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Jews started to settle in the present territory of Latvia after 1561, when Latgale, in Eastern Latvia, fell under Polish rule, which continued for 200 years. Daugavpils (Dinaburg, Dvinsk), Rezekne (Rositten, Rezhitsa), Ludza (Lutsyn), and other townships (shtetl) in Latgale, such as Kraslava    (Kreslawka), Balvi, and Preili, became centers of settlement for Jewish artisans and traders. Settlement intensified after 1648, when many Jews settled here after fleeing the Cossack hordes of Borden Khmelnitsky, who conducted massacres in the southern regions of Volhynia and Podolia (the Ukraine). 

The first place of settlement for Jews in Kurland (Courland), in Western Latvia, was the district of Piltene, which for a time was subject directly to the king of Poland. Jewish settlers came from Lithuania and Prussia. In the Duchy of Kurland itself, conditions for Jews were much harsher, but Jewish communities formed in Jelgava (Mitau), Kuldiga (Goldingen), Aizpute (Hasenpoth), Tukums, Bauska, and elsewhere. 

In the eighteenth century, the entire region of present-day Latvia became part of the Tsarist Empire. Kurland and Latgale fell in the "Pale of Settlement." The tsars sought to keep Jews apart from the main bulk of the population, and so restricted Jewish residence to certain gubernias, or provinces, in the western part of the empire. Even within the Pale of Settlement, as this area was called, Jews could not buy land, were barred from certain professions, and so on. In the mid-nineteenth century the first Jews who engaged in trade in Riga, the capital of the gubernia of Livland (Vidzeme), formally registered as residents of Sloka (Schlock), In this little town and its environs, there were no restrictions on members of the Mosaic faith. Later, Jews were permitted to settle in Riga itself, mainly in the district to the southeast of the old city, the Moskauer Vorstadt, or Moscow suburb. That is where my father was born in 1896, after his parents arrived from northern Lithuania. 

A popular character in Latvian literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was "paunu zids", or traveling Jewish peddler with his bundles. He would visit Latvian farmsteads, buying flax and selling cloth, sewing needles, notions, and household articles. Jewish artisans, especially     tailors, were also welcome guests in Latvian farm homes. In the classic play Skroderdienas Silmacos (The tailors come to Silmachi), written in 1902 by Rudolfs Blaumanis, positively portrayed Jews are among the main characters. The play was and is one of the most popular pieces of Latvian theater, from tsarist times, through Latvia's independence between the world wars, to the present-day Russian occupation, and among Latvians abroad after 1945. Jews are also portrayed sympathetically in another of Blaumanis' plays, Trines greki (Trina's sins).

 One can name a number of Latvian prose writers whose works vividly portray the everyday life of Jews in rural Latvia: Apsisu Jekabs' "Zids iebraucis!" (The Jew has arrived!), Anna Brigadere's Tris Skroderi (Three tailors), Rudolfs Blaumanis' Trakais Izaks (Mad Isaac), Janis Poruks' Muzigais Zids (The eternal Jew), Ernests Birznieks-Upitis' Seskins (The polecat), Janis Jaunsudrabins' Ripkas lauliba (Ripka's wedding), and so on. Descriptions of Latvian-Jewish contact in urban settings are fewer. Notable is Janis Grizins' (Grikis') account of childhood memories in novel form Varnu ielas republika (The world of Varnu Street). Set in a typical working-class district in Riga, it sympathetically portrays, among other characters, the Jewish doctor who treats poor families free of charge. 

Latvian literature reflects the friendliness of the Latvians toward Jews and their curiosity about the latter's "exotic" ways. In 1938, the Logos Publishing House of Riga published H. Etkin's Yiddish anthology Jidn un lotvisn (Jews and Latvians), with an introduction by K. Tolman entitled "Jews in Latvian Literature." At the end of his essay, the author writes: "The Jewish figures that appear in Latvian literature are on the whole portrayed with quiet sympathy, even warmth. Latvian writers were not hostile to Jews; on the contrary, they were very friendly, adding them, like good     acquaintances, to their gallery of characters." This is in contrast to the attitude of the Baltic German landowners, a class that looked with contempt on the Jews, especially the deeply religious and poorly educated Jews in the small towns (see Jacob von Uexkiill, Niegeschaute Welten, Munich 1957, pp. 94-95). 

