History of the Jews in Estonia

The history of the Jews in Estonia[2] starts with individual reports of Jews in what is now Estonia from as early as the 14th century. However, the process of permanent Jewish settlement in Estonia began in the 19th century, especially after they were granted the official right to enter the region by a statute of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1865. This allowed the so-called Jewish "Nicholas soldiers" (often former cantonists) and their descendants, First Guild merchants, artisans, and Jews with higher education to settle in Estonia and other parts of the Russian Empire outside their Pale of Settlement. The "Nicholas soldiers" and 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 there. Synagogues were built, the largest of which were constructed in Tallinn in 1883 and Tartu in 1901. Both of these were subsequently destroyed by fire in World War II.

The Jewish population spread to other Estonian cities where houses of prayer (at Valga, Pärnu and Viljandi) were erected and cemeteries were established. Schools were opened to teach Talmud, and elementary schools were organised in Tallinn in the 1880s. The majority of the Jewish population at that time consisted of small tradesmen and artisans; very few knew science, hence Jewish cultural life lagged. This began to change at the end of the 19th century when several Jews entered the University of Tartu and later contributed significantly to enliven Jewish culture and education. 1917 even saw the founding of the Jewish Drama Club in Tartu.

Estonian Jews
Eesti juudid
יהודים אסטונים
Total population
Estonian, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish
Related ethnic groups
Other Ashkenazi Jews
Russian Jews, Lithuanian Jews, Latvian Jews, Polish Jews

Jewish autonomy in independent Estonia

Approximately 200 Jews fought in combat in the Estonian War of Independence (1918–1920) for the creation of the Republic of Estonia. 70 of these fighters 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 tolerance towards all ethnic and religious minorities. This set the stage for energetic growth in the political and cultural activities of Jewish society. Between 11 and 16 May 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 (secondary school) 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 endeavours to encourage sports among Jews. Jews 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 fewer than 28 records. In the 1930s there were about 100 Jews studying at the University of Tartu: 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: the Women's Student Society Hazfiro, the Corporation Limuvia, the Society Hasmonea and the Endowment for Jewish Students. All of these had their own libraries and played important roles in Jewish culture and social life.

Political organisations such as Zionist youth organisations Hashomer Hazair and Beitar were also established. Many Jewish youth travelled to Palestine to establish the Jewish State. The kibbutzim of Kfar Blum and Ein Gev were set up in part by Estonian Jews.

On 12 February 1925, the Estonian government passed a law on the cultural autonomy of minorities. 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 Jewish cultural autonomy declared. The administrative organ of this autonomy was the Board of Jewish Culture, headed by Hirsch Aisenstadt until it was disbanded following the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940. When German troops occupied Estonia in 1941, Aisenstadt evacuated to Russia. He returned to Estonia when the Germans had left, but 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 Kajamet presented the Estonian government with a certificate of gratitude for this achievement.

This cultural autonomy allowed full control of education by the community. From 1926, Hebrew began to replace Russian in the Jewish public school in Tallinn, while in 1928 a rival Yiddish language school was founded.[3]

From the very first days of her existence as a state, Estonia showed her tolerance towards all the peoples inhabiting her territories. In 1925, the Act of Cultural Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities was enacted in Estonia, giving minority groups consisting of at least 3 000 individuals the right to self-determination in cultural matters. Financial support was provided by the state. Thus, in 1926, Jewish cultural autonomy was declared. For its tolerant policy towards Jews, a page was dedicated to the Republic of Estonia in the Golden Book of Jerusalem in 1927.[4]


Grande syna Tallinn
Tallinn Synagogue, built in 1885, destroyed by Bombing of Tallinn in 1944.

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), Pärnu (248), Narva (188) and Viljandi (121). 1688 Jews contributed to the national economy: 31% in commerce, 24% in services, 14.5% as artisans, and 14% as labourers. 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 and Judeiniks. There was a society for tradesmen and industrialists. Tallinn and Tartu boasted Jewish co-operative 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 education at home.

The 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 harassed and finally murdered. In Tartu the Jewish Assistance Union was active, and welfare units were set up in Narva, Valga and Pärnu.

In 1933 the influence of National Socialism on Baltic Germans began to be a concern. Nazism was outlawed as a movement contrary to social order, the German Cultural Council was disbanded, and the National Socialist Viktor von Mühlen, the elected member of the Baltic German Party, was forced to resign from the Riigikogu. All materials ridiculing Jews, including the National Socialist magazine "Valvur" (Guard) were banned by order of the State Elder Konstantin Päts as materials inciting hatred.

