The Jewish community in Liepāja was founded in the late 18th century. The first Jewish settlers arrived to the town from Germany and nearby Jewish communities. The local cemetery was opened in 1803 and the Hevra Kadisha society was established. The first house of prayer was constructed in 1815. The year 1828 saw the opening of a synagogue, and 1830 – a Talmud-Torah school. The Bikur Cholim Society for the Care of the Sick was founded in 1833.
The community was quickly growing in size. When the authorities issued a permit for Jews to reside in the Courland Governorate on the condition that they had been listed in the 1826 census, it turned out that Liepāja had 1,234 permanent Jewish inhabitants. In 1850, this number amounted to 1,348. The development of the community was induced by the establishment of an ice-free port on the Baltic Sea. Most newcomers to the town hailed from Poland, Lithuania, and Russia, and settled among the generally Germanised native population. Soon, however, the acculturation trends changed their course. Instead of succumbing to Germanisation, Jewish migrants imposed their own cultural mores on the descendants of original settlers, largely popularising Orthodoxy and Yiddish.
The Jews of Liepāja specialised in grain trade and developed the local industry – they owned 11 out of all 43 local factories. Many people also found employment in restaurants and hotels. A large group of local residents dealt with managing travellers arriving to the port and leaving it for good, most often for the USA. This naturally encouraged migration among the inhabitants of Liepāja themselves.
The most prominent member of the local Jewish community at the turn of the 20th century was Elia Eliasberg, member of the Liepāja Municipal Board, whose contributions to the development of the town won him a golden medal from the government. Eliasberg successfully lobbied for the implementation of what came to be known as the Act of 21 July 1898, officially allowing all Jews who had resided in Courland before 1880 to continue to live in the region. For the group of 1,200 people ordered the leave the town, Eliasberg managed to secure a large sum of money donated by Haratyi Ginzburg, a wealthy banker from Petersburg, which would allow them to migrate to the USA.
A Hebrew school was founded in the town as early as 1885. The same year, a branch of the Hovevei Zion movement was opened in Liepāja. It was headed by the local rabbi, Hillel Klein. There was also a Jewish school for girls, which boasted ca. 200 graduates before WWI, and a folk school with 500 graduates. Rabbi Klein’s successor was Leib Kantor, who held the post in the years 1890–1904 and founded the first Hebrew-language newspaper in Russia, HaYam. In 1907, the function of the rabbi was assumed by Dr. Aron Ben Nurok. He actively participated in the local political life, both in the tsarist era and after Latvia gained independence. In the latter period, he sat in the Latvian parliament as a representative of the Mizrachi party.
On 15 November 1919, the local branch of the Bund, headed by Isaac Rabinovich, became the first Jewish political group to express its support for independent Latvia. In the election the Municipal Council of 19 November 1919, the Jewish National Bloc (including Rabbi Nurok) won seven seats, the Bund – five seats, and Tseirei Zion and the liberal Jewish National Party – two each.
In 1920, Liepāja had 9,758 inhabitants. The community was thriving under the leadership of Rabbi Nurok. The town boasted the Great Synagogue and several houses of prayer, as well as the traditional societies of Hevra Kadisha and Bikur Cholim. Thanks to the funds provided by the Joint, a number of charitable organisations was active in the town: Ezrat Cholim Aniyim (“Bread for the Poor”), Beit Lechem (“House of Bread”), Malbish Arumim (“Clothes for the Naked”), Hachsanat Kala (“Dowry for Maidens”). An almshouse was run by the Linas Hatsedek Association. Other important organisations operating in the town were the branches of the ORT (Association of Artisan Work) and OZE (Association for Jewish Healthcare), which ran a tuberculosis sanatorium in Vaiņode.
The most important forces in the local political life were the aforementioned Mizrachi, the Bund, and Tseirei Zion, as well as the Agudath. With time, the Zionist movement started to quickly gain ground. The HeHalutz organisation organised farming courses for future settlers in Palestine. Liepāja was the seat of the first Latvian branch of the Maccabi sports club, which had ca. 150–180 members.
In the interwar period, Liepāja was an important centre of education and culture. It boasted numerous Jewish elementary and secondary schools, including a primary school with Yiddish as the language of instruction, which had 350 students. There were two Yiddish newspapers published in the town: Libauer Folksblat and Di Tseit.
