The south-eastern region of Latvia now known as Latgale covers roughly the same area as the former Inflanty Province (or, more precisely, the Duchy of Livonia) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, also known as the Polish Livonia. The region used to be the true ‘Borderlands of the Borderlands’ and is now hardly ever associated with the Polish past, although a few years ago one could notice a certain spark of interest in the area, mostly due to the publication of Gustav Manteuffel's two works, more than a century after their original edition: Zarysy z dziejów krain dawnych inflanckich… (“Digests from the History of the Former Livonia Lands…”) (2007) and Inflanty Polskie (“Polish Livonia”) (2009). The history of the Jewish communities inhabiting these areas is almost completely unknown, despite their very strong links with Lithuania and Belarus. They are, however, certainly worth closer attention, especially due to the fact that the current Latvian region of Latgale is home to the best preserved wooden synagogues that have survived in this part of Europe.

Inflanty Province with capital in Daugavpils was established in 1620 in the territories controlled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth since 1561. The establishement of the new province was sanctioned in the Treaty of Oliva signed with Sweden (1660) and the Truce of Andrusovo signed with Russia (1667). The region belonged to the Commonwealth until the First Partition (1772). It had surprisingly close ties with Poland and Lithuania; over the 211 years of the existence of Inflanty Province, the connection to the Commonwealth proved much stronger than, for instance, the affiliation of Royal Prussia with Gdańsk and Warmia. In the era of the Partitions, the region was, for a long time, incorporated into the Vitebsk Governorate, which introduced it into the sphere of influence of today's Belarus. In 1920, the former Polish Livonia found itself within the borders of Latvia. To this day, the Latgale region has a wide range of distinctive features, including its strong linguistic difference (Latgalian language alongside Latvian), dominant religion (Catholicism), as well as the visible presence of minorities, including Poles.

The presence of Jews in the former Polish Livonia dates back to the years 1648–1654, when a wave of refugees arrived there from the areas of Ukraine and Belarus swept by the Khmelnystky Uprising. The earliest known Jewish communities were established in that period: Daugavpils, Krāslava and Krustpils (contemporary Latvian counterparts of Polish names can be found in the table at the end of the article). At that time, the Jewish refugees came into contact with the Jews living in Courland and Semigallia, who had arrived to Livonia from German territories. As noticed by Josif Ročko, a researcher in the field, the new wave of Jewish migrants spoke primarily Yiddish instead of German and was largely composed of Orthodox Jews, many of them poor and lacking in proper education. Unlike their compatriots from the territory of today’s western Latvia, who were strongly associated with the ducal court and formed a specific stratum of the local intelligentsia (including doctors, teachers), the newcomers from the southern regions of the Commonwealth were more closely associated with the socio-economic model typical for Kresy (Eastern Borderlands), where Jews worked primarily in trade, crafts, inn-keeping, and offered minor financial services. It is estimated that in 1772, approximately 4,000 Jews lived in the area of the Polish Livonia, making up ca. 5% of the total population.

A sudden increase in the number of Jews in Latgale occurred in the 19th century, especially in its second half. In 1847 there were 11,000 Jewish people living in the region, and in 1897 – as many as 64,000. The rapid development of the community, which had grown sixteen-fold over the course of one century, was significantly influenced by the legal regulations enforced by the Russian state. In 1778, Jews were forbidden to work in agriculture and were only allowed to settle in towns. In 1791, the former Polish Livonia found itself within the boundaries of the so-called settlement zone. In 1861, following the incorporation of Livonia to the Vitebsk Governorate, the restrictions on the development of towns, related to the existence of fortresses, were abolished. The changes in law, along with the economic development of Russia leading to increased migration, construction of communication routes, and rapid industrialisation, resulted in the swift development of urban Jewish communities in the former Polish Livonia. In case of Jews, most newcomers hailed from various regions of Belarus. This is reflected in the life story of Abraham Isaac Kook, the creator of religious Zionism, who was born in Griva near Daugavpils and went on to become the first Ashkenazi rabbi of the Land of Israel. His father was a graduate of the Volozhin Yeshiva, and his mother came from the Kopust branch of the Chabad Hasidic movement. Daugavpils started to develop particularly quickly, soon becoming a major railway junction, connecting the Petersburg-Warsaw line – the main route linking Russia with the West – and the important Eurasian Riga-Oryol line. One of the activities characteristic of the local Jews was smuggling Latvian and Latgalian books printed in the Latin alphabet, banned in Russia in the years 1865–1904, from Prussia.

At the turn of the 20th century, the Jewish community of Latgale developed in a manner equivalent to their counterparts in the Polish lands. Industrialisation resulted in the emergence of the proletariat, which massively supported the Bund and took part in the events of 1905. The Zionist ideology was also gaining steam. Around 1914, the number of Jews living in Latgale was estimated at 80,000. Many well-known figures originated from the community, including eminent Polish conductor Grzegorz Fitelberg (1879-1953), born in a townhouse at 58 Mihoelsa ielā Street in Daugavpils, preserved until the present day.