In the same year a faculty of Jewish Studies was established at Tartu University. Lazar Gulkowitsch, a former professor at Leipzig University was appointed the university's first Professor and Chair of Jewish Studies and began teaching in 1934.

In 1936, the British-based Jewish newspaper The Jewish Chronicle reported after a visit to Tallinn by one of its journalists:

"Estonia is the only country in Eastern Europe where neither the Government nor the people practice any discrimination against Jews and where Jews are left in peace.... the cultural autonomy granted to Estonian Jews ten years ago still holds good, and Jews are allowed to lead a free and unmolested life and fashion it in accord with their national and cultural principles."[5]

In February 1937, as anti-semitism was growing elsewhere in Europe, the vice president of the Jewish Community Heinrich Gutkin was appointed by Presidential decree to the Estonian upper parliamentary chamber, the Riiginõukogu.[6]

Throughout the 1930s, Zionist youth movements were active, with pioneer training being offered on Estonian farms by HeHalutz, while the leading cultural institute Bialik Farein performed plays and its choir toured and performed on radio.[3]

World War II

The life of the small Jewish community in Estonia was disrupted in 1940 with the Soviet occupation of Estonia. Cultural autonomy together with all its institutions was liquidated in July 1940. In July and August of the same year all organisations, associations, societies and corporations were closed. The Jews' businesses were nationalized. A relatively large number of Jews (350–450, about 10% of the total Jewish population) were deported into prison camps in Russia by the Soviet authorities on 14 June 1941, where most perished.[7][8]

The Holocaust

Map used to illustrate Stahlecker's report to Heydrich on January 31, 1942
German map showing the number of Jewish executions carried out by Einsatzgruppe A. * Estonia 963 executions and declared "Judenfrei" * Latvia 35.238 executions * Lithuania 136.421 executions * Belarus 41.828 executions * Russia 3600 executions * at the bottom: "the estimated number of Jews still on hand is 128,000".

More than 75% of Estonia's Jewish community, aware of the fate that otherwise awaited them, managed to escape to the Soviet Union; virtually all the remainder (between 950 and 1000 men, women and children) had been killed by the end of 1941. They included Estonia's only Rabbi; the professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Tartu; Jews who had left the Jewish community; the mentally disabled; and a number of veterans of the Estonian War of Independence. Fewer than a dozen Estonian Jews are known to have survived the war in Estonia.[9]

Round-ups and killings of Jews began immediately following the arrival of the first German troops in 1941, who were closely followed by the extermination squad Sonderkommando 1a under Martin Sandberger, part of Einsatzgruppe A led by Walter Stahlecker. Arrests and executions continued as the Germans, with the assistance of local collaborators, advanced through Estonia. Unlike German forces, Estonians seem to have supported the anti-Jewish actions on the political level, but not on a racial basis. The standard excuse used for the "cleansing" operations was arrest 'because of Communist activity'. This equation of Jews with Communism evoked a positive Estonian response, and attempts were made by Estonian police to determine whether an arrested person indeed supported Communism. Estonians often argued that their Jewish colleagues and friends were not communists and submitted proof of pro-Estonian conduct in the hope of being able to get them released.[10] Anton Weiss-Wendt in his dissertation "Murder Without Hatred: Estonians, the Holocaust, and the Problem of Collaboration" concluded on the basis of the reports of informers to the occupation authorities that Estonians in general did not believe in Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda and by majority maintained positive opinion about Jews.[11] Estonia was declared Judenfrei quite early, at the Wannsee Conference on 20 January 1942, as the Jewish population of Estonia was small (about 4,500), and the majority of it managed to escape to the Soviet Union before the Germans arrived.[10][12] Virtually all the remainder (921 according to Martin Sandberger, 929 according to Evgenia Goorin-Loov and 963 according to Walter Stahlecker) were killed.[13] The Nazi regime also established 22 concentration and labor camps in Estonia for foreign Jews, the largest being Vaivara concentration camp. Several thousand foreign Jews were killed at the Kalevi-Liiva camp. An estimated 10,000 Jews were killed in Estonia after having been deported there from Eastern Europe.[12]

There were two Estonians who have been honoured with The Righteous Among the Nations: Uku Masing and his wife Eha.[14]

Soviet period

The four Estonians held most responsible for the murders at Kalevi-Liiva were accused at war crimes trials in 1961. Two were later executed; the others avoided sentencing by going into exile.

