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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in Estonia

Minority rights since 1925 - dominating Herzl Zionists - destroyed Jewish institutions by the Soviets 1940 - Flight from Barbarossa 1941 - NS occupation, massacres, camps and forced labor - Soviet Estonia

Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971):
                Estonia, vol. 6, col. 917, map with major Jewish
                communities in Estonia, 1918-1940: Tallin, Parnu, Nymme,
                Narva, Tartu, Valga, and Voru
Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971): Estonia, vol. 6, col. 917, map with major Jewish communities
in Estonia, 1918-1940: Tallin, Parnu, Nymme, Narva, Tartu, Valga, and Voru

from: Estonia; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 6

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)

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ESTONIA  (Est. Esti),

Soviet Socialist Republic, bordering on the gulfs of Finland and Riga; independent republic from 1918 to 1940. Until 1918 part of Russia (Estland and the northern part of Livland).

[[There is no indication about the Jewish life in Estonia before 1897. It can be admitted that first Jews were arriving since the Black Plague persecutions, so since the 14th century approximately]].

The area of Estonia was not included in the Pale of Settlement. In 1897 some 4,000 Jews lived on this territory, including about 1,200 in *Tallinn (then Revel). the nucleus of this community was founded by Jewish soldiers after their demobilization from the army of Czar Nicholas I (see *Cantonists), who established a Jewish cemetery in the town in 1856. There were approximately 1,800 Jews living in the university town of *Tartu (known among Jews by its German name Dorpat), about 480 in Narva (then belonging to the district of St. Petersburg), and about 400 in Pürnu, on the Gulf of Riga.

[1918-1940: independent Estonia]

Jews took part in the struggle for Estonian independence. In independent Estonia, the Jews numbered 4,566 in 1922 and 4,381 in 1934 (about 0.4% of the total population), of whom 2,203 lived in Tallinn, the capital, and 920 in Tartu; 923 (57.4% of those supporting families) were occupied in commerce, 484 (30.1%) in industry and crafts, 159 (9.9%) in the liberal professions, 26 (1.6%) were house owners, and 16 (1.0%) were religious officials. About 642 of the total were employees (officials and laborers) and the remainder were self-employed.

[1925: recognition for minorities Russians, Germans, Swedes and Jews - Jewish cultural institutions]

Estonia was the only country in Eastern Europe to fulfill its obligations toward its national minorities according to the concepts of the Minorities Treaties (see *Minority Rights), even though it had refused to become a signatory. The law on national-cultural autonomy was confirmed by the Estonian parliament on Feb. 5, 1925, and four minorities - Russian, German, Swedish, and Jewish - were accordingly recognized.

The Jewish autonomous institutions, headed by a Cultural Council, were established in 1926. However, only 75% of Estonian Jewry (about 3,252 persons in 1939) registered with the Jewish minority list; the remainder ranged themselves with other nationalities, in particular the Russian. The first Cultural Council was composed of twelve Zionist representatives, nine Yiddishists, and six Independents.

[Zionists are dominating the Jewish community - Hebrew as language of instruction]

Subsequently the Zionists gained in strength, and by 1939 held 20 of the Council's 27 seats. After a severe struggle within the Council on the issue whether the language of instruction in Jewish schools should be Hebrew or Yiddish, the supporters of Hebrew finally prevailed, and most of the Jewish schools were affiliated to the Hebrew Tarbut educational network, including the two secondary (col. 916)

schools of Tallin and Tartu. about 75% of the Jewish children attended Jewish schools. A chair for Hebrew language and literature was established at the university of Tartu. There were three Jewish cooperative banks in Tallin, Tartu, and Narva, with a total of 625 members in 1935. Estonian Jewry attained important national achievements, but because of its small numbers remained culturally dependent on the neighboring Jewish populations of Latvia and Lithuania.

[1930s: Fascist movement in Estonia]

During the 1930s, a Fascist movement was formed in Estonia which launched an anti-Semitic propaganda campaign. The hardening anti-Jewish attitude was reflected in the decrease of the number of students at the university of Tartu, from 188 in 1926 to 96 in 1934.

[1940: Soviet occupation: destruction of the Jewish institutions - 1941: Stalin deportations]

After the annexation of Estonia to the Soviet Union in 1940, the Jewish institutions were liquidated and the political and social organizations disbanded. On the eve of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, some 500 communal leaders and affluent members of the congregation were arrested and deported to the Russian interior.

[1941: Big Flight from Barbarossa: 3,000 Jews can save themselves to Russia]

Due to the efforts of the Soviet Army to halt the German advance on Leningrad, the conquest of Estonia took about two months. Tallinn was not occupied until Sept. 3, 1941, and about 3,000 Estonian Jews succeeded in escaping to the Russian interior.

[1941-1944: NS occupation: remaining Jews murdered - deportation of German and Polish Jews to Estonia to concentration camps - forced labor]

All the Jews remaining in the zone of German occupation, numbering about 1,000, were murdered by the end of 1941. In 1942 and early 1943 about 3,000 Jews, mainly from Germany, were sent to the extermination camp in Kalevi Liiva. By May 1943 Heinrich *Himmler had ordered the cessation of mass shooting and the erection of forced labor camps. The main camp in Estonia was Vaivara, commanded by Hans Aumeier (sentenced and executed in 1947).

About 20,000 Jewish prisoners, mainly from Vilna and Kaunas (Kovno), passed through its gates to labor camps at Klooga, Lagedi, Ereda, and others. The inmates were employed in mining slate, and building fortifications.

the successful advance of the Soviet army led to the evacuation of the camps to Tallinn and from there to *Stutthof from where a "death march" of 10,000 took place along the Baltic coast, other camps were liquidated (2,400 killed at Klooga and 426 at Lagedi).

On Sept. 22, 1944, Estonia was finally liberated [[occupied by Soviet Union, and now a big chase against the NS collaborators began]]. The Germans attempted to burn the bodies of their victims to conceal their crimes.

[1945-1970: Soviet Estonia]

After the war, Jews from all parts of Russia gathered in Estonia. The Jewish population numbered 5,436 in 1959 (0.5% of the total) of whom 1,350 (25%) declared Yiddish as their mother tongue, about 400 Estonian, and the remainder Russian; 3,714 Jews (1.3% of the total population) lived in Tallin. As in the rest of the Soviet Union, there is no organized Jewish life in the Estonian S.S.R.> (col. 917)

[[Soviet occupation of 1944 was not at all a liberation, but another occupation. The Soviet concentration camps within the Gulag system are never mentioned in the Encyclopaedia Judaica]].

-- K. Jokton: Di Geshikhte fun di Yidn in Estland (1927)
-- N. Geuss: Zur Geschichte der Juden in Esti, 2 Vols. (1933-37)
-- idem: Bibliografie fun Yidishe Druk-Oysgabn in Esti (1937);
-- Yahadut Latviyyah (1953), 310-1
-- Ershter Yidisher Kultur Kongres, Paris (1937), 65-66, 196-200
-- I. Garr, in: Algemeyne Yidishe Entsiklopedie, 6 (1963), 395-401
-- M. Dworzecki: Mahanot ha-Yehudim be-Estonyah (1970), with Eng. summ.

[Y.S.]> (col. 917-918)

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Encyclopaedia Judaica: Estonia, volume 6,
                      col. 916
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Estonia, volume 6, col. 916
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Estonia, volume 6,
                      col. 917-918
Encyclopaedia Judaica: Estonia, volume 6, col. 917-918