Ann Englander reports on her visit to Latvia’s capital
I was recently invited to sing Haydn's Nelson Mass in Riga Cathedral. The cathedral houses one of the largest pipe organs in Europe which has been completely dismantled and reconstructed. As I had never been to any of the Baltic States, this was a tempting and exciting opportunity. And I was interested to learn more about the Jewish community in Latvia.
The Jewish history of Riga, the capital of Latvia, dates back to the 13th century when the first Jewish colony was established. Jews contributed to Latvia's development until a devastating war, from 1700 to 1721, decimated Latvia's population. The Jewish community re-established itself in the later 18th century mainly through migrants from Prussia and came to play a major role in the economic life of the country. The Jewish community was centered in Maskavas, a ghetto southeast of the Old Town.
During World War II the Nazis destroyed most of Maskavas leaving few traces of Riga's early Jewish history. This ended the prominence of the Jewish Community which had flourished under an independent Latvia. Under Stalin, Jews, who only formed 5% of the population, constituted 12% of the deportees. But this pales in comparison to the Shoah which killed 90% of Latvia's Jewish population.
After the defeat of Hitler, thousands of Jews returned to Latvia including Jews from other parts of the Soviet empire. By 1989, some 23,000 Jews were registered in Riga, a number which continuously diminishes due to emigration to Israel, Britain and the USA. Today's Jews live freely and with the full support of the Latvian government.
The current community of 15,000, only half of whom are native Latvians, has it easier than perhaps at any time in the past. An interesting footnote is that in the late 1920s, Riga became the centre for the Lubavitch movement as its leader, Rabbi Schneersohn, was given citizenship and protection by the Latvian government after being exiled from the Soviet Union.
The Peitav-Shul synagogue is the only Riga synagogue to have survived. The building escaped destruction because it was wedged between two other Old Town buildings which the Nazis did not want to destroy. It served as a warehouse and horse stall until the end of the war.