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 
Jewish habitation.
   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 
this achievement.
   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 
victims, etc.
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 
national identities.

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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