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zieds1mazs.gif (257 bytes) Jewish minority in Latvia in the 18th and 19th centuries


This is a paper of Gvido Straube about the history of Jews in Latvia. The paper was published in an English language magazine Humanities and Social Sciences. Latvia. 1994, 2 (3). pp. 22-32. The copyright holder is the publisher - University of Latvia. Academic network LATNET has a letter of the chief-editor Prof. Viktors Ivbulis with permission to LATNET to publish any texts of the magazine on the Internet.

The paper is reproduced as it is in the magazine. The English translation of the original text speaks about Hebrews in Latvia, which sounds quite strange for me, but it is easy to explain by the desire to demonstrate that in the original the standard non-offensive word for Jews - ebrejs, that linguistically correspond to the English word Hebrew, was used.


The text of the paper:


Gvido Straube

Some reports about the Hebrew minority in Latvia in the 18th and 19th centuries . in Humanities and Social Sciences. Latvia. 1994, 2 (3). pp. 22-32


It is still difficult today to precisely determine the first moment at which Hebrews arrived in Latvia. Similarly, we cannot state with certainty whether they were here during the age of the Livonian state, but when the confederacy collapsed and had its lands included in the territory of the still-mighty Polish-Lithuanian union, agreements were signed which stated that the Hebrews had no right to conduct business or trade or even to live in the territory of the former Livonian state. This statement does not directly testify to the presence of Hebrews in the area at the time, but neither does it rule out the possibility that Hebrews were present in the area covered by the agreements. It is difficult to say to what extent these regulations were observed or violated, but as far as the 18th century is concerned, it is certain that the agreements were observed only selectively and that the century, known in history as the Age of Enlightenment, found a definite community of Hebrews in what is now the territory of Latvia (primarily in the regions of Kurzeme, Zemgale and Latgale).

A particularly benevolent attitude toward the Hebrews could be found in the Duchy of Courland and Semgalia. In fact, a paradoxical situation developed there: based on positions which had been taken concerning the Hebrew question in the 17th century, the administrative structures of the duchy, as well as the landed gentry in its landtags spent much of the late 17th century, as well as most of the 18th century, debating the matter of Hebrew status in their area and demanding strict observance of the earlier agreements. On the otherhand, at the same time, these demands were widely flouted, and nowhere more so than on the estates of those noblemen for whom the presence of the Hebrews was advantageous. Thus in the years 1692, 1717, 1727, 1728, 1733, 1739, 1746 and 1754 the landtag decided to expel the Hebrews /1/, which implied that there were some Hebrews in the duchy to he expelled. It is significant that when Duke Friedrich Wilhelm took the throne of the duchy, and his powers were, because the duke himself was underage, wielded by Prince-Regent Ferdinand (1698-1710), Ferdinand received a package of complaints from the gentry which contained 54 separate points, including the complaint that the dukes were not obeying the decisions of the landtag concerning expulsion of the Hebrews. The true ignorer of these provisions, however, was the gentry itself. Moreover, the Hebrews enjoyed the openly declared sympathies of rural and urban residents, and the nobility often offered its protection to them. In 1772, the nobleman Ziegenhorn, writing of $576 of the Courland statutes, noted bitterly that there had never been a violation of the law comparable to the disobedience of the rules concerning the Hebrew minority /2/.

In the 1770s, the renowned Russian czarina Catherine II evidenced interest in the Hebrews of Courland. She insisted on their expulsion from the duchy and even offered the aid of her armed forces for this purpose /3/. But this suggestion from the neighboring country's ruler also met with displeasure from the gentry, and the situation did not change as a result.

The first institution to attempt legitimization of the Hebrews was the bishopric of Piltene. In 1783, the landtag of the bishopric adopted a decision granting the Hebrews the right to freely settle on the bishopric's territory and to engage in business and trade in one specific location, the town of Aizpute.

