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Early History: The Origin of Jews in Latgale

The first Jews came to Latgale in the sixteenth century as they fled from Muscovy and the repression of Ivan the Terrible. The families settled in the present-day Kraslava district. When Latgale was acquired by Poland in 1562, the more favorable Polish laws for Jews took force in Latgale.

A larger number of Jews came to Latgale in the 1600Тs as refugees from Poland. That is a century later than in Kurzeme or Vidzeme. They fled mistreatment in Ukraine and Belorussia during the time of the uprising of Bogdan Hmelnicky. They set up communities in Krustpils, Daugavpils and Kraslava. These Jews spoke Yiddish, which had been widely used in Poland and were religiously Orthodox (much more so than the German Jews) and strictly observed the Jewish traditions.

Jews in Latgale worked as customs collectors on the countryТs borders and were merchants in cities and traders in the rural areas. Most of them worked in trades and crafts and small commerce although some worked in agriculture. By end of the 1600Тs Latgale had about 5000 Jews. In 1784 there were 3698 Jews registered as permanent residents.

In comparison to the Jews of Kurzeme those who came to Latgale were less educated people. They spoke a Polish-influenced Hebrew and were strict in their observance of religion in their traditional life. The cultural center of these Jews was in Vilna whose rabbis conducted the religious matters of LatgaleТs Jews.

In Latgale since Jews could not own land they concentrated on crafts, trade and commerce. Some were in agriculture. Jewish occupations included: tanners, tailors, blacksmiths, locksmiths, shoemakers, watchmakers, glaziers, bakers, carpenters, butchers, weavers, fullers, storekeepers, merchants, pharmacists, and doctors. More enterprising Jews ran inns and pubs, produced alcohol and made beer. Some Jews also made their living by distributing goods to remote rural areas as peddlers carrying their merchandise in a box or on their back or with a horse.

There were Jews who rented the estates of the Polish noblemen. These renters tried to run the estates rationally in order to earn good money. Peasants on these estates were more exploited. This caused dissatisfaction and even hatred of these Jews. The same issue occurred for Jewish money-lenders or creditors.

The situation of the local Jews was determined by their legal division into two classes: merchants and middle-class people. The former obtained the right to take part in the elections of city councils. In the late 18th century about one-half of the urban residents in Latgale were Jews. In Daugavpils, 1373 of the cityТs 2200 residents were Jews.

The decree issued by Catherine II in 1791 that restricted Jews to the Pale of Settlement affected Latgale in a peculiar way. The movement of Jews from rural areas to towns and villages was forcibly stimulated. The life of town-dwellers was particularly difficult.

A significant factor in the history of 19th century Latgale is the development of Jewish economic power where Jews were business owners, traders, moneylenders and even beer hall owners. But there were many Jews of modest means and many Jews who very quite poor.

19th Century

As of 1804 Jews residing in Latgale were restricted solely to cities and villages. The aim was to drive Jews out of farming and agricultural commerce in order to assist their Polish and Russian competitors. The Jews who were forced to live in the towns frequently found themselves in need because it was difficult to find work. They lived in cramped quarters, often fell ill and were at the times the poorest Jews in Latvia. But they endured all of these difficulties, and developed large families They maintained a strong religious practice and faith in their Jewish national identity, regarding it as a God-given duty.

In 1839 of 4313 inhabitants in Daugavpils city, 2111 were Jews. The city had 7 Jewish prayer houses.

Until 1844, in Latgale, the Jews had their own self-governing institutions, the kagali which collected taxes, maintained order, supervised observance of civil and religious law. In 1848 there were about 11,000 Jews in Latgale with 7,471 Jews in the Daugavpils district.

Latgale, as a part of the Vitebsk guberniya or province, was within the Pale of Settlement which is why it had more Jews than Courland or Livonia where Jews were forbidden from permanent residence. In the latter, they could stay for only a six-month period to conduct trade or commerce. In 1897 there were 47,832 Jews in Latgale. The total population of Jews in the Vitesbk guberniya was 240,000.