About 1,500 Jews from Tallinn returned after the war's end, and by 1959 there were 3,714 Jews in the city. After the Six-Day War, 400 Jews from Tallinn immigrated to the State of Israel.[15] From 1944 until 1988 the Estonian Jewish community had no organisations, associations, or clubs.

Modern Estonia

2-Estonie-Tallin- synagogue- DSC04485
Tallinn Synagogue

In March 1988, as the process towards regaining Estonia's independence was beginning, the Jewish Cultural Society was established in Tallinn. It was the first of its kind in the late Soviet Union. Unlike in other parts of the Soviet Union, there were no problems with registering either the society or its symbols. The Society began by organising concerts and lectures. Soon the question of founding a Jewish school arose. As a start, a Sunday school was established in 1989. The Tallinn Jewish Gymnasium on Karu Street was being used by a vocational school. In 1990, a Jewish School with grades 1 through 9 was established.

Jewish culture clubs, which remained under the wing of the Cultural Society, were started in Tartu, Narva, and Kohtla-Järve. Other organisations followed: the sports society Maccabi, the Society for the Gurini Goodwill Endowment and the Jewish Veterans Union. Life returned to Jewish congregations. Courses in Hebrew were re-established. A relatively large library was opened with assistance from Israel and Jewish communities in other countries.

The gamut of cultural activities kept on growing. The Jewish Cultural Society is a founding member of Eestimaa Rahvuste Ühendus (Union of the Peoples of Estonia), which was founded at the end of 1988. The restoration of Estonian independence 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 officially recognized with the approval of its charter on 11 April 1992. Estonia resumed its traditional regard of its Jews with friendship and accommodation. In support of this a new Cultural Autonomy Act, based on the original 1925 law, was passed in Estonia in October 1993. This law grants minority communities, including Jewish, a legal guarantee to preserve their national identities.

On 16 May 2007 a new synagogue was opened in Tallinn. It houses a sanctuary, mikvah and restaurant.[16]

Historical Demographics

Estonia always had a relatively small Jewish population. In contrast to many other European countries, Estonia's Jewish population peaked only after World War II, at almost five and a half thousand people in 1959. It then began a steady decline, with an especially sharp decline in the 1990s after the fall of Communism as many Estonian Jews emigrated to other countries, especially to Israel and USA.

Historical Estonian Jewish population
Source: * [17]

Current Demographics

  • Total Population (2007): 1,900
  • Live Births (2006): 12
  • Total Deaths (2006): 51
  • Birth Rate: 6.32 per 1000
  • Death Rate: 26.84 per 1000
  • NGR: −2.05% per year.[20][20][21]

See also


  1. ^ a b "Population by ethnic nationality, 1 January, years - Statistics Estonia". Stat.ee. 30 March 2012. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  2. ^ Jewish History in Estonia Archived 18 October 2016 at the Wayback Machine at www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org
  3. ^ a b Spector, Shmuel; Geoffrey Wigoder (2001). The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, Volume 3. NYU Press. p. 1286. ISBN 978-0-8147-9356-5.
  4. ^ "Estonian Embassy in Tel Aviv". Telaviv.vm.ee. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  5. ^ "Estonia, an oasis of tolerance". The Jewish Chronicle. 25 September 1936. pp. 22–23.
  6. ^ "Review of Most Important Happenings throughout the World". American Hebrew and Jewish messenger. American Hebrew. 141 (18). 1 January 1937.
  7. ^ Weiss-Wendt, Anton (1998). The Soviet Occupation of Estonia in 1940–41 and the Jews Archived 26 March 2009 at the Wayback Machine. Holocaust and Genocide Studies 12.2, 308–325.
  8. ^ Berg, Eiki (1994). The Peculiarities of Jewish Settlement in Estonia. GeoJournal 33.4, 465–470.
  9. ^ Conclusions of the Estonian International Commission for the Investigation of Crimes Against Humanity Archived 21 June 2007 at the Wayback Machine - Phase II: The German occupation of Estonia in 1941–1944 Archived 29 June 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ a b Birn, Ruth Bettina (2001), Collaboration with Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe: the Case of the Estonian Security Police. Contemporary European History 10.2, 181–198.
  11. ^ "Sur la fusion de l'Europe : la communauté juive estonienne et sa destruction". Par Paul Leslie, pour Guysen Israël News
  12. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-06-12.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 29 September 2011. Retrieved 2007-06-12.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  14. ^ The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust By Sir Martin Gilbert; P.31 Archived 17 June 2016 at the Wayback Machine ISBN 0-8050-6260-2
  15. ^ "The Jewish Community of Tallinn". The Museum of the Jewish People at Beit Hatfutsot. Retrieved 24 June 2018.
  16. ^ delfi.ee: Tallinna sünagoog on avatud (in Estonian)
  17. ^ "Eesti -  Erinevate  Rahvuste   Esindajate Kodu". Miksike.ee. Retrieved 15 April 2013.
  18. ^ "Приложение Демоскопа Weekly". Demoscope.ru. 15 January 2013. Archived from the original on 12 October 2013. Retrieved 14 April 2013.
  19. ^ YIVO | Population and Migration: Population since World War I. Yivoencyclopedia.org. Retrieved on 2013-04-14.
  20. ^ a b [1]
  21. ^ "Births". Pub.stat.ee. Retrieved 15 April 2013.