In the Duchy of Courland and Semgalia itself, the landtag made several attempts (in 1778, 1780 and 1794) to settle the difficult problem, but it could never find a solution which satisfied everyone. Only after the duchy collapsed and the territories of Courland and Semgalia were incorporated into the Russian Empire {in 1795) did the presence of the Hebrews become legalized and subjected to special legal norms. On March 22, 1799, a ruling by the Russian Senate granted citizenship rights to the Hebrews living in the Courland region. But on December 20, 1804, an order was issued which forbade the Hebrews from living outside the region's cities. The Russian government was unhappy that representatives of the minority were engaging,in such rural pursuits as innkeeping and hostelry, as well as renting of liquor stills, and that they were occupying entire regions in the border areas of the country and engaging in smuggling while there /4/. The result of the order was a fundamental alteration in the living conditions and labor activities of the Hebrew minority in Kurzeme, but the hopes which the new rule created among its authors were not fulfilled. The order of 1804 provided certain selfgovernance rights to the Hebrew minority. Existing law stated that only those Hebrews in the region could be declared legal who had earlier lived in the territory of the Duchy of Courland, the time of its existence having been a period during which the immigration of new Hebrews was banned. It seems, however, that this requirement was not observed. The 1797 census found that there were approximately 4,600 Hebrews in Courland, of whom 896 lived in the cities and 3,685 lived in the countryside /5/, but half a century later, in 1856, there were 23,605 Hebrews, with 5,322 resident in the countryside and 18,278 living in the cities /6/. The following table illustrates their city of residence:



 Accordingly, every 24th resident of the Courland region was a representative of the Hebrew minority, because the total population in mid-century was 537,855. Ten years later, an 1869 edition of the "Courland Statistical Almanac" reported the presence of 34,000 Hebrews in the region. It is significant that in the half century after 1795, the number of residents in the cities of Kurzeme and Zemgale doubled from 22,533 to 56,764 residents, and an undoubtedly significant role in this fact was played by the dislocation of the Hebrews from the country to the city in the early l9th century. Of the 5,722 people who lived in Bauska in the mid-l9th century, nearly half were Hebrews. In Jaunjelgava, a scant third of the city's 2,151 residents were non-Hebrews. Similar data were reported in Jēkabpils (3,080), Tukums (2,701), Grobiņa (1,163) and Piltene (1100). The rapid increase in the Hebrew population of the cities, however, had its negative aspects, as well. Competition among the Hebrews themselves grew, as did competition among various ethnic groups working in the same trades. As a result, joblessness was high. In order to battle against the Hebrew tradesmen, Christians in the communities convinced the authorities to ban, from June 16, 1813, the hiring of apprentices and trainees by Hebrew tradesmen /7/. At the same time, though, at the turn of the century it was precisely the Hebrews who had to pay the highest poll tax - 4.68 roubles per audit person - while city dwellers paid 2.55 roubles and city laborers paid 1.28 laborers. Farmers paid 2.60 roubles per 10 audit souls /8/.

One of the major areas in which Courland Hebrews worked through the end of the l8th century was the production of a grain-based liquor called "degvīns" (similar to vodka) and the closely related area of livestock feeding (a byproduct of the liquor production process could be used with good effect to feed livestock). The people working in these areas were primarily Hebrews. They had at one time gained legal rights to live in Poland and, using these rights, had spread their activities into other territories as well. Hebrews became overseers or administrators of gentry estates in Courland, even though this was not officially possible. In the first half of the l9th century there were no cases in which a crown estate was sub-leased to a Hebrew, because they were banned from leasing land. But on October 25, 1826, the governor general of the Baltic, Marquis Pauluchi, wrote to the governor of Courland, Hahn, that "contracts of purchasing, mortgaging or leasing estates are signed with the name of some Christian ... but he frequently has secret financial arrangements with Hebrews, who govern the estate in his name" /9/. In fact, in 1833 Hebrews, working as liquor producers and livestock farm lessees, were overseeing several estates in Courland.

The field of alcohol production enjoyed a boom in the second half of the 18th century, and this made the previously mentioned, silent hope of Ziegenhorn that one day the Hebrews would after all be banished from Courland, totally unrealistic. The blossoming of this industry was closely associated with another area of business in which Courlandian Hebrews were actively involved namely, innkeeping and hostelry. These institutions, too, enjoyed great success in those days, and the owners of most of these facilities were Courlandian Hebrews. The exception to this rule concerned inns located at the sides of major thoroughfares. Hebrews were barred from owning such facilities, and the barman could only be a Christian. The writer E. von Rechenberg-Linten has clearly and simply characterized the true situation: in the Piltene region at the beginning of the l9th century, there were seven inns along a stretch of road covering 7 verstis (verste - an old Latvian distance measure equivalent to approximately 10 kilometers). Among them, only two were owned by non Hebrews, while five were owned by Hebrews. Thanks to the reserved attitude Russia's government took toward the Hebrew minority, but the mid-19th century the situation had changed considerably. Of the seven inns mentioned above, only three were still in existence to offer food, drink and rest to the traveler, and, in accordance with Russian law, only Christians held title to these facilities /10/. Rechenberg-Linten also had interesting things to say about relations between Hebrew innkeepers and Latvian farmers: around the end of the l8th and the beginning of the l9th centuries, relations between Latvian farmers and German noblemen worsened and, if during the reign of the dukes of Courland patriarchal relations had been the norm where the view held sway that the well-being of the nobleman was closely associated with the living conditions of his farmers, then after 1795 this no longer seemed an attractive option among many noblemen who strove to increase their own income while permitting the deterioration of their farmers' standard of living. Given this situation, many farmers no longer accepted the gentry's invitations to various celebrations, choosing instead to spend time in the Hebrew-owned inns /11/.

