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zieds1mazs.gif (257 bytes) History of Jews in Courland

This is a paper of Tatjana .Aleksejewa about the history of Jews in Kurzeme [Kurland]. The paper was published in an English language magazine Humanities and Social Sciences. Latvia. 1994, 2 (3). pp. 4-21. The copyright holder is the publisher - University of Latvia. The Academic newtwork 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. As far as I know, the paper was a part of the doctoral thesis of T.Aleksejewa.

The paper is published as it is in the magazine. It seems that the translator could not find sometimes the correct spellings of the German words written in Latvian or Russian spelling of the original text. Another pecularity of the translation is that it speaks about Hebrews in Courland, 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 corresponds to the English word Hebrew, was used.


The text of the paper:


Tatjana Aleksejeva

Some Aspects of Hebrew history in the Duchy of Courland (1561 - 1795). in Humanities and Social Sciences. Latvia. 1994, 2 (3). pp. 4-21

The historical arrival, distribution and entrenchment of Hebrews in Latvia occurred over a period of several centuries. [1] This process varied somewhat in the various administrative territories of Latvia - Vidzeme, Latgale, and Kurzeme (Courland) (together with Zemgale). 1) As boundaries in the region shifted, the residents of Latvia's various historical regions came under different jurisdictions, and this, of course, applied to the Hebrews, as well. In Vidzeme, for example, including the city of Riga, laws were in effect for a long time which barred Hebrews from officially maintaining permanent residence in the region. The first Hebrew community of Riga was established only in 1842. [2] A different situation faced the Hebrews of Latgale and Courland. At specific periods in history, these regions were under the direct or indirect control of Poland, which traditionally had laws which were favorable to the Hebrews. Hebrew communities took root in these areas quite early, and the Hebrews became an inseparable part of the Latvian nation in feudal times. Available data indicate that Courland is one of the longest standing areas of Hebrew residency in Latvia [3]. For this reason, detailed research of the history of the Hebrews in this region in particular offers important information about the earliest settlement of the Hebrews in Latvia, and permits a deeper understanding of this process. It is important to note another significant fact: the Hebrews who lived in the Duchy of Courland - an institution which was a vassal state of Poland but which nevertheless was almost entirely independent 2) - played a fundamental role in the economic and social history of the Duchy. They were not simply subjects of the laws of the Duchy. Indeed, the Hebrews were themselves an important subject of Latvian history. One must also remember that if in Germany the focus of Hebrew research is on the cultural relationship between the Hebrew subculture and the dominant general German culture (4), then in the Duchy of Courland, which deemed itself a German state (and which was viewed as such by its contemporaries 3), the population was unquestionably Latvian.

The history of the Hebrews of Courland, however, has not been researched to any great extent. The most extensive bibliography of the history of the Hebrews in Courland was published in a collection, The Jews in Latvia, which was published in Tel Aviv in 1971 (p.371-372). A detailed review of this bibliography is offered in the same publication by Menachem Beth (5). The earliest sources on the theme are found in an 18th century report written by Christian Ziegenhorn (1715-1783) on the rights of the Duchy of Courland. In the report, Ziegenhorn reviewed the normative acts and regulations which set out the rights of the Duchy of Courland (6), and in an appendix he listed, among other documents, legislation and decisions adopted by the Courlands landtags with respect to the Hebrew population of the territory. Ziegenhorn's work is of legal nature and thus publishes only legal documents. It provides no insight into other aspects of the history of the Courland Hebrews.

A broder review of documents on Hebrew history was written by German historian J.Schwartz (1722-1804), who also worked in Courland. His work (7), however, merely reviews original source materials but does not publish them. His work is of a popular nature and is written in German. It was published in Courland in the latter half of the 18th century, in the context of a discussion about whether Hebrews should be issued citizenship.

More detailed documentary materials about the Hebrews of Courland are offered by a collection of documents which was issued in the early 20th century by the Riga branch of the Association to Expand Education Among Russian Hebrews, edited by J.Joffe (8).

I wish to emphasize that the true documentary base of the history of the Hebrews of Courland is much more extensive than the fragments which have been published thus far, and a careful analysis of the broader collection of documents can offer many useful and interesting insights and discoveries.

At the basis of my research are documents contained in the Latvian State Historical Archive which pertain to the Duchy of Courland, which existed from 1561 to 1795, as well as more contemporary documents:

  1. Fund 412 - the office of Courland governor;
  2. Fund 554 - the archives of the Dukes of Courland;
  3. Fund 2713 - the archive of the Liepaja Association of Antiquities;
  4. Fund 4038 - the collection of the Association of Riga Researchers on History and Ancient History;
  5. Fund 6904 - the Small Guild of Jelgava and its affiliated structures.

