Friday, May 4, 2018

Courland Jews, an Interesting History

There is no country by the name of Courland, but there is a historical subset of Latvian Jews known as Courland Jews. Their distinction comes from the connection in the 19th century of the Duchy of Courland to both the more traditional Lithuanian Jews and the more “enlightened” German Jews.

In the Middle Ages, the Courland area (south-southwest Latvia) was controlled by the Livonian Order, Germanic knights who maintained a general ban on Jewish settlement in the region. Even after the region came under Polish sovereignty, when it was named the Duchy of Courland, it retained a distinct German influence. Many of the estates, around which Jews ended up settling, were linguistically German. During Polish sovereignty (1561 - 1795), Jews were allowed to live in Courland, but were prohibited from many venues of livelihood except in the small Bishopric of Pilten, where the Bishop encouraged full Jewish settlement.

In 1795, the Duchy of Courland was incorporated into the Russian Empire. The Russian Emperor Paul I granted the Jews the right to settle and even vote (at the cost of double taxation).

At this time, the Jews of Eastern Europe were impoverished materially and burdened by persecution, but rich in tradition. At the same time, German Jews were gaining civil recognition and establishing a middle class while creating a Jewish life removed from tradition. The Jews of Courland, on the other hand, had strong ties to the traditional Jewish world of neighboring Lithuania and Poland. However, given the continual German influence in their region, the Courland Jews assumed many of the educational and cultural attitudes of the “enlightened” German Jews, but without the assimilating effects.

Because of this dichotomy, the Courland Jews created a distinct enough community that they were exempted from the general rule that all Russian Jews must live only in the Pale of Settlement.

During World War I, life for Courland Jews was violently disrupted when the Russians blamed them for their early defeats against the Germans on that front. With only 24 hour notice, the Jews of the Duchy of Courland were expelled and sent deeper into Russia. Of the 40,000 who left, fewer than half returned.

Today’s post was written in honor of Latvia’s Restoration of Independence Day, marking the day Latvia declared itself free of the (former) United Soviet Socialist Republic.

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