The local economy was powered not only by large-scale industrialists (Sh. Izraelit, Sh. Wainreich, G. Hercenberg), but also by petty shop-keepers and labourers. Two Jewish financial institutions were active in the town: the Bank of Liepāja (Raskin, Schlossberg, and Minsker) and the Liepāja Merchants’ Bank. Jews also specialised in medical services, constituting the majority of local physicians and dentists.
After the coup d’etat of 15 May 1934, the political life of the town was completely thwarted. Some activists were imprisoned in an internment camp, including Baruch Kagan and Josef Tzuizmer (Ben-Zur) from the Tseirei Zion party, as well as I. Ban, Aba Freidberg, Kayzner, Josefart from the Bund. The authorities started to push for Jewish migration, with Hebrew becoming an obligatory class in all Jewish schools. In the years 1935–1940, many Jewish activists left Latvia. By 1935, the Jewish community had shrunk significantly – according to the census, the town was inhabited by 7,379 Jews, constituting 12.9% of the total population.
In 1941, Soviet-occupied Liepāja was the only Latvian town to put up resistance to the attacking German forces. The day of 23 June marked the beginning of its week-long defence by units of the Red Army, the Baltic Fleet, and civilians. The German troops put up large loudspeakers broadcasting propaganda in Latvian and Russian: “Your resistance is futile. Cease fire, drop your weapons, surrender! We will not hurt you. We will only liquidate communists and Jews.” The town fell on 29 June 1941. The German army, angered by the resistance, immediately embarked on a manhunt against Jews. In the early morning of 30 June, they rushed a large group of Jewish people to the sugar refinery and forced them to remove the bodies of people killed in the defensive battle. Once the site was cleaned up, the Jewish “gravediggers” were shot.
On 5 July 1941, the German command ordered Jews to wear yellow badges with the dimensions of 10 x 10 cm, one on the back and one on the chest. On 8 July, 30 people were shot for assaulting a patrol. On 8–10 July 1941, a “purge” was carried out by Germans in the women’s prison, which they used as a detention centre for Jews. One of the witnesses of public executions was German sailor Karl Heinz: “It is 15 July, the very hot day is coming to a close and so are our baths. We are due to be on the deck by 8. We are strolling along the beach and we see a group of people. It looks like some goods are being handed out. Soldiers and sailors are standing on the bunkers, which are located all around. Most of them are clad in bathing suits or sports attire, as they are coming back from the beach. Our first impression – a sports event. However, this is a competition of a different sort. We eventually reach a spot where many people are shot every night, people who are shooting at our soldiers ‘from around the corner.’ One sailor standing on the side says: ‘They shot 45 men and seven women today.’ Around us there is a crowd of 600–800 people who came here out of morbid curiosity. A long ditch is stretching in front of them. People are standing, smoking, talking, waiting for the ‘circus show.’ Finally, a lorry arrives. ‘Out, out!’ shouts an SS-man. Five heads emerge from the truck, their faces contorted in fear. Those who do not jump off fast enough are ‘helped’ by the SS-men with rubber batons. Five people are standing in front of the lorry, among them two are clearly Jews. ‘Go, run’ – and they are rushing them to the ditch. An old, limping Jew is lagging behind. He gets a kick in the butt and falls, which prompts the audience to burst into laughter. Everyone is stretching their necks so that they can see better. A group of ten shooters emerges – two for each person in the ditch. Feldbel SS gives the order, a salvo rings out as a whip crack. The shooters take a step back, the feldbel comes to the edge of the ditch and examines the victims. He takes a bit longer to look at the last man, shoots at him, and gives the order to the local Schutzmänner, who cover the bodies with sand. Another vehicle comes, another five people, yet another vehicle. A small bearded Jew wearing a yarmulke jumps out. ‘Here! The rabbi goes first!’ The Jew lays his cap on the edge of the ditch, but the feldbel orders him to put it at his feet. ‘Fire’ – yet another whip crack and the rabbi is no more. The lorry arrives five times, 25 men are shot. Slowly, the giddy crowd is dispersing, joking around and chattering. Some seem unbothered, not the mention the nerves of steel of the shooters! For me this shall be one of those experiences that you can never shake off.”