Even though the period during which the documents of these funds was created is long gone, many of the papers have not been analysed thoroughly, and many have not even begun to enter historical discussion. 4)  This is particularly true with respect to Fund 554 (the archive of the Dukes of Courland), which has been expanded in recent years by its merger with part of the so-called Courland Land Archive. This group of documents was collected in 1903 at the suggestion of the Courland gentry 5), and on the eve of World War I it contained some 30,000 units.

The Courland Land Archive was returned to Latvia from Germany in the 1970s, and it was subjected to scientific and technical analysis and divided up among the various funds of the Latvian State Historical Archive.

Many of the documents, as I noted, were attached to the archive of the Dukes of Courland (Fund 554). One must note that access to other parts of the archive of the Dukes was limited by objective historical circumstances (part of the archive, for example, was taken to St. Petersbourg in 1909 and returned to Latvia only in 1929 (9).

All this means that if one wishes to tackle a specific historical subject in relation to the history of Courland from 1561 to 1795, it is always possible to come accross little known or even unknown documents of those times.

Materials found in the Latvian Historical Archive lead to a reevaluation of already known facts about the theme, fundamentally broadening the context and interpretation of these facts. The historiographies of the Baltic Germans (10), the local Hebrews (11), and the Latvians (12) each viewed the history of the Hebrews of the Duchy of Courland from a different perspective. Morover, each viewpoint and its resulting interpretation of the facts frequently was influenced by the age in which each document was written and the dominant historical tendencies of the day. For this reason, contemporary historians would do well to take advantage of the strong points of each of the historiographical areas which affect Latvia (the scrupulous principles of analysis used by the Baltic German historians, for example, or the enormous wealth of factual materials in the work of Hebrew historians, or the tendency of Latvian historians toward propriety and against such defects as bias, overemphasis of minor detail, etc.).

An overview of all these materials might attempt to answer several questions: what was the significance of the Hebrews in Courland in the 16th through the 18th centuries, and what did the Duchy of Courland mean to them? And what are the pan-European realities and the specifically local distinguishing features which affected the early history of the Courland Hebrews?

First let us turn to the question of when and where in Courland the Hebrews first settled. There is no unanimity of opinion on this question, but it seems possible to bring together everything which has been written on the subject, including mutually contradictory viewpoints. The oldest source known today which mentions the Hebrews of the Courland region is a letter written by the magistrate of Luebeck to Duke Otto of Lueneburg in 1350 (13). The letter claimed that in several cities of Courland, the Hebrews had poisoned the water in drinking wells with the purpose of killing the Christians. This was an accusation which was leveled at Hebrews throughout Europe at the time, and it had to do with the epidemic of the bubonic plague which threatened the population and which was attributed in popular superstition to intrigues by the Hebrews. The plague arrived in Latvia in 1350 (14) and cost many lives (15), and it was easy to turn the "foreigners" into scapegoats in the matter. Thus the arguments of A.Buchholtz, who questions the essence of the letter of 1350 (i.e., the presence of Hebrews in Courland in the 14th century), are not convincing. Moreover, archeological data such as Hebrew gravestones dated to the 14th century (16) also speak in favor of this early date. The historical tradition of Baltic Germans, however, does not allow for the presence of Hebrews in Latvia at such an early date. They points to an order issued by Zeifried von Feihtwangen, the master of the Livonian Order, in 1309, which banned the presence of "spirit worshippers, magis and pagans" (17) in his territory and also prohibited Hebrews from settling there.

This discrepancy can be explained by the fact that before the establishment of the Duchy of Courland, not all of Courland was under the jurisdiction of the Livonian Order. A stretch of land measuring 4500 km2, which essentially ran from Piltene and Aizpute through Dundaga, formed the center of what was known as the Bishopric of Courland, and this area may well have been governed by different laws, including regulations on the presence of Hebrews (18). Indirect evidence of this is given by Hebrew gravestone markings in the area which date to the first half of the 16th century (19).

Another, albeit smaller region in which the history of the Courland Hebrews may well have been different than elsewhere was in the districts of Grobina and Liepaja. It is known that the last master of the Livonian Order, Gothard Ketler (who later become the first Duke of Courland) faced financial difficulties and, upon embarking on a battle against the Russians in 1560, took a loan of 50 000 guilders from Albrecht (20), the duke of Prussia and ArchDuke of Brandenburg. In place of interest payments, Ketler mortgaged the Grobina and Liepaja districts to Albrecht for 15 years. After the 15 years were up, however, the debt still had not been repaid, but the region was returned to Courland anyway, as part of the dowry which came with the Prussian princess Sofia when she married Ketler's son Wilhelm (21).

