JEWS IN ESTONIA
There is little information regarding the arrival of Jews in Estonia. There
are, according to archive materials, individual reports of Jews in Estonia as
early as the fourteenth century. This, however, should not be considered the
starting point for a permanent Jewish settlement here; Jews were prohibited
from living in Estonia, i.e. Estonia was not part of the region designated for
Actually, the process of Jewish settlement in Estonia began in the
nineteenth century, when they were granted the right to enter the region by a
statute of Czar Alexander II in 1865. This allowed the so-called Nicholas
soldiers and their descendants, kantonists, I Gild tradesmen, artisans and
Jews with higher education to settle in Estonia and other parts of the empire.
The Nicholas soldiers, their descendants and artisans were, basically, the
ones who founded the first Jewish congregations in Estonia. The Tallinn
congregation, the largest in Estonia, was founded in 1830. The Tartu
congregation was established in 1866 when the first fifty families settled
A Jewish congregation does not exist without its synagogue; the largest of
which were constructed in Tallinn in 1883 and Tartu in 1901. Both of these
were subsequently destroyed by fire in the Second World War.
As time passed, the Jewish population spread to other Estonian cities where
houses of prayer (at Valga, Parnu and Viljandi) and cemeteries were erected.
At that time, the Jews sought to establish their own network of education,
i.e. boys' schools were established for the teaching of the Talmud, and
elementary schools were organized in Tallinn in the 1880s. The majority of the
Jewish population at that time consisted of small tradesmen and artisans, very
few were literate, hence Jewish cultural life lagged.
A change was brought about at the end of the nineteenth century when Jews
entered Tartu University. University students did much to enliven Jewish
culture and education. 1917 even saw the founding of the Jewish Drama Club in
Approximately 200 Jews fought in combat for the creation of the Republic of
Estonia. 70 of these men were volunteers. The creation of the Republic of
Estonia in 1918 marked the beginning of a new era in the life of the Jews.
From the very first days of her existence as a state, Estonia showed her
loyalty to all the peoples habitating her territories. The government sought
ways to overcome national hostilities and discrimination. This set the stage
for energetic growth in the political and cultural activities of Jewish
society. On May 11-16, 1919 the first Estonian Congress of Jewish
congregations was convened to discuss the new circumstances Jewish life was
confronting. This is where the ideas of cultural autonomy and a Jewish
Gymnasium in Tallinn were born. Jewish societies and associations began to
grow in numbers. The largest of these new societies was the H.N. Bjalik
Literature and Drama Society in Tallinn founded in 1918. Societies and clubs
were established in Viljandi, Narva, and elsewhere. In 1920, the Maccabi
Sports Society was founded and became well-known for its endeavors to
encourage sports among Jews. They also took an active part in sporting events
in Estonia and abroad. Sara Teitelbaum was a 17-time champion in Estonian
athletics and established no less than 28 records.
In the 1930s there were about 100 Jews studying at Tartu University. 44
studied jurisprudence and 18 medicine. In 1934 a chair was established in the
School of Philosophy for the study of Judaica. There were five Jewish student
societies in Tartu: Academic Society, Women's Student Society Hazfiro,
Corporation Limuvia, Society Hasmonea and the Endowment for Jewish Students.
All of these had their own libraries and played important roles in Jewish
cultural and social life. Political organizations such as Hasomer Hazair and
Beitar were also established. Many Jewish youth travelled to Palestine to
establish the Jewish state. The renowned kibbutzim of 'Kfar Blum' and 'Ein
Gev' were set up in part by Jews from Estonia.
In 1919 a Jewish elementary school was founded by the Tallinn congregation.
Its first class graduated in 1923. At the request of the parents, the first
gymnasium class (grade 7) started in the fall of 1923 and the second class
(grade 8) followed in 1924. This was the founding of the Jewish Gymnasium in
Tallinn. In its first year 223 pupils studied there. In 1924, the new
schoolhouse was completed on Karu 16. The building was constructed at the
expense of the small Jewish community and what they could not pay for
themselves they borrowed. The Gymnasium played a very important role in Jewish
cultural life in Tallinn and all of Estonia until 1940. The Maccabi Sports
Society operated here, lectures were read, get-togethers were organized,
balls, theatres, and song and dance showed the many facets society offered.