External links


Estonia (Estonian: Eesti [ˈeːsʲti] (listen)), officially the Republic of Estonia (Estonian: Eesti Vabariik), is a country in Northern Europe. It is bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland with Finland on the other side, to the west by the Baltic Sea with Sweden on the other side, to the south by Latvia (343 km), and to the east by Lake Peipus and Russia (338.6 km). The territory of Estonia consists of a mainland and 2,222 islands in the Baltic Sea, covering a total area of 45,227 km2 (17,462 sq mi), water 2,839 km2 (1,096 sq mi), land area 42,388 km2 (16,366 sq mi), and is influenced by a humid continental climate. The official language of the country, Estonian, is the second most spoken Finnic language.

The territory of Estonia has been inhabited since at least 9,000 B.C. Ancient Estonians were some of the last European pagans to be Christianized, following the Livonian Crusade in the 13th century. After centuries of successive rule by Germans, Danes, Swedes, Poles and Russians, a distinct Estonian national identity began to emerge in the 19th and early 20th centuries. This culminated in independence from Russia in 1920 after a brief War of Independence at the end of World War I. Initially democratic, after the Great Depression Estonia was governed by authoritarian rule since 1934 during the Era of Silence. During World War II (1939–1945), Estonia was repeatedly contested and occupied by the Soviet Union and Germany, ultimately being incorporated into the former as the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic. After the loss of its de facto independence, Estonia's de jure state continuity was preserved by diplomatic representatives and the government-in-exile. In 1987 the peaceful Singing Revolution began against Soviet rule, resulting in the restoration of de facto independence on 20 August 1991.

The sovereign state of Estonia is a democratic unitary parliamentary republic divided into fifteen counties. Its capital and largest city is Tallinn. With a population of 1.3 million, it is one of the least-populous member states of the European Union since joining in 2004, the economic monetary Eurozone, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Schengen Area, and of the Western military alliance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It is a developed country with an advanced, high-income economy that has been among the fastest-growing in the EU. Estonia ranks very high in the Human Development Index, and performs favourably in measurements of economic freedom, civil liberties, education, and press freedom (third in the world in 2012 and 2007). Estonian citizens are provided with universal health care, free education, and the longest-paid maternity leave in the OECD. One of the world's most digitally advanced societies, in 2005 Estonia became the first state to hold elections over the Internet, and in 2014 the first state to provide e-residency.

History of Estonia

The history of Estonia forms a part of the history of Europe. Humans settled in the region of Estonia near the end of the last glacial era, beginning from around 8500 BC. Before German crusaders invaded in the early 13th century, proto-Estonians of ancient Estonia worshipped spirits of nature. Starting with the Northern Crusades in the Middle Ages, Estonia became a battleground for centuries where Denmark, Germany, Russia, Sweden and Poland fought their many wars over controlling the important geographical position of the country as a gateway between East and West.After Danes and Germans conquered the area in 1227, Estonia was ruled initially by Denmark in the north, by the Livonian Order, an autonomous part of the Monastic state of the Teutonic Knights and by Baltic German ecclesiastical states of the Holy Roman Empire. From 1418 to 1562 the whole of Estonia formed part of the Livonian Confederation. After the Livonian War of 1558-1583, Estonia became part of the Swedish Empire until 1710/1721, when Sweden ceded it to Russia as a result of the Great Northern War of 1700-1721. Throughout this period the Baltic-German nobility enjoyed autonomy, and German served as the language of administration and education.