During the 48 years which the territory spent under the governance of Prussia, the region saw an extensive immigration of travelers from the West. This fact was repeatedly noted by various auditing commissions (22) which arrived from time to time from Prussia. The arriving individuals were mostly Germans, but the reports of the audit commissions, which were pedantic in fixing every detail, mention Hebrews, as well. In this respect, there is something very interesting about a report which the commission sent to the Duke of Prussia on 23 November 1581, which is the earliest report of Hebrews in the region known to us today. The report concerned the collection of amber along the Grobina shoreline. The 1581 report to Koenigsberg stated that there was not much amber to be collected in the area (23), but at the same time it noted at another location not too far away, in Palanga, local Hebrews had lots of amber.

Further reports indicate that local Hebrews were active in regulating trade in amber and getting the whole amber industry on the right track. This gives evidence that the Hebrews traveled around the seashore, picking up amber themselves, or purchasing it from local farmers (Strandbauern) (24). They sold the amber in Klaipeda (Memel) or Danzig, and it appears that the amount of amber which was sold was substantial. One example cites Klaipeda tradesman, Filip Ebert, who on one single occasion was offered one and a half barrels of choice amber by Hebrews (25). Of course, the Prussian opinion of this process could not help but be negative, because, it says in their text, the Hebrews were taking over the initiative in this area of trade, pushing out German tradesmen, and were obviously making better contacts with area farmers than were the Germans.

In analyzing the essence of the Prussian documents and not their bias, however, one learns not only of the early presence of Hebrews on the Courland shoreline, but also the fact that they were purposefully engaging in establishing links between Courland with regions which were further to the West, with clear mutual advantages to all parties which were involved in this process.

In 1608, the Grobina and Liepaja districts again came under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Courland, but for some time to come they continued to be somewhat unique with respect to the Hebrew population. This means that contemporary researchers must take account of a larger number of Hebrew permanent residents in the area than was the case in other parts of Courland. It was no accident that when an early document banning Hebrews in Courland was issued, it mentioned only one specific city - Liepaja. The issue addressed in the document was the privilege of Liepaja in 1625 (i.e., the status of the city) (26). One of the points in the document reads: "... Hebrews and anti-Christs will not be tolerated here". This leads one to observe that something can be banned only if the "thing" in question has already taken sufficient root in the respective territory and has already become part of the region's history. Indeed, we shall later see that the Hebrews in the cities of Courland eventually became serious competitors against the German citizens of those towns, and this led to a whole series of similar bans. It is most interesting that the first ban in this series affected specifically Liepaja.

This is further made interesting by the fact that the presence of Hebrews was by no means banned throughout the Duchy of Courland (which was formed in 1561 to cover the lands of the former Livonian Order in Courland). In the agreement which was signed in 1561 between King Sigismund August of Poland and the first Duke of Courland, Gothard Ketler, who then became a vassal of Poland, the only thing Hebrews were banned from doing was collecting taxes and fees and engaging in commerce: "Judaeis vero nulla per totam Livonia commercia, vectigalia, teloniave ullo unquam tempore concedamus." (27)

It is difficult to know how consistently this agreement was observed. The status of Hebrews in the Duchy of Courland must certainly have been affected by the very inclusion of the Duchy into the Polish sphere of influence, because for various historical reasons Poland had laws which were gentle toward the Hebrews, and Hebrews had been present in Poland since the earliest days of the Crusades. (28)

By the mid-17th century, however, attempts to limit the rights of Hebrews in Poland were first initiated, and there were even some pogroms (29). This was the result of Poland's own economic development at the time. A true catastrophe for the Polish Hebrews was the Cossack movement. He vented his anger about social and national injustices against the Hebrews, who were aliens both in terms of natonality and in faith. For this reason, some of Poland's Hebrews decided to move along elsewhere, and some ended up in that part of the Duchy of Courland where their presence was permitted. It was not, therefore, a coincidence that the Hebrews took root in Courland just at the time when emigration from certain areas of Poland became extensive.

No data has survived which would allow one to calculate the number of Hebrews who were present in Corland in the 17th century. One can indirectly conclude that they were not particularly persecuted during this time frame. From time to time laws to ban Hebrews were adopted (known examples of this include a paragraph in regulations drawn up for the city of Liepaja in 1625 (30), and a 1686 prohibition against Hebrews living in the village of Jaunsubata, or New Subbath) (31), but these appear to have been associated with a clear desire by the buergers of the cities to limit growing and, aparently, succesful competition from Hebrews craftsmen and tradesmen.

A series of laws to ban Hebrews from engaging in commerce were adopted in the Courland landtag (in 1692, 1698 and 1699) (32), and this leads one to believe that real life did not follow the legislation of the day. Why would the authorities have had to adopt ruling after ruling if from the very beginning the residents of Courland had obeyed an identical ban which was contained in the original agreement of 1561?