In the first half of the l9th century there was a rapid movement of Hebrews from rural to urban areas which generally was with the blessing of the czar's administration. This movement was partly due to the fact that alcohol production had dropped, thanks somewhat to changes in grain prices. The grain~based alcohol which had for several centuries been the mainstay of rural Latvian drinking habits, especially among farmers, was successfully displaced by beer, which had gradually come to be of better quality and thus in higher demand. Moreover, it was cheaper. Other historical sources attribute the movement of the Hebrews to the processes of the early 19th century which set the farmers free from obligations to their estates /12/.

Not all Hebrews who had at one time engaged in liquor production hastened to the Courlandian and Semgalian cities after these changes and especially after the order of 1804. A certain number of Hebrews stayed in rural areas, changing only the direction of their commercial activity. One of the more popular areas of business, one which could ensure a family's survival and also permit it to stay in the countryside, was the sale of dairy products. Courlandian and Semgalian farmers generally sold fresh milk to the Hebrews for two or three silver kopecks per stops (a measure of volume which equals 1.275 liters). Documentation from the time indicates that this deal left both sides satisfied, because the farmer was saved the trouble of processing the milk into butter and cheese and then carting it to the nearest town market to sell it. The Hebrew milk seller himself collected the milk from farms and sold it, and he processed some of what was left over into butter and cheese and provided these goods to the towns.

Because a majority of livestock feeding operations in Courland were in the hands of the Hebrews until the end of the 18th century (this due to their basic reliance on liquor stills), Hebrews were also primary suppliers of fresh meat, and they performed the tasks of local butchers throughout the year. This also let them collect livestock bones which were sent to port cities, from where they were shipped to England for processing.

The gentry of Courland was famous for its fanatical love of horses. The entrepreneurial spirit of the local Hebrews found business opportunities in this fact, as well, and some Hebrews turned to horsekeeping. During the l8th century and early l9th century, the Hebrews focused almost entirely on expensive, highly bred riding horses, for which noblemen were often willing to pay a very handsome price. This field, however, suffered a downswing in the mid-l9th century, and so Hebrew sellers took to work horses instead, riding around the estates and smaller farms to buy, sell and trade such animals.

Another leisure activity of the gentry led to another business opportunity for the Hebrews - providing hunting dogs. Even though Rechenberg-Linten wrote that kennel operations and the breeding of dogs for the hunt were alien and non-typical operations for the Hebrews, the Hebrews themselves found these to be terrific opportunities for profit, and they became actively involved in the field /13/.

The success of Courland's annual fairs was also largely dependent on the Hebrew minority. If fair organizers made the mistake of scheduling their events for one of the Jewish religious holidays, then nary a Hebrew tradesman attended the fair, and it became a lifeless event at which sales of goods, livestock and horses were anemic, and the number of agreements reached by buyers and sellers was minimal.

Besides the areas of business listed above, the Hebrews were also no strangers to various trades. They usually operated as wandering tradesmen in rural areas, traveling from one estate to the next, offering their skills and abilities. Because these skills were usually cheap and thus not particularly profitable, no Christians deigned to participate in them. Accordingly, the Hebrews enjoyed a Courland-wide monopoly in several areas of trade. Had it not been for the Hebrews, there would have been few undamaged windows in Courland and Semgalia, because only they were skilled at changing broken windowpanes. They repaired brass and zinc kitchen dishes and roof gutters, they painted with oil paints and did a host of other small jobs. These Hebrew activities transcended their traditional geographic boundaries, and they could be found in the neighboring areas of Vidzeme and even Estonia, plying their trades of glasswork, painting and small metal jobs from estate to farm and from farm to estate.

