|Estonian, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Other Ashkenazi Jews|
Russian Jews, Lithuanian Jews, Latvian Jews, Polish Jews
Jews settled in the region in the 19th century, especially following a statute of Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1865 that 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 the 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 Jews 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. In 1917 the Jewish Drama Club was founded in Tartu.
The creation of the Republic of Estonia in 1918 marked the beginning of a new era in the life of Jews. From the independence of Estonia 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 3,045, fulfilling the minimum requirement of 3,000 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.
From the very first days of its existence as a state, Estonia showed tolerance towards all the peoples inhabiting its 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.
In 1934, there were 4381 Jews living in Estonia (0.4% 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.
"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."
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.
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.
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 were liquidated in July 1940. In July and August of the same year all organisations, associations, societies and corporations were closed. Jewish 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.
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.
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. 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. 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. Virtually all the remainder (921 according to Martin Sandberger, 929 according to Evgenia Goorin-Loov and 963 according to Walter Stahlecker) were killed. 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.
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. From 1944 until 1988 the Estonian Jewish community had no organisations, associations, or clubs.
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.
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.