The landed gentry apparently were greatly disturbed by the ever increasing economic clout of the Hebrews of Courland, because according to some accounts, they persuaded the Duke to grant them the right (33) of collecting customs money on certain conditions.

The status of Hebrews in the Duchy of Courland in the late 17th century is partly illuminated by a letter which has been discovered in the Latvian State Historical Archive. It was written by a Hebrew named Isaac Wulf to the Duke of Courland and is dated 7 February 1700 (34). Wulf wrote his letter from Memel, where he was trading in silver goods. Wulf wrote that he had spent many years in Courland, occasionally replacing his relative Zacharias Daniel in the position of "Stradvogt", or shoreline supervisor, for the cost along Libau (Liepaja). This was rather a significant post, as the Stradvogt usually supervised all trade along the cost 6). Zacharias Daniel, judging from the letter, had served in the post for approximately 10 years (35). Further along in the letter, Wulf requests from the Duke the right to conduct trade in the Duchy of Courland with the status of a "court Hebrew" ("Hofjude").

The onset of the Northern War and the horrors associated with it left Wulf's request unanswered, and the letter more represents the status of the Hebrews in Courland in the waning 17th and not the rising 18th century. From the very beginning of the 18th century, extensive changes came into the life of Courland, some of them horrific and tragic. The fiery battles of the destructive Northern War burned down much of the Duchy of Courland, too. The war was followed by the black death - the bubonic plague. These tragedies and sorrows touched on every resident of the Duchy of Courland, with no exceptions.

A dramatic testament to these events is a requested submitted by the Hebrews of Mitau (Jelgava) to the city's officials in 1710, asking that burial places be assigned for the Hebrews who had died of the plague (36). An order by the Oberhauptmann of Mitau, Wilhelm Medem, dated 4 August 1710 and ordering that grave sites be assigned to the Hebrews, also survives (37). But other problems followed. We know of an order issued by Duke Ferdinand of Courland (1655-1737) in 1713 which touched off a long chain of decrees limiting the rights of Courland Hebrews. The 18th century was rife with prohibition against them. The first order was dated 6 October 1713 and was sent to Courland from Danzig, where the Duke maintained his residence. The document ordered all Hebrews to leave Courland by the end of 1713. This step was explained with nothing more than the claim that the Hebrews were taking the daily bread out of the mouths of Christians (38).

Once again it is evident, however, that the order did not achieve its intended effect. For Ferdinand repeated the order in many other documents and decrees. For example, an original document survives with the signature and seal of the Duke, dated 23 March 1714. The content of this document indicates that it is repeating orders which have been issued previoussly (39). Other decisions by the Courland landtag calling for the ejection of the Hebrews from Courland were taken in 1717, 1727, 1729, 1733, 1746 and 1754. (40)

The social composition of Courland itself made for a tapestry of many colors. Hebrew residents occasionally found themselves in the middle of this weaving. The various social classes of the Duchy of Courland viewed the fate of their Hebrew neighbors from varying standpoints, this largely being dependent on the social and economic interests of each group.

The landed gentry of the Duchy of Courland, being the privileged class which frequently had a deciding say over the foreign and domestic policies of the Duchy, kept the Hebrews of Courland within the focus of their attentions, however odd this may seem. A careful analysis of the documents of the day shows that in between the various orders banning the Hebrews which are cited above, the landed gentry landtag adopted decisions of quite a different content, as well. Laws passed in 1717, 1724, 1727, 1729, 1730, 1733 and 1735, for example, permitted Hebrews to enter the country if they paid a special tax (41), the amount of which ranged up to 400 Albert talers (42), a princely sum for these times. By way of comparison we can note that a horse or ox could be purchased for 10-12 Albert talers. (43)

Hebrews also paid a residency tax which almost always ended up in the pockets of the landed gentry. Naturally those who collected the taxes were interested in seeing the Hebrew residents continue to arrive and settle in Courland. Evidence of this is given by repeated requests from the Courland landed gentry that the Hebrews not be expelled from the country. Such requests were frequently sent to the administration of the Duchy by the landed gentry in the first half of the 18th century. (44)

The justification for these requests was usually stated as follows. If the Hebrews were to be expelled from the country, the landed gentry and the ordinary citizen alike would suffer (45). This justification allows one to assume that the good will which Hebrews enjoyed in Courland was engendered by more than just the large sums of money which they pay in order to take up life in Courland.