After 1787 Hebrews were allowed to join the third guild, and as members of this trading organization they could travel around rural areas selling various goods. For many people in remote rural areas, these traveling flea markets were the only chance to obtain a variety of goods. Even before 1787, and especially afterward, the Hebrews waged a unique form of commerce in the countryside, examining supply and demand issues and then acting as middlemen in purchase and sale of various goods. They traveled from one farm to another, stopping by at grain mills and inns, offering, selling, buying and trading. If one product or another did not find a quick sale in the immediate area, the Hebrew tradesman seldom suffered a financial loss, because he enjoyed the services of a wide commodities trade network which could find a buyer in some distant market. One of the greatest advantages held by the Hebrew tradesmen, and the reason why they successfully competed with local Christian tradesmen, was the relatively low level of profit with which they were satisfied. Rechenberg-Linten writes that it was precisely because of the Hebrew tradesmen who in Kurzeme and along the Lithuanian border bought hay, straw, linen, flax, grain, hemp, meat, livestock skins and other farm products, that a system of trading in rural areas was begun at all /14/. At the same time, representatives of the Hebrew minority controlled a majority of cloth and clothing sales, and local German tradesmen offered them only weak competition /15/.

The Hebrews of Courland and Semgalia offered another useful service to area residents: they played the role of counselor. They performed this service only for the nobility, and by the l8th century it was considered normal for a nobleman to have a Hebrew somewhere nearby - as the innkeeper or the liquor producer - whose recommendations were vitally important not just at times when contracts had to be signed with unknown Hebrews or other tradesmen, but also in conversations with neighbors and guests, because talk usually centered on horses, the number one topic of discourse in noble Courland of the day, and Hebrews were the most knowing about matters concerning horses.

Their presence was particularly useful when financial matters were settled. Before they extended credit, noblemen always consulted local Hebrews, because they always were well versed in the economic situation of one nobleman or another and could thus offer fairly safe advice concerning; the security of the loan /16/. The lady of the house, too, frequently utilized a Hebrew as her most trusted advisor in matters concerning the prices of various goods in markets near and far.

Their high level of mobility also made the Hebrews of Courland and Semgalia effective couriers of the latest news. For this reason they were eagerly awaited in the grandest palaces of the nobility, as well as in the simplest farmers' homes. Unquestionably, this was all due partly to the highly developed communicative skills and delicate sense of humor possessed by many Hebrews of the day. Even given the brutal manners, speech and jokes of the day, few were as forthcoming as the traveling Hebrews, who let others laugh at their expense, but who also "chuckled into their beards about the masters of the house or their guests" /17/.

Business was not always a secure or clean thing in the l9th century, and because the Hebrews were very active in Courland at the time, they not infrequently came into contact with the law. A great many documents concerning such matters rest in the Latvian State Historical Archive, in the extensive collection of the Baltic governors general. In 1819, for example, goods smuggled from Prussia were found at the home of the rabbi of Jelgava, Shac Kell /18/. A similar event took place the next year. A resident of Jaunpils, Israel Chaim, had put products into his warehouse before they had undergone customs procedures, and someone turned him in to the police. The hapless tradesman was arrested, but on the night of September 10, 1820, he demonstrated great agility in escaping from the Jelgava police station, even though it was being secured by a Wachtmeister and four soldiers /19/.

In the mid-l9th century, Rechenberg-Linten writes, the Hebrews of the Courland region began to participate in an area of business which was modern at the time - namely, construction. They undertook to build houses in the cities of Courland and Semgalia for several thousand silver roubles. Their own investment was no more than one tenth of their capital, and once construction was nearly completed, they either sold the house or else finished its construction themselves and rented the house out at a handsome profit /20/.

In Latgale, which until 1762 was under Polish governance and afterward was incorporated into the Russian Empire, the Hebrew minority enjoyed certain privileges. Their massive entry into Latgale began after the Northern War (1700-1721) and the epidemic of the bubonic plague which followed. Both of these tragedies took many lives, and as a result there was a serious shortage of workers in many areas. For this reason, a significant number of immigrants flooded into Latvia, including Latgale. A community of Hebrews was among these travelers, and it first settled in Latgale, moving into Kurzeme from there. The number of Hebrews in Latgale was so large that a Hebrew community center began to form, and there was even a Hebrew administrative structure (a kahala} in the city of Krāslava.

After Latgale was incorporated into Russia, the Hebrews were granted freedom of faith by a special declaration from czarina Catherine II. This act stands in crass contrast to her attitude toward the same minority in Courland at the same time. In 1784, a general census found that in Latgale there were 3,698 Hebrews - 1,540 in the Daugavpils region, 1,177 in the Rēzekne region, and 981 in the Ludza region /21/.

