Friday, June 21, 2013

Jews of Latvia or Jews Outside the Pale

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                       

Latvia is a Baltic Republic. Courland, being close to Riga,  was made up of two sections called Piltene or Pilten and Courland.  The Livonian Knights took control of the region in the 12th Century made up of local tribes and they forbid Jews to settle in their kingdom.

 In 1561, however, Jews from East Prussia were allowed to live in Piltene but not in the rest of Courland.  Piltene Jews created great communities and were prominent traders and businessmen.   Piltene had valuable ports on the Baltic Sea and was owned by the head of the Church of Courland and was traded many times in ownership.

The first Jews arrived in Piltene about 1571 after the Bishop sold the land to the King of Poland who then gave it to his brother, the Duke Magnuss von Holstein.  Piltene became a sort of island within the province of Courland which led to many military conflicts until Poland bought it in 1585.   Jews have lived in Courland from the 16th century.  In the 17th century the Jews who came from Germany gradually settled in different areas of Kurzeme and Zemgale. They became the inhabitants of the German Duchy of Kurzeme,  the feudal territory of Poland. The Duchy often saw Jewish merchants from Poland and Lithuania. After the subjugation of Riga to Sweden, the Jews became the main mediators in trade with Poland-Lithuania. The dukes of Kurzeme were interested in the immigration of Jews, as they needed Jewish loans to carry out their business undertakings and Jewish skill in dealing with financial matters

Jews came to settle in the 1700's from Prussia and Lithuania.  Latvia had a war that lasted from 1700 to 1721 which decimated their population.  .Courland Jews were treated well until 1713 when they were expelled form the province.  In 1717 every Jew was forced to pay an annual tax of 2 talers, and then it was doubled in 1719. The Jews then made a deal with the duchy which allowed them to live there for the price of 400 talers.  This lasted until 1760 when  the duchy forced the Jews out of the province.   From 1727 to 1738, the government ordered the expulsion of the Jews, but never carried it out entirely.  Jews were labeled as foreigners and faced persecution, especially from competing merchants and craftsmen.

2,000 Jews of Piltene lived there  in 1795 when it was annexed to Russia. At the time, there were 4,581 Jewish males in Courland.  By 1799, the Russian Emperor Paul gave the Jews of Courland full Russian citizenship, but they had to pay double taxes.  They took part in the government and integrated into German society.   Courland Jews identified with German Jewish culture and the majority spoke German.  A dialect of German called "Courland Yiddish" also developed.  

In 1835, Courland and Livland were excluded from being a part of the Pale of Settlement where Jews were forced to live and had been excluded from Russia.  Lithuania, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland  made up the Pale.  This was created by Catherine II in 1791.  The borders had been restricted by the oppressive "Statute Concerning the Jews" of 1835.  In the mid 1850's, despite restrictions on citizenship, Jews from the Pale managed to flee to Courland to escape suffering.

As a result of these restrictions, the May Laws were created in 1882 where Jews were excluded from rural areas inside the Pale as well.  This caused Jewish economic development to be severely damaged.  The Pale wasn't abolished until August 1915, and only legally in March 1917.  The population was 51,072, and on the eve of WWI, had climbed to 68,000.  No wonder there was an influx of Jewish immigrants to the USA.

During WWI, Jews were blamed for Russian military defeats, saying Jews had committed treason.  That was the same claim on Lt. Dryfuss in France.  The Jews were then expelled from western Courland in May 1915 and about 40,000 Jews were forced to leave the province.  By 1918, Courland was incorporated into the independent Republic of Latvia.  Some refugees and exiles returned.  In 1919, Latvia achieved independence and national minorities had autonomy until 1931. By 1925 there were only 22,548 Jews in the province.   The Jews were able to develop a Hebrew and Yiddish school system which was divided into Orthodox, Zionist and Yiddish trends.

Jews had also settled in Latgalia, the SW part of Latvia.  Their history is the same as Jews of Lithuania, Belorussia and the Polish kingdoms. " The first Jewish families arrived in Latgale in the 16th century as they fled the repressions of Ivan the Terrible's  troops. The families settled in the present-day Krāslava District. A considerable number of Jews immigrated to Latgale in the middle of the 17th century. They were refugees from the Ukraine and Belarus, where bloody massacres of Jews took place during the uprising headed by Bogdan Hmelnitsky. Polish authorities allowed the persecuted Jews to settle permanently in Latgale and to occupy themsel­ves with craftmanship, trade and money lending, and to become their tenants. According to approximate estimations, in the late 17th century Latgale might have had about 2000 permanent Jewish residents. Dau­gavpils and Krāslava experienced the development of Jewish communities."  Jews settled there in the early 17th century after severe pogroms in Poland from 1605 to 1639, and then again in 1648 to 1653.  These Jewish refugees spoke Yiddish.  At the end of the Polish rule in 1766, some 2,996 Jews lived in Latgalia.

 It was under Russian control in 1772.  Then,  5,000 Jews lived there, but by 1784, the number was reduced to 3,700.  Latgalia was divided in 1802 when the Vitebsk region became part of the Pale of Settlement.  Jews had to leave rural areas and live in cities or small shtetlach where they faced double taxes.  By 1847 the popultion had grown to 11,000.  They followed the Eastern European Orthodoxy tradition and were not as influenced by hashkala as the rest of the country.

In 1940 there were 85,000 mostly very poor Jews living here and then Russia overran Latvia and deported those belonging to the wealthy classes or intelligentsia to Northern Russia.  In 1941 Latvia was conquered by the Germans who established ghettos at Riga, Dvinsk, Libau,and other places and killed most all the Jews.

After the war, over 30,000 Jews returned to Latvia but about 1/3 of those immigrated to Israel.  The population in Latvia in 1989 was about 22,897 Jews.

Resource: The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia


  1. Thank you for this post. My grandfather was Latvian and I've been looking for information on Jewish roots in Latvia, particularly the beginnings there. It's a little hard to find anything in-depth. This was nice to read.

  2. Glad I could have helped. I am doing the same thing you are doing, searching out information about my ancestors.