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Jewish life in the Baltics

IN the northeast corner of Europe, bordering Russia on the east and the shallow waters of the Baltic Sea to the west, are three often forgotten countries: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Collectively referred to as the Baltic States, for the second half of the 20th century these countries existed in relative obscurity as republics of the Soviet Union. Prior to their annexation by the USSR, their main cities — Vilnius (in Yiddish, Vilna), Riga and Tallinn — were far more renowned than the countries themselves.

The Peitav Shul (right) is Riga’s only remaining Jewish house of worship. Situated in a courtyard in the old town, abutting countless other buildings, meant it escaped destruction during the Holocaust. During the war the occupying Nazis used it for storage. Today it is a fully functioning, and fully restored, synagogue – incidentally also in the Art Nouveau style.
Rabbi Mordechai Glazman leads services and a small meal is provided after Shabbat morning services for all the worshippers.

The history of the Baltic States is one of occupation. They were continually shuffled between Germany and Russia. Between the two world wars, their nascent democracies had very little chance of survival, due mainly to their importance in a larger geopolitical power struggle, but also to the fact that the three countries had virtually no experience in democracy and self-governance. Even their local languages remained uncodified, with German or Russian used for written communication and education.

Memorial at the site of the Great Choral Synagogue (left). Once one of Riga’s grandest synagogues, and situated at the boundaries of the Holocaust-era ghetto, the site today more closely resembles Pompeii, consisting of a leafy park and foundation ruins. On July 4, 1941, hundreds of Jews were crammed into the synagogue, which was then set ablaze. The memorial, dedicated to Latvians who saved their fellow Jews, evokes a feeling of the few battling against an overpowering pressure. The face of Janis Lipke, who used his position in the Luftwaffe to smuggle Jews out of Riga, is engraved on the middle column.

Like all the other newly formed Central European democracies of the 1920s, the Baltic States eventually fell to the Nazis at the start of WWII after a brief re-occupation by the Soviet Union.

Many locals welcomed the Germans, perceived as a better alternative to the Communists. Of course the Jewish communities knew better and many fled to the East. In fact, of Estonia’s community, the only Jews to survive the war are those who fled; every single Jew who remained in Estonia was exterminated. It was Judenfrei.

As the tide of war turned, and Soviet troops advanced on Europe, the Baltics were once again — and for the following 50 years — reincorporated into Russia. In the meantime, the Jewish communities of all three countries were decimated, leaving at least two of the Baltic countries — Lithuania and Latvia — without a core component of their pre-war societies.

Holocaust Memorial, Bikernieku Forest (left). The topography of all three Baltic countries is defined by endless forests, ideal for wild mushroom foraging and rambling walks. But for tens of thousands of Jews, the dense foliage became their final resting place. In late 1941, on Nov. 30 and on Dec. 8, approximately 25,000 Jews were rounded up and forced to make a 10-kilometer walk to the Rumbula Forest, where they were murdered. These Latvian Jews were exterminated to provide space for the German Jews being deported eastward, who themselves were later murdered in the Bikernieku Forest in 1942. The jagged rocks of the Bikernieku memorial portray a peaceful forest torn apart by murder and desecration. Dotted among the rocks are plaques engraved with names of the German-speaking cities, from which these victims originated. At the center of a white altar is a stone block, which is engraved with a verse from the Book of Job: “O earth, do not cover my blood, and let there be no resting place for my cry” (16:18).

CONTEMPORARY Baltic Jewry is now comprised almost entirely of Russians, many of whom were encouraged to settle these Soviet outposts after WW II. This Soviet policy is now a source of ongoing tension in modern-day Baltic society, for example in Latvia with strict naturalization regulations aimed at the Russian-speaking minority.

Despite the wrongs of Soviet colonization, all three major Baltic capitals have Jewish communities, complete with synagogues, community centers and schools. Tragically, without the Russian emigration, this would have been impossible following the Holocaust. There simply would have been no people.

The Exterior and Interior of Tallinn’s Newly Built Synagogue (right). Inaugurated in 2007, this beautiful brand new building was the first synagogue to open in Estonia since WW II, when the city’s synagogue was destroyed in a Soviet bombing. Itself canopied by leafy green boughs, the Tallinn synagogue is decorated with the motif of trees, found on its doors, walls and ark. Huge glass windows create an airy open feeling, yet the sanctuary — a curved, wood paneled room — is intimate and comforting. After Friday night services the worshippers gather on the carpeted block stairs leading down from the sanctuary as Rabbi Shmuel Kot recites kiddush and the blessing on challah.

After a trip to Lithuania in the summer of 2007, I decided to complete my Baltic tour and in 2010 visited Latvia and Estonia. The days spent at the seaside towns of Jurmala (outside of Riga) and Parnu (Estonia) were bookended by tours through the great port cities of Riga and Tallinn.

A particular highlight was spending a Shabbat in each city with the local rabbis and their families. The hospitality, friendliness and energy of both Rabbi Mordechai Glazman of Riga and Rabbi Shmuel Kot of Tallinn were inspirational. Their dedication to revitalizing Jewish life and reaching out to people who, during the Soviet years, were disconnected from their Judaism is truly noble.

Art Nouveau Architecture in Riga (left). Although Paris and Vienna are typically associated with the Art Nouveau movement, it is Riga where this style of architecture and design is most prolific. ‘Look up’ was the advice of my guidebook, and look up I did. Owls, gargoyles, peacocks, and nymphs are just a few of the motifs adorning the buildings. With the city only recently emerging from the grayness associated with its communist years, some buildings such as this blue one designed by Mikhael Eisenstein have been fully restored, while other are decrepit, which has a mystical beauty of its own.

In Tallinn I had the unique experience of meeting Michael (not his real name), who is an extremely rare thing, a native Estonian Jew. Having heard that my husband hails from Switzerland, Michael invited us to sit with him during kiddush, where he explained that he was part of Tallinn’s German-speaking pre-war Jewish community.

Eager to once again speak his native tongue, the sprightly nonagenarian proceeded to outline his life story: attending a German gymnasium during the idyllic pre-war years, fleeing east when the Nazis arrived, fighting for the Soviets and eventually returning to Tallinn, living first under Communist rule and then having to adjust to the new, free-market society.

Yet Michael, who has lived the full roller coaster of 20th century Europe, is energetic and positive, walking through the rain to synagogue, patiently waiting for his bus, grateful that the community is once again active.

Copyright © 2011 by the Intermountain Jewish News

IJN Assistant Publisher |

2 thoughts on “Jewish life in the Baltics

  1. Denese Alexander

    Thank you so much for your info, Shana!
    I’m an African American Cstholic that’s ALWAYS had interests in the Jewish culture. 23 & me states that I have Baltic in me & someone automatically said they’re Muslim. I’m so happy to research on my own & see that they were WRONG, & the Baltics DID & DO have Jewish practices! 😁💚


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