Ilya Lensky: Jews were perceived as the least politically problematic minority in interwar Latvia

Ilya Lensky: Jews were perceived as the least politically problematic minority in interwar Latvia

During the interwar period, Latvia was the home of sizeable and vibrant Jewish community. Its members took active part in social, cultural and political life of the country. However, the Jewish community of Latvia was almost fully destroyed during the Holocaust. It never regained its pre-war social and cultural strength and capacities, being subjected to significant restrictions of the Soviet authorities. In his interview with the ICELDS, Ilya Lensky, director of the Riga-based Museum Jews in Latvia, analyzes Jewish life in interwar Latvia and answers why Jews were Latvia’s least politically problematic national minority.

ICELDS: What were the main characteristics of the Jewish community in interwar Latvia? How did it differ from the other Baltic States?

Ilya Lensky: As of 1920, the number of Jews in Latvia was below 80,000 people, that constituted 4.9 percent of the country’s population. This figure demonstrates an enormous decrease in comparison with some 170-180,000 Jews in Latvia in 1913. World War I brought to the Jewish community economic hardships and devastations of the towns and boroughs (shtetls) in the frontline zone due to warfare. It also generated a mass waves of refugees, both among Jews and other ethnic groups (about one third of Latvia’s population became internally displaced persons during WWI). The expulsion of some 30,000 Jews from the Courland Governorate in late April – early May 1915 was the most tragic event of the war for Latvia’s Jews with the heaviest consequences for the community. Most of the refugees and deportees never returned to Latvia.

In in pre-WWI era, the Jewish population was relatively equably distributed between Latvia’s regions. Daugavpils had the biggest Jewish community of about 55,000 in 1913, followed by Riga with 33,000 Jewish residents. In the interwar period, Riga became the absolutely dominant centre of Jewish life in Latvia. As of 1935, 43,000 of 93,000 Latvian Jews lived in the capital. The second major region was Latgale in the eastern part of the country. Most of the Latvian Jews were the second or third generation “migrants”, whose families moved to the territory of Latvia after 1860.

A specific feature of Latvia’s Jewish community was its relative multilingualism. Jews had the biggest percentage of people fluent in three or more languages. The 1920 population census recorded that Yiddish was the native language for 85 percent of Latvian Jews, followed by German and Russian with ten and five percent respectively. The Jewish communities of Riga and Liepāja were particularly influenced by the German culture. An important change of this period was the rapidly growing percentage of the Jewish people fluent in Latvian. It increased from 40 percent in 1920 to 82 percent in 1935.

The Jewish community was also relatively secular. As of 1939, only 17.6 percent of Latvian Jews were registered members of the Jewish religious congregations. The Jewish congregations were both in bigger cities (Riga and Daugavpils had more than 35 each) and smaller towns and boroughs. The construction of new synagogues continued until the summer of 1939. The influence of Zionists was significant and growing. Their organizations were numerous and active. However, the Zionist movement in Latvia never reached the extent of that in the neighbouring Lithuania. During the twenty years of Latvia’s interwar independence, only about 4,500 Jews moved to Palestine. Compared to Estonia, Latvia’s Jewish community was much more economically diverse. Most Jews were lower- or middle-class entrepreneurs. However, as of 1935, about 10 percent of the Jews were registered as people with no source of income, being supported by the charitable organizations.

ICELDS: What guarantees pertinent to self-organization did the Latvian Republic provide to its citizens of the Jewish ethnicity and how did the Jews participate in public life of the country in the interwar period?

IL: The period between 1918-27 could be characterized as the time, when Latvia’s Jewish community tried to define its demands pertinent to the rights for self-organization, autonomy, etc. It was important to define what should be left to the communities, what – to congregations, what – to individuals and what – to the state and municipalities. Despite the pressure of minority MPs, Latvia’s Parliament never introduced a full-scale national-cultural autonomy for minorities (Jews had it in Lithuania in 1920-24 and in Estonia in 1925-40). However, it still tried to address the needs of minorities, despite the objections of the nationalists.

