Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Golden Ages of Estonia

Estonia, one of the three Baltic states, has never historically hosted a large population of Jews, but the quality of its hospitality toward Jews and other minorities has been quite remarkable.

The first permanent Jewish settlement in Estonia was established in the 19th century, when, in 1865,  Russian Czar Alexander II, allowed former Jewish cantonists to settle outside the pale of settlement. These former cantonists helped to populate the struggling synagogue, in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital city, which had been around since the 1830s. The Tartu congregation was founded in 1866, as 50 Jewish families settled in that college town.

The independent Republic of Estonia was created in 1918 and allowed great freedoms to Jews and other minorities. The Estonian Congress of Jewish congregations had its initial meeting on May 11-16, 1919, when many Estonian Jewish societies and organizations were established, including many Zionistic ones. Estonian Jewish youth regularly traveled and emigrated to Palestine. Kibbutz Kfar Blum and Kibbutz Ein Gev were founded in Israel’s north by Estonian immigrants. The Estonian government passed a cultural autonomy law on February 12, 1925, allowing groups over 3,000 people, to control the educational organs within its own community. (The Jewish community numbered 3,045). In 1926, Hebrew began to replace Russian in the Jewish public school in Tallinn; in 1928, a Yiddish language school was founded. A 1934 census identified 4,381 Jews living in Estonia, 2,203 of whom lived in Tallinn.

This golden age of Estonia for Jews, however, abruptly ceased with the Soviet occupation of Estonia in 1940, and the arrival of German troops in 1941.The cultural autonomy law was cancelled, Jewish businesses were nationalized, and about 10% of the Jewish population were deported to Soviet prison camps, where they perished. By 1941, the 1,000 men, women and children who remained in Estonia were killed, including Estonia’s only rabbi. Only about a dozen Jews are known to have survived in Estonia. Estonia was actually declared Judenfrei (free of Jews) by early 1942.
1,500 Jews returned to Tallinn after World War II, and records indicate that 3,714 Jews lived in Tallinn in 1959. In 1988, the Jewish Cultural Society, the first Jewish institution to be established in Estonia in 48 years, opened in Tallinn. Its establishment was the first Jewish Cultural society in the history of the Soviet Union.

On August 20, 1991, Estonia re-established its independence as a “historical continuity” from its pre-1940 status. The Jewish community was officially recognized on April 11, 1992, and a second cultural autonomy law was passed in Estonia in October 1993. As of 2012, the Jewish population of Estonia was 1,738.

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