The most problematic was the presence of the Hebrews in Vidzeme and its largest city, Rīga. Hebrew tradesmen who arrived in Rīga to do business had the right to stay only at a special "Hebrew house", but in 1742 the Russian government banned Hebrews from visiting Rīga at all. This led to a negative effect for the city and Russian trade in general, because commercial activity dropped considerably. The enlightened Catherine II recognized this mistake and, in 1763, lifted the ban on Hebrew travel in the Vidzeme region. This situation lasted for a very brief time, however. In 1770, the Irish born and militarily inclined governor general of the Vidzeme region, Braun, ordered that all Hebrews must leave the city of Rīga within four weeks. Thanks to this intolerant and even hostile approach toward the Hebrews in Vidzeme, in 1834 there were only 532 representatives of the minority registered in Vidzeme, and most of them lived in Rīga.

Still, documentation found in the archives testifies that even in Vidzeme, despite negative moves on the part of the government, Hebrews were known, and there were many Vidzeme residents who happily turned to them for assistance. An interesting fact emerges from 1768, for example, when the owner of the Ērģeme estate, Ungern-Sternberg, tried to get back one of his farmers, Miķelis, who nine years earlier had fled to Poland. The baron had forgiven Miķelis and was calling for him to come back to his abandoned wife, Kača, who, it can be assumed, was sorrier at the absence of her husband than was his master. According to a dispassionate document in the archives, this piece of news was delivered to Miķelis with the assistance of "a well-known Hebrew" /22/.

Some Hebrews in Vidzeme (and elsewhere) did not want to come into conflict with the law too often, thus harming their economic activities, and thus chose to convert to another religion. In I823, for example, the consistory of Vidzeme approached government Minister A. Galicin to ask about a request from the Sloka clergyman Schmidt. He was reporting that a local resident named Abraham had belonged to the Hebrew community in Žagare (Lithuania) but because of his economic activities had been living in the Sloka area for more than four years. Now Abraham had decided to convert from Judaism to Christianity. The Sloka clergyman and the Vidzeme Lutheran consistory recommended that permission be granted for this conversion /23/. This was not the only incident of its type.

Thus it can be seen that among the three sections of Latvia - Courland/ Semgalia, Latgale and Vidzeme - there were fundamental differences in relation to the living and working conditions of the Hebrew minority. The most peculiar, but at the same time apparently the most sympathetic attitude was held in Kurzeme. What could have been the reason for this attitude, which essentially stood in opposition to the laws of the day? To a great extent it can be attributed to the truly active operations of the Hebrews and the truly worthy and often irreplaceable services which they provided to local farmers, noblemen and other regional residents. This helps to explain why the military structures of Kurzeme as far back as in the days of the duchy took on the role of protecting the Hebrew minority with tolerance and even sympathy, in spite of existing law - a situation which was not duplicated elsewhere in the Baltic region. In fact, the atypically tolerant attitude of the Courlandians, given the centuries old and strongly respected negative attitude toward the Hebrews which was prevalent elsewhere in Europe, earned them the sobriquet of "kings of the Jews" in one account /24/.





1. Dunsdorfs, E. Latvijas vēsture 1710-I800. Stockholm, I973, p. 297.
2. Rechenberg-Linten, E. von. Zustaende Kurlands im vorigen und diesem Jahrhundert. Mitau, 1858, p. 102.
3. Dunsdorfs, E., op. cit., p. 297.
4. Rechenberg-Linten, E. von., op. cit., pp. l30-131.
5. Dunsdorfs, p. 297.
6. Rechenberg-Linten, p. 127.
7. Strods, H. Kurzemes kroņa zemes un zemnieki 1795-1861. Rīga, 1987, p. 110
8. Ibid., p. 88.
9. Quoted in Strods, op. cit., p. 55.
10. Rechenberg-Linten, p. 103.
11. Ibid., p. 20.
12. Ibid., p. 106.
13. Ibid., p. 104.
14. Ibid., p. 104.
15. Ibid., p. 131.
16. Ibid., p. 138.
17. Ibid., p. 105.
18. Latvian State Historical Archive (LVVA), I.f.-l0.apr.-59.l.
19. Ibid., 68.l.
20. Rechenberg-Linten, p. 132.
21. Dunsdorfs, p. 298.
22. LVVA.-233.f.-l.apr.-884.l.-p. 347.
23. LVVA.-233.f.-l.apr.-29.1.-pp. 574-575.
24. Rechenberg-Linten, p. l06.