The irreplaceable role which Hebrews played in the life of Courland in the 18th century was the role of middlemen in the purchase and sale of various goods. This service was needed by nobleman and farmer alike. Requests from some noblemen indicate that sometimes the Hebrews paid the necessary fees "in advance". (46)

But the relations between Hebrews and the city dwellers often took a dramatic turn, because city residents understandably viewed the Hebrews as competitors in trade and craft. Complaints filed against Hebrews by city buergers have survived to this day. These are interesting both in terms of content and style. On 22 August 1742, for example, the city classes of Windau (Ventspils), Bauska, Jaunjelgava and Goldingen (Kuldiga) sent a complaint to the King of Poland, complaining that the Hebrews were competing with them, especially in the trade of tobacco and precious stones. (47) They unremittingly demanded that the Hebrews be throttled.

At the same time, however, the document clearly shows that in the first third of the 18th century, laws aimed at the Hebrews in Courland were mostly formalities. Several decrees of prohibition were in effect, but the Hebrews continued to live in Courland and fundamentally strengthened their positions in the Duchy's cities, as well. Evidence has survived, for example, that Hebrews actively brought goods from Koenigsberg to Jelgava (48) by way of Lithuania, and this was not the only example of international trade. Another complaint by city dwellers against the Hebrews, this one in 1759, gripes that the Hebrews were purchasing livestock (oxen, calves, goats), as well as animal skins and other agricultural byproducts from farmers. (49)

It is interesting that the list of items about which the buergers were complaining includes "old brass", which farmers apparently sold to the Hebrews (50). The Hebrews, says the text of the complaint, exported the "old brass" to Koenigsberg. Another complaint which has survived speaks of a Hebrew in Hazenpot (Aizpute) who was busy in the same year of 1759 with the transport of butter to the city of Liepaja (51). All this demonstrates that the farmers of the day happily did business with the Hebrews. The trade was advantageous to both sides. But complaints from German tradesmen about the expansion of the Hebrews continued unabated. Clearly the issue was no longer isolated cases of Hebrew activity. Rather, the Germans were now facing day-to-day problems in Courland. Indirectly one can conclude from this that the Hebrews were mostly engaged in the purchase and sale of haberdashery (52). This fact is also reflected in Latvian folk songs. (Latvju tautas Dainas. X sej. R., 1932, N1098; N1099).

Shipments of goods from Western Europe, usually not very large, were sold off all over Courland. One routine complaint from haberdashers, for example, reports that a Hebrew from Hazenpot (Aizpute) had bought two packages of goods from another Hebrew in Mitau (Jelgava) (53) and had shipped them off by cart to destination unknown, but presumably his own home in Hazenpot (Aizpute). The deal cost its participants dearly, however. The text of the complaint reports that both Hebrews were arrested for violation of a law which stated that the Hebrews could sell their goods only to local German tradesmen (54). It bears reminding that the German tradesmen of the day engaged in all manner of tactics to protect their privileged status, including accusations of all types of mortal sins against aliens.

An even more expressive complaint came from the tradesmen of Libau (Liepaja) on 12 December 1775. In it, Germans complained about their competitors - Hebrews, Poles, Lithuanians, and "farmers" (meaning Latvians) (55).

In sum, it can be concluded that during the 18th century, despite some unfavorable circumstances, Hebrews who settled in Courland found ethnic and social niche for themselves. As a result they became an integral part of the Duchy of Courland and, accordingly, an integral part of the history of the Duchy.

In this context, a more detailed exploration of the activities of Hebrews in Courland is warranted, in order that the reader might better understand their ethnic and social niche. Along with the trade activities which have already been addressed, the Hebrews in Courland, as everywhere else, provided themselves through various crafts. Reminders of Hebrew craftsmen in Courland are found in a variety of documents from the first half of the 18th century. On 12 September 1728, for example, Courlandian noblemen named Rekke, Fietinghof-Scheel and Brinken wrote a letter in which they stated that Hebrew craftsmen charged less for their services than did others. (56) Several craftsmen's professions were listed in the very first taxation (57) lists of Courlandian Hebrews, but the characterization of these craftsmen is best begun in the mid-18th century, because there are many sources of information dating from that time. As always, a prominent role in these sources is played by complaints from competitors - German craftsmen from the cities filing complaints with officials of authority.

One such complaint was dated in 1754 and addressed to the King of Poland. (58) Craftsmen from Mitau (Jelgava) complained of Hebrew craftsmen and listed the various crafts in which Hebrew competition was particularly problematic. The complaint gives evidence that in the mid-18th century, Hebrews in the capital of the Duchy of Courland, Mitau (Jelgava), were particularly strong in the areas of production of furs, as well as tinsmithing, glass-cutting, tailoring and button-making. (59)

In this respect, an interesting document is a report on the status of Hebrews in Courland (60) which, judging by paleographic characteristics, came from the Russian office in Mitau (Jelgava). It could not have been written earlier than December 1757. Alas, only a draft of the report survives. The final version disappeared either in the office of the Vidzeme governor in Riga or in the capital of Russia.