Jewish school system was established in 1919, with a special sub-department at the Ministry of Education (the same also applied to other minorities). By 1929, there were 88 Jewish elementary schools (mostly in Yiddish and Hebrew). Most of them were managed by municipalities. There were also 18 secondary schools, most of them private. 82 percent of Jewish children attended Jewish schools. However, in the 1930s more and more Jewish children started attending Latvian schools, not only in towns with small Jewish communities, but also in Riga.

Religious activities, including the sale of kosher meat, were regulated by a series of bylaws of 1923-24. They largely preserved the structure of the Jewish congregations, instituted in the Russian Empire. In the cities with more than one congregation the city rabbi was elected, and authorities communicated with him directly. Despite numerous attempts, no central organization of the Jewish congregations or communities was created. Assembled in 1932, the pan-Latvian rabbinical conference had only minor impact on the Jewish life.

The Jewish representatives (first, socialists, later also liberals and conservatives) were invited to participate in Latvia’s National Council that proclaimed Latvia’s independence and functioned until 1920. As a part of the deal with national minorities, a prominent Jewish lawyer Paul Mintz was appointed State Controller in July 1919. He held the position through several government changes until June 1921, when the new government proclaimed itself “minority-free”. Ironically, the head of this government Zigfrīds Anna Meierovics was half-Jewish.

During the entire period of democracy, Jews were represented in Parliament. In the first 100-member Parliament, Jews were represented by six MPs, ranging from social-democratic Bund on the left to religious conservative Agudas Isroel on the right, with Zionists and liberals in-between. By 1931, the inner strife among Jewish parties and general decrease of support for the left-wing politicians led to the dwindling number of the Jewish MPs. Only three Jews were elected to the Parliament (two from Agudas Isroel and one from religious Zionist Mizrachi). The Jews were also extensively represented in politics at the level of municipalities. In several towns Jews were elected mayors and deputy mayors. On other hand, very few Jews held non-elective positions in the state administration. However, after the 1934 authoritarian coup they were effectively dismissed.

ICELDS: How could you assess the relationship of Jews with other major ethnic communities in Latvia? How high was the level of anti-Semitism in the country?

IL: Generally the Jews were perceived as the least politically problematic minority, as there were no “Jewish” territorial claims. Still, the Latvian-Jewish relations were not bright and shiny. Although there were no Jewish pogroms in Latvia during the Independence War (1918-20), there were still cases of attacks on Jewish businesses by the soldiers. However, this practice was soon stopped by the intervention of the officers and the Minister of Interior. In December 1922, there were attacks on the Jewish students at the University of Latvia by the members of ultra-right groups (the Latvian National Club and student fraternities). They demanded the introduction of the numerus clausus at the University, although the percentage of the Jewish students was decreasing. Among the accusations against the Jewish students, there were alleged evasion of conscription during the Independence War, preference for professors, teaching in German or Russian, and heavy over-representation at certain departments, especially at the Departments of medicine, mechanics and chemistry. After the 1934 coup, the access of Jews to these departments was unofficially, but effectively limited. Accusation of conspiring with other minorities and social democrats against Latvia was a popular anti-Semitic trope throughout the entire period in question.

Both during the democratic era and after the 1934 authoritarian coup, the most radically anti-Semitic organizations (the Latvian National Club, the Ugunskrusts (Fire Cross), and the Pērkonkrusts (Thunder Cross)) were pressured and subsequently closed by the authorities. At the same time, somewhat more “respectable” political parties – the National Alliance or the Christian National Union – functioned without problems until 1934, when all political parties were banned in Latvia. After 1934, the members of the Pērkonkrusts were fired from their positions, and about 200 out of 800 were imprisoned, including their leader, Gustavs Celmiņš, who after serving a prison term was exiled from Latvia and ended up in Nazi Germany. A possible success of the Pērkonkrusts at the parliamentary elections of 1934 (that never happened) was one of the pretexts for the Prime Minister Kārlis Ulmanis to organize the coup.

During the period of authoritarianism, explicit anti-Semitism was effectively banned and almost no anti-Semitic publications appeared. On other hand, one of the main slogans of the regime was “Latvia for Latvians”, combined with the spread of humiliating attitudes towards the minorities in the press. After 1937, many Jewish (and also German) businessmen were pressured to sell their enterprises to the government, and the Laima chocolate factory was the best known case. There were ideas to pass some other laws, which could have mostly affected Jews. However, this never happened due to the Soviet invasion and occupation in 1940.