Samuel Gurin served as director from 1925 when the gymnasium was officially
established until its liquidation in 1940.
On February 12, 1925 the dream was fulfilled. The Estonian government
passed a law pertaining to the cultural autonomy of minority peoples. This was
a logical step forward in the national policies of the Estonian Republic. The
Jewish community quickly prepared its application for cultural autonomy.
Statistics on Jewish citizens were compiled. They totalled 3045, fulfilling
the minimum requirement of 3000 for cultural autonomy. In June 1926 the Jewish
Cultural Council was elected and the Jewish cultural autonomy declared. The
administrative organ of this autonomy was the Board of Jewish Culture, headed
by Hirsh Aisenstadt until its liquidation in 1940. Aisenstadt was arrested by
the Soviet authorities in 1949.
The cultural autonomy of minority peoples is an exceptional phenomenon in
European cultural history. Therefore Jewish cultural autonomy was of great
interest to the global Jewish community. The Jewish National Endowment 'Keren
Karamet' presented the Estonian government with a certificate of gratitude for
In 1936 the tenth anniversary of Jewish cultural autonomy was celebrated.
The Board of Jewish Culture worked actively. Boards of trustees were
established in many of the larger cities. Three schools operated: the
gymnasium in Tallinn, a secondary school in Tartu and an elementary school in
Valga. In the thirties 352 pupils were engaged in Jewish schools, i.e. 55% of
the school-age population. In cities with few Jewish children language and
history lessons were organized by the local cultural boards of trustees. There
were Jewish kindergartens established in Tallinn, Tartu, Narva, Viljandi and
In 1934 there were 4381 Jews living in Estonia (0.4. percent of the
population). 2203 Jews lived in Tallinn. Other cities of residence included
Tartu (920), Valga (262), Parnu (248), Narva (188) and Viljandi (121).
1688 Jews contributed to the national economy. 31% in commerce, 24% in
services, 14.5% were artisans, and 14% were laborers. There were also large
businesses: the leather factory 'Uzvanski and Sons' in Tartu, the Ginovkeris'
Candy Factory in Tallinn, furriers Ratner and Hoff and forest improvement
companies such as Seins, Judeniks, etc. There was a society for tradesmen and
industrialists. Tallinn and Tartu boasted Jewish cooperative banks. Only 9.5%
of the Jewish population worked freelance. Most of these were physicians, over
80 in all (there was also a society for Jewish physicians). In addition there
were 16 pharmacists and 4 veterinarians. 11% of the Jewish population had
received higher education, 37% secondary education and 33% elementary
education. 18% had only received home education.
This minimal Jewish community established its own social welfare system.
The Jewish Goodwill Society of the Tallinn Congregation made it their business
to oversee and execute the ambitions of this system. The Rabbi of Tallinn at
that time was Dr Gomer. In 1941 during the German occupation he was ruthlessly
derided and murdered. In Tartu the Jewish Assistance Union was active, and
welfare units were set up in Narva, Valga and Parnu.
The peaceful and active life of the small Jewish community in Estonia came to
an abrupt halt in 1940 with the Soviet occupation of Estonia. Cultural
autonomy in addition to all of its institutions were liquidated in July 1940.
In July and August of the same year all organizations, associations, societies
and corporations were closed. A large group of Jews (about 400) were deported on
June 14, 1941. After the German occupation later in 1941, all Jews who had
failed to flee were murdered. According to data from Israel, 1000 Estonian
Jews were executed in 1941.
After the war, a part of the Jews who had previously fled to the Soviet Union
returned to Soviet-occupied Estonia. There was, however, no rebirth of Jewish
cultural life because Communist Party policies hostile to Jews were being
implemented under the guise of an anti-Zionism campaign. Hence in addition to
physical destruction the Jews in Estonia met moral and cultural catastrophe.
Only the congregation as a religious unit was operative. One of its duties
was to take care of the Rahumae Cemetery. No synagogue was erected and services
were conducted in a house of prayer which was in poor repair. Jews were not
allowed to learn their own language, history or practise their traditions. Some
people found guilty of learning Hebrew were sentenced to time in prison camps.
