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