Le judaïsme en Lettonie
The first Jewish community was established in the late 16th century in Kurzeme, the Western part of Latvia, where Jews were allowed to purchase property and build prayer houses. Jews came from Western Ukraine and Belarus in the mid-17th century to the Eastern part of Latvia, Latgale. During the 18th century, when the Jewish community started forming in Riga, it flourished significantly, mainly due to the influx of immigrants from Prussia. According to All-Russia census of 1897, by the end of the 19th century, the Jewish community had increased to 3.5% of the population of Latvia, living predominantly in the largest cities : Riga, Daugavpils, and Liepaja.
Because of the wave of anti-Semitism which hit the Russian Empire after 1881, many Jews emigrated to the USA and Great Britain. By the end of World War I, when the independence of the Republic of Latvia was proclaimed (1918), Jews fought in the country’s War of Independence. During the 1920s–1930s, Jews were granted cultural and national autonomy. They developed their own institutions, including nine Jewish political parties. The religious life of Latvian Jews was highly active : there were about 200 Jewish religious communities in the country. One of the centres of Jewish culture and religion in the Eastern Europe was Daugavpils with more than 40 synagogues. By the end of the 1930s, about 93,000 Jews lived in Latvia. Most of them were Latvian citizens and spoke the state language, Latvian.
World War II had a catastrophic impact on Latvian Jews. Following the occupation of Latvia by the USSR (1940), the Soviet regime banned Jewish political parties, closed Jewish libraries and schools, curtailed religious activities, and nationalized many Jewish businesses. On June 14, 1941, more than 15,000 people (including about 2,000 Jews) were deported from Latvia to remote areas of the USSR, where the majority of them died in labour camps. When Nazi troops occupied Latvia in 1941, only 14,000 of Jews survived. The vast majority met their death in concentration camps, mass killing operations, or in the ghettos. In Riga, all the synagogues were burnt down, except the Peitavas Street synagogue (built in 1905 in the manner of Art Nouveau) because it was located in the Old Town, and there was a threat that the fire would spread to nearby buildings.
After WWII, it appeared that the wall of the synagogue, where the bookcase with Torah scrolls had been stored, had been concealed. In this way, the Torah scrolls were saved from destruction by a pastor from the nearby Reformed church.
During the Soviet period, it was one of the few synagogues working in the USSR. Jews from other regions of the Soviet Union migrated to Latvia, and by 1959, the Jewish community increased to more than 36,000 members. Jewish activists struggled for the right to leave for Israel, and in the 1970s, nearly 6,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, the USA, and Western Europe. Following regaining of Latvian independence in 1991, the Jewish communities were re-established.
Today, the Latvian Jewish community is the biggest in the Baltics, it numbers about 10,000 people, the majority of whom live in Riga while there are smaller Jewish communities elsewhere in Latvia. Although most of the Latvian Jews are non-observant, the historical synagogues are operating in Riga and Daugavpils, and there are discreet religious activities in other localities. In Daugavpils, a synagogue functions thanks to a gift from the family of Daugavpils-born painter Mark Rothko. With the support of the EU, the Latvian State, and the Latvian Council of Jewish Communities, the Peitavas Street synagogue, currently the only synagogue in Riga, was renovated in 2007-2008.