The Estophile Enlightenment Period (1750–1840) led to the Estonian national awakening in the middle of the 19th century. In the aftermath of World War I (1914-1918) and the Russian revolutions of 1917, Estonians declared their independence in February 1918. The Estonian War of Independence (1918-1920) ensued on two fronts: the newly proclaimed state fought against Bolshevist Russia to the east and against the Baltic German forces (the Baltische Landeswehr) to the south. The Tartu Peace Treaty (February 1920) marked the end of fighting and recognised Estonian independence in perpetuity.

In 1940, in the wake of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, the Soviet Union occupied Estonia and (according to e.g. the US, the EU, and the European Court of Human Rights) illegally annexed the country. In the course of Operation Barbarossa, Nazi Germany occupied Estonia in 1941; later in World War II the Soviet Union reoccupied it (1944). Estonia regained independence in 1991 in the course of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and joined the European Union and NATO in 2004.

History of the Jews in the Soviet Union

The history of the Jews in the Soviet Union is inextricably linked to much earlier expansionist policies of the Russian Empire conquering and ruling the eastern half of the European continent already before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. "For two centuries – wrote Zvi Gitelman – millions of Jews had lived under one entity, the Russian Empire and [its successor state] the USSR. They had now come under the jurisdiction of fifteen states, some of which had never existed and others that had passed out of existence in 1939." Before the revolutions of 1989 which resulted in the end of communist rule in Central and Eastern Europe, a number of these now sovereign countries constituted the component republics of the Soviet Union.


Kalevi-Liiva are sand dunes in Jõelähtme Parish in Harju County, Estonia. The site is located near the Baltic coast, north of the Jägala village and the former Jägala concentration camp. It is best known as the execution site of at least 6,000 Jewish and Roma Holocaust victims.

Religion in Estonia

Estonia, which historically was a Lutheran Protestant nation, is today one of the "least religious" countries in the world in terms of declared attitudes, with only 14 per cent of the population declaring religion to be an important part of their daily life.The religious population is predominantly Christian and includes followers of 90 affiliations, most prominently Eastern Orthodoxy and Lutheranism. According to Ringo Ringvee, "religion has never played an important role on the political or ideological battlefield" and that the "tendencies that prevailed in the late 1930s for closer relations between the state and Lutheran church were ended with the Soviet occupation in 1940". He further states that "the chain of religious traditions was broken in most families" under the Soviet policy of state atheism. Before the Second World War, Estonia was approximately 80 per cent Protestant; overwhelmingly Lutheran.

Between 2001 and 2011 census, Eastern Orthodoxy overtook Lutheranism to become the largest Christian denomination in the country due to increasing unaffiliation and very small conversions among Estonians and more migration from Russian neighbors. Lutheranism still remains the most popular religious group among ethnic Estonians (11 per cent of them are Lutherans while also 2 per cent of them are Orthodox), while Eastern Orthodoxy is practised mainly by the mostly non-indigenous immigrant Slavic minorities (approximately 45 per cent of them are Orthodox). According to the University of Tartu, irreligious Estonians are not necessarily atheists; instead, the years 2010s have witnessed a growth of Neopagan, Buddhist and Hindu beliefs among those who declare themselves to be "not religious".

Tallinn Synagogue

Tallinn Synagogue, (Estonian: Tallinna sünagoog), also known as Beit Bella Synagogue, is located in Estonia’s capital city. The privately funded synagogue in central Tallinn was inaugurated on May 16, 2007. The building is an ultramodern, airy structure, which can seat 180 people with additional seating for up to 230 people for concerts and other public events. It received global attention as it was the first synagogue to open in Estonia since World War II.

The original synagogue, built in 1883, was not rebuilt after being destroyed in March 1944 during a Soviet air bombing raid on Tallinn, which at the time was occupied by Nazi Germany - the city then became the only post-war European capital without a synagogue. Tartu, a university town in southeastern Estonia and the second largest city in Estonia, also had a synagogue which was destroyed during World War II.

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