Here we reach the focal point of this chapter, the 1905 revolution in the Baltic provinces of the Russian Empire. Marxism had been introduced to Latvia directly from Germany, and the Latvian proletariat had virtually no contact with the Marxist groups in St. Petersburg, Moscow, or other Russian cities. Unrest broke out in St. Petersburg on January 22,1905, and was echoed two days later in Riga with the proclamation of a general strike. The strike was called by the Federative Committee, which consisted of representatives from the Latvian Social Democratic Workers' Party (LSDSP, from the Latvian name), founded in 1904, and the Jewish Social Democratic     organization "Bund," founded in 1897. One can say with confidence that Latvian Social Democrats and Jewish Bundists were close allies in leading the struggle for social reform, abolition of class privileges, a democratic constitution, and national autonomy -- territorial autonomy for Latvians,     cultural autonomy for Jews. Bund representative Leonid Korobotchkin and others were prominent revolutionary activists alongside several Latvians. The LSDSP and the Bund established "military organizations" with 500 members at the garrisons in Riga and Liepaja (Libau), which agitated among soldiers of the Russian army. The Bund played a leading role in revolutionary activity in Latgale, Eastern Latvia, especially in the center Daugavpils (Dvinsk), a railway junction town where many Jews lived.

 It must be noted that the Latvians fought not only against the tsarist autocracy, but also against the Baltic German landowners. This ethnic German class had kept its vast landholdings in the Baltic and its position of power and privilege within the Russian Empire. Agrarian reform, the breaking up of the large estates held by a few German families, was a major goal of the struggle. 

The 1905 revolution was followed by repression -- punitive expeditions, gallows, forced labor. Toward the end of 1905 and in early 1906, savage pogroms were organized in the western and southwestern parts of the Russian Empire, which claimed many Jewish lives. Latvians refused to join in these anti-Semitic actions. In the town of Ludza (Lutsyn) in Latgale, there was an incident in which local Latvian Catholic peasants prevented Russians from attacking the town's Jews. This was reported at the end of January 1906 by the newspaper Gaisma (Light), published in St. Petersburg in the Latgallian dialect: 

Shortly before Christmas, the Black Hundred [a right-wing Russian gang] set out to attack the   Jews in Ludza, to beat them up and plunder their shops. It is well known that no decent Latvian belongs to the Black Hundred. It had been decided to attack the Jews on a given day. Many of the Black Hundred showed up in Ludza, and by the end of the day, it appeared that the shedding of innocent blood was close at hand. Catholic Latvians from the surrounding area, having learned of this, came to Ludza in large numbers and stayed until late in the evening. They told members of the Black Hundred there would be no violence against the Jews, for Jews were people like everyone     else. More Latvians than Black Hundred members had arrived in Ludza, who soon understood there would be no fooling around with the Latvians. Having failed to achieve their objective, the Black Hundred cursed the Latvians and retreated to their dark comers. 

However, despite the repression, some measure of freedom had been won. In the Dumas, or parliaments, until 1917,the interests of the Baltic provinces were represented by both Latvians and Jews. Latvian representatives were Janis Cakste, later the first president of Latvia, Francis Trasuns, and others. Jewish representatives in the four Dumas from 1906 to 1917 were, respectively. Dr. Nissan Katzenelson, Jacob Shapiro, Lazar Nisselovitch, and Dr. Ezekiel Gurevitch, all from Kurland. This was a result of political coalitions established with the Latvians and some of the Germans in Kurland. 

The events of 1905 also had bloody repercussions in England, described by E.G. Clarke in his book Will-o'-the-Wisp: Peter the Painter and Anti-Tsarist Terrorists in Britain and Australia (Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1983). It concerns Latvian and Jewish revolutionaries -- anarchists, Social Revolutionaries, left-wing Social Democrats -- and their girlfriends, Jewish girls from Russia. Living in exile in London in 1910, Jekabs Peterss, Janis Jakle, Fricis Svars, Jacob Lepidus, Morris Stein, Sara Trassjonsky, Luba Milstein, and others founded a secret organization, Liesma (Flame). They resorted to armed robbery to finance political actions in the Baltic. When their attempts failed, they battled British police, killing several officers. 

That too was a form of Latvian-Jewish "comradeship in arms," albeit a peculiar one. One of the most fearless members of the group, who shot to death three British policemen, was Jekabs Peterss. After the Bolshevik coup in St. Petersburg, he became a close associate of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Cheka (forerunner of the KGB), and was counted among the greatly-feared Red "hatchet men." But that is another, no less dramatic story, to be told in the next chapter.

15 August 2020
25 Ав 5780

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В память о нашем любимом муже, отце и дедушке
Льве Эльевиче (Хайм Арье-Лейб бен Элья) Бешкине
родился 17 Марта (23 Адара) 1955 года
умер 15 Июня (19 Сивана) 2006 года