The relations with the Russian minority generally were good and a number of prominent Jewish intellectuals were also active in Russian cultural life. The major Russian-language newspaper Segodnja not only had Jewish owners and many journalists, but also extensively covered particular events in the Latvian Jewish community, as well as in Palestine and the Zionist movement in general. On the other hand, there was a conservative segment of the Russian community, including Orthodox Archbishop and an MP Ioann (Pommer), that voiced certain anti-Semitic tendencies.

The Jews of Riga and Liepāja traditionally had close ties with the German minority, and many Jewish kids attended German municipal and private schools. In some of these schools they even constituted the majority of pupils. Situation worsened significantly with the rise of pro-Nazi sentiment among Baltic Germans, which became prevalent after 1933. However, some of the Baltic German intellectuals were still friendly towards the Jews. For example, Paul Schiemann, former MP and former editor of the leading liberal newspaper Rigasche Rundschau was hiding Jewish woman Valentīna Freimane (who later became a prominent film critic and memoirist) during the Holocaust.

ICELDS: What were the consequences of the Holocaust for the Jewish community in Latvia and Latvia’s society in general?

IL: The history of the Holocaust in Latvia is quite well studied. However, its impact on the Latvian society is still very far from being fully researched and comprehended. It is estimated, that approximately 92,000 Jews lived in Latvia on the eve of the Holocaust. On 17 June 1940, Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union. On 5 August, it was annexed and incorporated into the USSR. Immediately after the invasion most of the Jewish and non-Jewish public organizations were liquidated, schools were mostly closed. The new authorities initially established two Yiddish periodicals, but they proved to be short-lived. During the first year of occupation (from June 1940 to June 1941) up to 2,000 Jews were arrested and imprisoned, including 1,789 on 14 June 1941. Many of them were put on trial and sentenced to death while already in eternal exile.

With the beginning of the Nazi invasion, probably some 15-16,000 Jews managed to escape to the East. However, not all of them succeeded, as until 29 June 1941, the border between Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic and the “old” USSR was still functioning. It is estimated that some 74,000 to 75,000 Jews stayed in Nazi-occupied Latvia. Among them, only up to 600 survived the Holocaust on the territory of Latvia and between 1,200 and 2,000 – in concentration camps in Poland and Germany.

After the war, the patterns of Jewish life in Latvia completely changed. In most of the localities the Jewish communities were never re-established. In the late 1940s, there were officially two Jewish congregations in Riga (one of them was Chabad hasidim), and five in the rest of Latvia. Several other congregations functioned without registration and most of them disappeared by the mid-1950s, as people moved to bigger cities. There is no reliable data on the number of Jewish population in Latvia in the first post-Holocaust years. In 1949, the authorities estimated the number of Jews in Riga as approximately 22,000. The first post-war population census (1959) counted about 36,600 Jews (1.8 percent of the population) in Latvia, with some 30,000 of them living in Riga. Partially, these Jews were recent migrants from other parts of the Soviet Union.

Cultural development also could not be compared with the pre-Holocaust era. No Jewish schools were re-established, no books and periodicals were published. In 1950, a number of prominent Riga Jewish intellectuals were arrested, being labelled as “Jewish bourgeois nationalists”. The usage of Yiddish was declining rapidly, and probably the crackdown of the last remnants of Jewish cultural life in the USSR in 1949-50 could be regarded as a sort of point of no return. The 1959 population census indicated that only 48 percent of Jews claimed Yiddish to be their native language. In 1945-48, the “Jewish Concert Brigade” was affiliated with the Philharmonics. It performed not only music, but also drama. The attempts to establish the Jewish choir in 1957 were initially successful, but this initiative was finally curtailed by the authorities in 1963. By that moment, a new generation of cultural activists grew. These people were influenced by the Zionist ideas that made Riga a prominent centre of Jewish national movement in the Soviet Union.

Interview conducted by Dr. Kiryl Kascian

Image: Building of the Jewish Club in Riga (architect Paul Mandelstamm, 1913-22) which currently houses the Riga Jewish Community and the Museum Jews in Latvia (Source: Segodnja, 28 November 1925).

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