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Jewish Riga


Jews in Latvia Museum.
Jews in Latvia Museum.

5 minute read

Jews have been part of Riga for centuries and enriched the city' artistic, business and scholarly life. Today, after the tragedy of the Holocaust and Soviet discrimination, the Jewish community is bustling and thriving again.

 

 

Below is a brief guide to places around Riga connected with this moving and inspiring story.


before the war

Monument to Oscar Strok.
Monument to Oscar Strok.

Riga's signature drink Riga Black Balsam was invented in 1752 by Jewish pharmacist Abraham Kunze.

 

The fantastic Art Nouveau gallery on Alberta iela was largely the work of Jewish-born Mikhail Eisenstein, and the famous British-Jewish philosopher Isiah Berlin was born at Alberta iela 2.

 

Between the wars, independent Latvia was a tolerant place. Zigfrīds Meirovics, the country's first foreign minister, was of Jewish descent - Z.A. Meirovica bulvāris in the city centre is named after him.

 

Probably the most celebrated Riga Jew of the day was composer Oscar Strok, Riga's King of Tango, whose song "Dark Eyes" was a smash hit across Europe in the early 1930's. There's a monument to Oscar Strok at Tērbatas iela 50, and you can listen to the song here: 


the holocaust

Memorial in Rumbula Forest.
Memorial in Rumbula Forest.

After the USSR occupied Latvia in June 1940, the communists treated the Jewish community with great brutality. When over 15,000 members of Latvia's middle class were sent to Siberia on 14 June 1941, many of the deportees were Jews.

 

After the Nazi invasion, the new regime wasted no time in persecuting the Jews. On 4 July 1941, the Nazis and some local collaborators burned down most of Riga's synagogues. There is a memorial at the site of the Great Choral Synagogue to this atrocity.

 

Riga's Jews as well as Jews deported here from elsewhere in Europe were herded into a ghetto in the Maskačka district. The Riga Ghetto Museum tells this story. That same month, 4,000 Jews were short in Biķernieku Forest on Riga's eastern outskirts. On 30 November and 8 December 1941, most of the ghetto's residents were marched to Rumbula Forest southeast of the city and shot. There are memorials at both execution sites.

 

As an adjacent monument at the Great Choral Synagogue testifies, many Latvians risked their lives and sheltered Jews. The most famous of these was Žanis Lipke and his wife Johanna, who hid several dozen Jews under their woodshed on Ķīpsala Island. Today there is a museum in the former hideout.


jewish riga today

Peitav Shul Synagogue.
Peitav Shul Synagogue.

Facing discrimination by the Soviet regime, numerous Latvian Jews became dissidents. The most celebrated was Ilya Rip, who on 13 April 1969 unfurled a banner in front of Riga's Freedom Monument protesting the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and set himself alight. He survived, and after a period in prison was allowed to go to Israel.

 

Jewish historian Mavriks Vulfsons played an important role in Latvia's movement to regain independence, when on 2 June 1988, he spoke openly about the Hitler-Stalin Pact which sealed the Baltics' fate in the Second World War. This took place at a meeting of the Writers' Union in the Benjamiņš mansion.

 

Today the centre of Jewish life is the community centre on Skolas iela, also home to the Jews in Riga Museum. The kosher restaurant 7:40 is on the Dzirnavu iela side of the building

 

Riga has a Jewish secondary school on Miera iela.

 

The spiritual centre is the Peitav Shul Synagogue in Old Riga. Built in 1905, it survived the Holocaust because the Nazis feared setting it on fire would endanger nearby buildings. Its Torah scroll was hidden during the war by the pastor of the next door Reformation Church.

 

I can take you on a tour by car and foot to these sights. Contact me