In middle of the 19th century there were about 15,000 to 20,000 Jews in Latgale but the numbers increased significantly to 64,256 in 1897. The Jewish population continued to increase until shortly before WWI when the number had grown to about 80,000. In prewar Latgale Jews were in the majority in every major city in Latgale and in many towns while the rural population was mostly Latvian. The war caused a general depopulation of Latvia and many of its inhabitants became refugees. The number of Jews declined significantly during the war.

Independent Latvia

In the first years of independent Latvia, Latgale had the largest concentration of Jews. In 1920 there were about 30,000 Jews in Latgale out of a total Jewish population of 79,368 in Latvia. But the population shift over two decades would result in Riga having the majority of Latvian Jews.

 

Of the largest towns in Latgale, Daugavpils, Rezekne and Kraslava all were heavily Jewish. In Daugavpils before the war 55% of its inhabitants were Jews. In 1920 11, 824 of the total 28,938 were Jews. The city had 30 sinagogues. Kraslava, the second largest town in the Daugavpils district, had a majority of Jews.

 

In 1925 there was still a high percentage of Jews in cities and towns. For example in Daugavpils (Dvinsk or Dunaburg) 40.8% of the inhabitants were Jewish while in Rezekne the figure was 41.5% and in Ludza 40.6 %.

 

By 1935 the number of Jews in Latgale had decreased to 27,974 Jew in Latgale (29.9%).

Cultural Autonomy

The most significant aspect of Jewish life in independent Latvia is that Jews had cultural autonomy. It was the only country in world with such an arrangement. Lithuania had a system with substantial differences.

Z. Michelson has noted: Уnowhere in the world was there a more impressive and far-reaching resurrection of the Hebrew language and culture between the two world warsФ like in the Baltic States (including Israel). He remarked that Уthe Jewish community in Latvia did not have conditions of a long-standing cultural network yet it contributed so much to the Hebrew cultural renaissance despite its size. This was largely due to the cultural autonomy accorded to it by independent LatviaФ1

One of best sources for the Jewish view of conditions for Jews in Latvia is the report (written in 1941 by Latvian Jews in America). It was submitted to the U.S. Department of State by the American Jewish Committee Research Institute. This report states: УThe Latvian constitutionЕestablished the equality of all citizens before the law without specifying details. When admitted into the League of Nations, Latvia pledged fair treatment of her minorities and lived up to her obligations.ФЕ Уreligious freedom never constituted a problem, either under the democratic rule or under the authoritarian regime established on May 15, 1934.Ф2

Revisionism

Latvia is considered by many to be the cradle of Revisionism. The youth group Betar was started there. In 1923 Vladimir Jabotinsky visited Riga, Daugavpils, Rezekne Ludza, and Liepaja. Jabotinsky was enthusiastic about his visit to the Baltic. In Riga he was greeted at the railway station by a large crowd and he was received enthusiastically by the university student academic society Hasmonaea (which was Zionist). He was impressed with conditions for Jews in Latvia describing it as an УoasisФ and he liked the young society that was evolving there. He also wrote later: Уwhen I was in Lithuania and Latvia I saw a young generation that is worth believing in. I will try to organize them for the cause.Ф He returned to Latvia in 1925 as part of his lecture tour of Eastern Europe.

Political Life

Hebrew parties were very effective in municipal elections. In Latgale Jewish candidates had the greatest success. In some cities such as Ludza and Rezekne Jewish figures held as much as 50% of the seats. Jews were the mayors of various towns in Latgale.

 


1Z. Michaeli (Z.Michelson), УJewish Cultural Autonomy and the Jewish School SystemФ in M. Bobe, Jews in Latvia, Tel Aviv, 1971. p. 186.

2 The American Jewish Committee, Research Institute on Peace and Post-war Problems, УJews in LatviaФ in Jewish Communities of Nazi-Occupied Europe, July 1944. US Department of State, Decimal File

 

 

Copyright Leonard Latkovski, Jr.
Copyright Latgale Research Center

Note: The information contained here may not be copied or reproduced without permission. For permission contact latkovski@hood.edu. Use of the material for citations or references is permissible


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