World War I put a halt to the community’s development. The retreating Russian authorities forced the local Jews to move to remote territories of the empire, treating them as an “uncertain element” in the strategic border region. The number of displaced persons reached tens of thousands. Only a few decided to return to their homeland in the later years, especially since the Russian authorities ceased to enforce the requirement of residence in the settlement zone in 1914 (it was finally abolished after the 1917 February Revolution).

 

The eastern part of modern Latvia, including Latgale, i.e. former Polish Livonia.

Segment of the Large road map of Latvia from the website www.mapsland.com, source: http://www.mapsland.com/europe/latvia/large-road-map-of-latvia [Accessed: December 4, 2017].

In 1920, Latgale was incorporated into the independent Latvia. The region was inhabited by approximately 30,000 Jews, but not necessarily ‘local’ Jews, who were replaced mostly by newcomers from Lithuania and the strongly Germanised Courland. A new centre appeared in the region – the new town of Zilupe, established on the estates of Rosenau, where Jews had not been allowed to settle before 1904, and which in 1914 already boasted as many as ca. one thousand families.

During the first years following the World War I, the status of the Jewish communities in Latvia was similar to this of the Jewish residents of the Second Polish Republic. Jews enjoyed a number of freedoms, including the autonomy of political life, education and the existence of social organisations. The mayors of Krāslava and Preiļi were Jews. Daugavpils was an important religious centre – among its inhabitants were the Orthodox leader Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk and the Hasidic Tzaddik Josif Rozin, called Rogatchover after his place of birth, Rogatchov in Belarus. In the school year 1929/1930, there were 36 Jewish educational institutions operating in the region, providing education to 4,400 children. Jews lost many of their liberties after the Ulmanis’ Coup in 1934, but the restrictions (including the ban on political parties) were also imposed on the rest of the society.

In 1940, Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union. Enterprises belonging to Jews, as well as any large, privately owned undertakings, were nationalised. Many people were subjected to repressions. On 14 June 1941, during the deportation campaign in Latgale, about 300 Jews were taken to Siberia.

After the outbreak of the German-Soviet war in June 1941, the region quickly came under German control. Both the new occupation authorities and willingly assisting local collaborators (from Riga, including the genocidal criminals of the Sonderkommando Arajs and the local so-called self-defence units) initiated a campaign to exterminate the local Jewish population. Many smaller communities fell victim to the Holocaust before autumn 1941. A ghetto was set up in Daugavpils.

Most Jews present in Latgale in the postwar period were individuals and families returning from the distant regions of the USSR, as well as people migrating to the “more western”, better developed Latvia from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. After 1945, there were groups of Jews living in Daugavpils, Rēzekne, Ludza, Krāslava, Krustpils, Preiļi, Varakļāni and Līvāni. In several towns, the local synagogues resumed their services (Daugavpils, Rēzekne, Ludza), while other localities had private houses of prayer. During the so-called perestroika, after 1988, Jews started to establish local associations and organise Hebrew courses; ceremonies were organised and monuments were erected.

This short period of relative revival ended with the wave of mass emigration to Israel and other countries at the end of the 20th century. In 2016, only about 200 Jews lived in all of Latgale, most of them elderly. There was only one active synagogue – Kaddish in Daugavpils, but it had no rabbi. The Daugavpils community seems to be the most active in the region today. There is even a museum on the first floor of the local synagogue, called “The Jews of Daugavpils and Latgale”.

What distinguishes Latgale from other regions of contemporary Central and Eastern Europe are the wooden synagogues in Rēzekne and Ludza, preserved in their original location. In the 21st century both objects underwent meticulous and costly reconstruction and restoration. More than 70 years after the Holocaust, these beautifully restored synagogues are now truly unique monuments.

The most important Jewish centres in Latgale

Latvian name

The number of Jews in 1897

The number of Jews in 1935

Dagda

1,026 (68%)

589 (53%)

Daugavpils

32,384 (47%)

11,106 (25%)

Krāslava

4,051 (51%)

1,444 (34%)

Krustpils

3,164 (76%)

1,043 (29%)

Līvāni

1,406 (52%)

981 (28%)

Ludza

2,803 (55%)

1,518 (24%)

Preiļi

1,375 (65%)

847 (51%)

Zilupe

-

471 (30%)

Rēzekne

6,478 (60%)

3,342 (25%)

Varakļāni

1,365 (75%)

952 (57%)

Višķi

668 (69%)

423 (56%)

 

Adam Dylewski

Bibliography

  • Mielier M., Mesta nashei pamyati. Yevreiskye obshchiny Latvii, unichtozhennye v Holokostye, Riga 2010.
  • Ročko J., Ceļveds “Ebreju Latgola”, Daugavpils 2016 (also contains Russian text).

The text and related articles uses materials provided by the ‘Jews in Latvia’ Museum in Riga (Muzejs ‘Ebreji Latvijā’) and the ‘Jews of Daugavpils and Latgale’ Museum in Daugavpils (Muzejs ‘Ebreji Daugavpilī un Latgalē’), to which we would like to express our gratitude.

 

 

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