In early July, Germans murdered 1,200 local Jews. Subsequent executions, which commenced after a short break, were carried out by the collaborators – an SD unit comprising local residents and murderers from the “Arajs Kommando.” In September 1941, over 200 Jews were shot at Toma Street (Latvian: Toma iela). In the report of 2 October 1941, SS-Untersturmführer W. Kügler informed the garrison commander, SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer F. Dietrich, of the following: “An ongoing operation is carried out with the aim of eliminating old Jewish men and women living in Liepāja who are unfit to be used as militarised labour. In the period between 25 September and 2 October 1941, a total of 241 Jews from Liepāja were killed. In view of the recent suspicious arrests among the Jewish circles it is rumoured that they are awaiting the help of Englishmen and Russians.”
The main extermination operation against the Jews of Liepāja was carried out in the dunes of Šķēde in December 1941. On 13 December, the occupation authorities announced that Jews would we banned from leaving their houses on 15 and 16 December. However, first mass arrests were already carried out on 13 and 14 December. The apprehended Jews were placed in the women’s prison and later transported to Šķēde in sleighs. Upon arrival, they were taken to stables once owned by the Latvian army. The Germans ordered for a long ditch, 100 m long and 3 m wide, to be dug parallel to the sea line. Jews were taken out of the stables in groups of 20. Once they were ca. 40 m away from the ditch, they were ordered to undress and then taken to the edge of the pit in groups of 10. Small children were to be carried in the adults’ arms. Whoever was lagging behind was beaten up. The executioners made sure that everyone would fall into the ditch. The genocide lasted from 8 a.m. until sunset. On 31 December 1941, the aforementioned SS-man, Kügler, reported to Dietrich: “In the period between 11 and 30 December 1941, 26 former communist activists were arrested. After the concentration camp was moved from Liepāja to Frauenburg [Saldus], a total of 295 political prisoners is held in the local detention centres. Searches and controls were carried out in 20 localities. In the period between 14 and 16 December 1941, 2,754 people were executed in Liepāja, including 23 communists and 2,731 Jews. The total number of surviving Jews will be specified after the registration process carried out by the police. The massacre of Jews in Liepāja continues to be the talk of the town. In most cases, the local residents feel sympathy for the killed, and there are very few voices expressing a positive view of the extermination of Jews. Rumour has it that photos were taken of the execution in order to have evidence incriminating the Latvian Schutzmänner. The photographs must serve as proof that the party responsible for the shooting were Latvians, not Germans. It is expected that the solution of the Jewish question in Liepāja will ease the concerns of the local population.” The photos in question were indeed taken and Jews working in the building of the SD headquarters managed to get hold of the negatives. During the dinner break, they took them to a photographer’s studio, made 12 copies, and returned the negatives to their original location. Throughout the period of occupation, the graphic photos were hidden behind wallpaper. They were handed over to the Soviets after Latvia’s liberation. The photos were published all around the world, serving as eternal commemoration to the victims and denunciation of the murderers.
In February 1942, in line with the German plan, another 150 Jews were killed in Šķēde. In the spring of 1942, a local newspaper wrote: “The Jewish question in Liepāja has been solved, we are free from Jews. However, individual Jews can still be seen here and there. We should show them where they belong.”
In July 1942, the last 800 Jews residing in Liepāja were imprisoned in 11 houses located between the following streets: Bāriņu iela, Apšu iela, Dārza iela, and Kungu iela. It was a fully-fledged ghetto with a Judenrat, barbed wire fence, and a “security” force in the form of the Latvian SD unit. The district existed until the end of 1943. The remaining Jews were then transported to Riga, to the Kaiserwald concentration camp. Eventually, 102 people died and 54 were killed.
Only individual Jews survived the German occupation, thanks to finding shelter at the houses of Latvian families. The recent Jewish community in Liepāja was founded by Jews who spent the war in the inner USSR.
- “Liepaja,” [in] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, eds. S. Spector, G. Wigoder, vol. 2, New York 2001, pp. 729–730.
- Meler M., “Lijepaja,” [in] Mesta Nashey Pamyati. Yevreyskie Obshchiny Latvii, Unichtozhennye v Holokoste, Riga 2010, pp. 242–257.
The entry is partially based on the text “Lijepaja” by Mejer Meler, which constitutes a chapter of the book Mesta Nashey Pamyati. Yevreyskie Obshchiny Latvii, Unichtozhennye v Holokoste. The contents of the book have been made available to POLIN Museum by the “Jews in Latvia” Museum in Riga (Muzejs “Ebreji Latvijā”), to which we would like to extend our deepest gratitude.