There were establishments and offices where Jews were not allowed to work. Some
people even tried to change their nationality. Thus the Soviet Union
extinguished the historical memory of the Jewish community: the young were no
longer aware of their own national background. Parents and grandparents were
afraid of telling children of their heritage. Moral genocide of approx. 2.5
million Jews was implemented in the Soviet Union. People were not allowed to
investigate Jewish genocide which happened during the German occupation. The
archives were off limits to Jewish researchers. In addition, Jews had
difficulties gaining admittance to institutions of higher education, especially
in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. For this reason, young people striving to quench
their thirst for knowledge attended the University of Tartu and the
Polytechnical Institute in Tallinn (now known as the Technical University).
Young Jews arrived in Estonia from Moscow, Leningrad and elsewhere. If they
were unable to find jobs in their home towns, they did not have that problem in
Estonia. Many of the new arrivals became professors and department heads at
Tartu University. Some even achieved world renown, e.g. Juri Lotman, professor
in semiotics. In the 70s Jews also started coming to Estonia on their way to
Israel or the United States. Estonia, for good reasons, became known as a place
from which it was easy to leave the Soviet Union.
From 1940 until 1988 the Estonian Jewish community like elsewhere in the
Soviet Union had no organizations, associations or even clubs.
In only a matter of four years the situation changed. In March of 1988 the
Jewish Cultural Society was established in Tallinn. It was the first of its
kind in the entire Soviet Empire. Exceptionally in the Soviet Union, there were
no problems with registering either the society or its symbols. There was a
lack of experience in organizing the workings of a national cultural society
and, of course, no rooms were available. But the enthusiasm generated enough
momentum to accomplish many things despite failing resources. The Society began
by organizing concerts and lectures. Jewish people, deprived of the possibility
for any cultural activities for fifty years, joined in. Soon the question of
founding a Jewish school surfaced. For the start, a Sunday school was
established in 1989. The Tallinn Jewish Gymnasium on Karu Street was being used
by the Vocational School. An agreement was reached with the director which
allowed the Sunday School to use the school rooms. In 1990, a Jewish School with
classes 1 through 9 was established.
Jewish culture clubs, which remained under the wing of the Cultural Society,
were started in Tartu, Narva and Kohtla-Jarve. Other organizations followed:
the sports society 'Maccabi', the Society for the Gurini Goodwill Endowment and
the Jewish Veterans' Union. Life returned to the Jewish congregation. Courses
in Hebrew became a matter of fact. Thanks to the Jewish communities of Israel
and other countries a relatively large library was opened.
The gamut of cultural activities kept on growing. The Jewish Cultural
Society is a founding member of Eestimaa Rahvuste Uhendus (Union of Estonian
Peoples) which was founded at the end of 1988.
The re-establishment of the Estonian Republic in 1991 brought about numerous
political, economic and social changes. The Jews living in Estonia could now
defend their rights as a national minority. The Jewish Community was
established in 1992, and its charter was approved on April 11, 1992.
The Jewish Community in Estonia acts as a blanket organization for the above
mentioned organizations and societies if they so desire. As members they also
retain their autonomous structures. Presently the community consists of about
1000 Jews. Most recently, a Jewish synagogue was re-opened in Tallinn. The
membership is dominated by pensioners, over 50%, and this presents some
obstacles. The community is headed by the council, elected by the whole
membership. The council's activities are coordinated by the chair and two
assistants who are chosen from the ranks of the council. The Community is
active in the following areas:
1. The elaboration of an education system, the organization of culturally
oriented activities, and the promotion of historical research.
2. The allocation of social welfare for famililess elderly invalids, accident
3. The allocation of aid to Alia (the repatriation of Jews to Israel).
4. The representation of Jewish rights in governmental bodies.
Part of Jewish tradition is loyalty and support to the people and state
where they live. Likewise the Estonian Republic has traditionally regarded its
Jews with friendship and accommodation. To illustrate this, a new law for
cultural autonomy, based on the 1925 law, was passed in October 1993. This law
grants minority peoples, such as Jews, a legal guarantee to preserve their
This fact sheet is published by the Estonian Institute as part of the Estonian
information service abroad and is intended to be used for reference purposes.
It may be freely used in preparing articles, speeches, broadcasts, etc. No
acknowledgment is necessary. Please note the date of publication.
For further information please contact:
THE ESTONIAN INSTITUTE
Postal address P.O. box 3468 Tallinn EE0090 Estonia
Telephone (+372 2) 443 555
Telefax (+372 2) 691 877
Published in February 1994
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