Nevertheless, the draft copy suffices as an historical source for researchers. The author of the report writes that the main crafts of the Hebrews in Kurzeme were precisely the same as listed in the German complaint cited above. The author of this report, however, also lists the professions of surgeon and barber for the Hebrews (61). These were considered crafts at the time, because according to the thinking of the day, their work was similar to that of fur producers, tailors and others.

One may ask which crafts were most widespread among the Hebrews of Courland and whether this distribution corresponded to the distibution of crafts among Hebrews in other regions. If one compares Courland with Poznan, for example, one notes that at the end of the 18th century, the most popular trade among Hebrews was that of tailor, followed by locksmith, musician, bookbinder, hatter, and button-maker (62). In Germany, by contrast, most Hebrews were seal-makers (63). This comparison shows that in the latter half of the 18th century, Courlandian Hebrew craftsmen had their own particular characteristics. For this reason, it is important to carefully review reports of the trades which were most widespread among Courlandian Hebrews - the trades that Hebrews did roofing work on some of the most grandiose building projects of the time. They participated in the construction of one of the most beautiful palaces in Northern Europe - the Rundale Castle in Latvia. Primary evidence of this fact is given by a document in which the Duke orders that Hebrew craftsmen working on roofing of the castle be paid for their efforts. There are also requests and complaints from the craftsmen themselves (64). If these documents are compared, they give a clear picture of the master themselves and of the work which they performed. Master Israel Elias wrote that before he started working, a contract was read to him which was signed by the Duke himself on behalf of one party, and by the Hebrew roofers on behalf of the other party (its title was "den von Herr Hochfuerstlichen Durchlaucht an die Klempner gegebene Contract"). The document also shows the way in which the masters approached the Duke himself for explanations concerning the contract, as well as for payment. This points to a fundamental difference between the way Courlandian Hebrew craftsmen were organized and the way Hebrew craftsmen organized in, say, Poland. In Poland a craftsmen's shop was an important element in organizing Hebrew workers (65). In Courland, however, and in other regions of Europe, although most local trades were also organized into shops, in some specialized trades, the form of organization was unique.

The Dukes of Courland spent the entire latter half of the 18th century building grandiose structures, and they were most interested in finding able but relative inexpensive craftsmen. Often thie ideal was met by Latvian masters (66). Masons and carpenters who worked on the Duke's construction projects during that time were mostly Latvians. It appears that a certain system of specialization existed: there is no evidence in documents which have been analyzed thus far that Hebrews in Courland served as masons, not is there much evidence that Latvians worked at tinsmithing. This singular differentiation probably had deep roots for professional reasons, and the system survived the dismemberment of the Duchy of Courland in 1795.

Excellent work by Hebrew roofers has been noted in assciation with some of the most important 19th-century buildings in Mitau (Jelgava). Thus, for example, Hebrew masters Samuel Aaron and Juddell Hirsch restored the roof of the famous Mitau Academy (Academia Petrina) in 1801 (67). The archives of the Courland governor's office also contain a document which shows that one Hirsch Israel did roofing work on the governor's house in Mitau in 1805 (68).

In Mitau court documents from 1821, one comes across the name of Aaron Samuel Levenstein, who performed roofing tasks on the palace on the Iecava estate (69). The documents show that Levenstein did the work very well, but payment for the work was not forthcoming, hence the court procedure.

This document is interesting in another way, namely that it lists in some detail the tasks which the master performed. The list is remarkably broad, and this points to another unusual aspect of the work done by Courlandian Hebrews - they often were masters of more than one specialization. This is indirectly the result of the fact that Courlandian Hebrews did not organize into shops, and thus were not subject to the rigorous regulations of the shop system. This fact is clearly illustrated by another list, which describes the work done by roofer Israel Elias. The list was written in 1758, i.e. seven years before master Elias undertook roofing work at Rundale Castle. The list shows that Israel Elias manufactued various items for the Duke's kitchen (70). While doing this work he lived in the Duke's castle in Mitau (Jelgava) and manufactured the items from raw materials provided by the Duke (71). It would be a mistake, however, to think that Courlandian Hebrew craftsmen relied solely on the Duke for jobs. The Duke was only part of the daily life of the Duchy of Courland although a part which set Courland apart from other local regions. There are documents which show that Hebrew craftsmen were active in the service of other clients, as well. Thus, for example, a request written by a Kandava Hebrew glass-cutter named Moses Salomon in 1795 shows that he did several jobs for a farmer named Mezekauls (72). A contract signed by a glass-cutter named Marcus Meyer in 1784 has survived. In it, Meyer undertakes to provide glass for the windows of the Tukums pastorate 7). (73)

Glass-cutters were not the only ones to work on the order of local residents. A Hebrew mason named Abraham Lewin spent more than 30 years putting up and repairing ovens for the residents of the capital of the Duchy, Mitau (Jelgava). (74) There are many similar examples. In general one can see that Hebrew craftsmen who specialized in specific trades in Courland almost always achieved high professional mastery in their fields. This means that their services were in high day-to-day demand by a broad cross-section of the Duchy's population 8).

