe, S. Levenberg , I. Maor  (Eds.) (1975). The Jews in Latvia.  Tel Aviv: Assoc. of Latv. a.

Dribins, Leo. (2002) Ebreji Latvijā 2., papild. izd. Riga : Elpa.

Bobe, Mendels. (2006) Ebreji Latvijā. Riga: Shamir.

Stranga, Aivars. (2008) Ebreji Baltijā : no ienākšanas pirmsākumiem līdz holokaustam : 14. gadsimts – 1945. gads. Riga: LU žurnāla “Latvijas vēsture” fonds

Dribins, Leo. (2007) Antisemītisms un tā izpausmes Latvijā : vēstures atskats. Riga: Rīga : Latvijas Vēstures institūta apgāds.

Ezergailis, Andrievs, (1996) The Holocaust in Latvia, 1941-1944 : the missing center. Washington, DC : US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Barkahan, Menachem (Ed.) (2008) Extermination of the Jews in Latvia, 1941-1945. Riga : Society “Shamir”.


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