In conclusion I would like to add that many other types of occupation in which Courlandian Hebrews were engaged, as well as their achievements in spiritual and intellectual pursuits, have remained outside my field of research. Neither have I focused on the spiritual evolution of the Hebrew community, nor on their battle for the rights of Courlandian citizens. My source materials for this work have been documents prepared by the Courlandian Hebrews themselves, but these documents demand methodological analysis. I would like to note, therefore, that research about the history of the Hebrews of the Duchy of Courland is by no means complete. If the many archival documents which pertain to this subject were gathered together, along with analytical works which have been performed on these documents and publications which have been written about them, then further research work would be, in any opinion, most valuable.


  1. Stradiņš, J. "Kopā ar nākamo gadu tūkstoti". Literatūra un Māksla, No.48, 1988, p.2.
  2. Buchholtz, A. Geschichte der Juden in Riga, Riga, 1899, p.99.
  3. Lipschitz, Shaul. "Jewish communities in Kurland". The Jews in Latvia. Tel Aviv, 1971, p.276
  4. Herzig, Arno. "Zur Problematik deutsch-jüdischer Geschichtsschreibung". Menora, Jahrbuch für deutsch-jüdische Geschichte. Muenchen/Zuerich, 1990, p.211.
  5. Beth, Menahem. "Men and Deeds". The Jews in Latvia. Tel Aviv, 1971, p.288.
  6. Ziegenhorn, Chr. G. von. Staats-Recht der Herzogtümer Curland und Semgallen. Koenigsberg, 1772
  7. Schwartz, Chr. Vollständige Bibliothek kurländischer und piltenscher Staatsschriften, nach der Zeitfolge aufgestellt. Mitau, 1799, pp.304-314.
  8. Regesten und Urkunden zur Geschichte der Juden in Riga und Kurland. No.1-3, Riga, 1910-1912.
  9. Centralnij gosudarstvennij istoričeskij arhiv Latvijskoi SSR. Kratkij spravočņik. Častj 1, 1220-1918, p.14
  10. Cruse, K.W. Curland unter den Herzogen. Mitau, 1833, Vol.1, pp.264-296. Also Buchholtz, op. cit., p.1-2. Also Rauch, G. von. "Eine Polemik zur Judenfrage in Kurland". Jomsburg. Völker und Staaten im Osten und Norden Europas. Berlin, 1941, Vol.1.
  11. Wunderbar, R. Geschichte der Juden in den Provinzen Liv- und Kurland seit ihrer frühesten Niederlassung daselbst bis auf die gegenwärtige Zeit. Mitau, 1853. Also Owtschinsky, L. Geschichte fun die Idden Lettlands. Riga, 1928. And Pisecky, J. Kurzemes hercogistes likumdošana par ebrejiem. Unpublished dissertation, University of Latvia, 1936.
  12. Dunsdorfs, E. Latvijas vēsture 1710-1800. Stockholm, 1973, p.397.
  13. Livlaendisches Urkundenbuch, Vol. 6, No. 3088.
  14. de Wartberge, Hermanni. Chronicon Livonia Scriptoris rerum prussicarum. Vol. 2, Leipzig, 1863, p.77.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Kratkaja evrejskaja enciklopedija, tom 4, Jerusalim, 1988, p.686
  17. Levinson, Isaak. The Untold Story: Jews in Courland and Livonia. Johanessburg, 1958, p.59.
  18. Latviešu konversācijas vārdnīca, Vol. X. Riga, 1933-34, col. 19117
  19. Wunderbar, op. cit., p.19.
  20. Blese, E. Parskats par studijam Prūsijas valsts arhivā Karalaučos 1929. g. vasaras komandējuma laikā. Rīga, 1929, p.32.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Ibid., p.51
  23. Ibid., p.33
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Latvijas valsts vēstures arhivs (LVVA), 554. f., 3. apr.
  27. Ziegenhorn, op. cit., No. 50, p.55.
  28. Kandel, F. Očerki vremjon i sobitij. Jerusalem, 1988, 1 castj, p.45-46.
  29. Ibid., p.102.
  30. LVVA-554.f.-3.apr.-395.1.-p. 11.
  31. Regensten und Urkunden ..., Vol. 1, p.72.
  32. Ziegenhorn, op. cit., pp. 214-215.
  33. Wunderbar, op. cit., p.20.
  34. LVVA-554.f.-3.apr.-396.1.-pp. 4-5.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid., 1.apr.-1730.1.-p.78
  37. Ibid., p.82.
  38. Ibid., p.5
  39. Ibid., p.26.
  40. Dunsdorfs, op. cit., p.297.
  41. Ziegenhorn, op. cit., p.214.
  42. Wunderbar, op.cit., p.22.
  43. LVVA-554.f.-1.apr.-1829.1.-p. 21.
  44. Ibid., 3.apr.-394.1.-p.6-7 and 9-12.
  45. Ibid., p.6-7
  46. Ibid.
  47. Ibid., 2713-f.-1.apr.-8.1.-pp.86-89
  48. Ibid., 4038.f.-2.apr.-2184.1.-p.1.
  49. Ibid., p.8.
  50. Ibid.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Ibid., pp. 2-3.
  53. Ibid., 554.f.-1.apr.-1730.1.-p.84.
  54. Ibid.
  55. Ibid., 2713.f.-1.apr.-137.1.-pp.24-33.
  56. Ibid., 554.f.-3.apr.-394.1.-p.2.
  57. Ibid., 1.apr.-1730.1.-pp.60-61.
  58. Ibid., 1829.1.-pp.23-31.
  59. Ibid.
  60. Ibid., 4038.f.-2.apr.-2184.1.-p. 19-23.
  61. Ibid., p.23.
  62. Jüdisches Lexicon. Berlin, 1927, Vol. II, p.1406.
  63. Ibid.
  64. LVVA-554.f.-3.apr.-1852.1.-pp.26 and 29.
  65. Jüdisches Lexicon. Vol. II, p.1405.
  66. Aleksejeva, T. "Nepemeckije mastera v strukture i organizacii stroitelnih remesel v Mitave. " Latvijas Universitātes Zinātniskie Raksti, Vol. 555, Riga, 1990, p.122.
  67. Campe, P. Lexicon Livländischer und Kurländischer Baumeister, Bauhandwerker und Baugestalter von 1400-1850. Vol.I, Stockholm, 1951, pp.375 and 376.
  68. LVVA-.412.f.-8.apr.-p.80.
  69. Ibid., 586.f.-1.apr.-p.1419.
  70. Ibid., 554.f.-2.apr.-3021.1.-pp.68-69.
  71. Ibid.
  72. Ibid., 412.f.-8.apr.-p.80.1-p.1.
  73. Ibid., 554.f.-3.apr.-1853.1.-p.47.
  74. Ibid., 412.f.-8.apr.-81.1-p.1.


1) Until 1795, the territory of Kurzeme was part of the Duchy of Courland, which was a vassal state of Poland and which was formally known as the "Duchy of Kurzeme, Zemgale and Piltene region".

2) For the sake of comparison, one may look to Prussia, which also was a vassal state of Poland until the latter half of the 17th century (see Deutsche Geschichte Bd. 1, Berlin, 1967, p.660).

3) By way of example one can note that Duke Jacob of Courland (1610-1682) received the imperial German title of prince in 1654, thus formally becoming an equal of the rulers of those tiny nations which made up the German Holy Roman Empire.)

4) The fact that the archived materials of the Duchy of Kurzeme and Zemgale has been insufficiently analyzed is also mentioned by Henrihs Strods (see Strods, H. Kurlandskij vopros v XVIII veke. 1. Riga, 1933, p.27).

5) The historian Teodors Zeids has written that one of the major reasons for the establishment of the limited access archive was that the Baltic German gentry wanted to maintain control over the most important archival documents. See Zeids T. Senākie rakstītie Latvijas vēstures avoti. Rīga, 1992, p.122. Access to the documents of the Kurzeme Land Archive from the time that it was established until the time when it was illegally smuggled out of Latvia in 1919 was limited to a very narrow group of individuals, most of whom were of the nobility.

6) See Hahn, J.K. Der Lyva-Hafen (Libau) im Mittelalter und zu Beginn der Neuen Zeit. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte Libaus. Liepaja, 1936, p.57).

7) The services of Hebrew glass-cutters were gladly utilized by the residents of Bauska, Jaunjelgava and the surrounding region. This is shown by a request addressed to the King of Poland in 1744 by the German glass-cutting shop in the area, in which the German masters asked the King to protect them from Hebrew master competition. See LVVA - 554.f.-1. apr.-2017.1.-p.130.)

8) Researchers emphasize that when the Hebrew craftsmen were planning jobs, they paid attention to the applied art traditions of the local residents. A researcher who studied the culture of the Hebrews, G.Moreins, wrote that "the wandering tradesmen and painters, who often engaged in the painting of wardrobes and dowry chests, collected considerable experience about the local culture with respect to this field". (Moreins, G. "Ebreju kapakmeņi Latvijā". Māksla, 6, 1988, p.44).