Jewish Roots in Courland

“The unique type of the Kurland Jew, often named “Kurischer” by his brethren from other parts of Latvia. It meant the Jew from the province, straightforward, not too smart, observant but not very learned, a person with a distinctly German background who at the same time was responsive to cultural and spiritual influences from the Russian provinces.”

Dr. Shaul Lipschitz, “Jewish Communities in Kurland,” in The Jews in Latvia, 1971

The focus of My Courland Towns is the Jewish history of three historic shtetls in the Talsen or Talsi region of Courland, now Kurzeme, Latvia. All three are within 40 km, Sabile being to the south, Valdemarpils on the north, and Talsi in the middle. Many 19th-century Jewish families had relatives in more than one town. General information about Courland can be found below, with more information on the pages of the individual towns.

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Courland, Kurland or Kurzeme, is a historical and cultural region of western Latvia. Geographically, it is bordered on the east by the Daugava River and the Gulf of Riga, on the west by the Baltic Sea, and on the south by the country of Lithuania.

The Duchy of Courland was established in 1561 under the protection of Poland. Prior to that, German knights and Moscovy princes vied for the territory. The exception to this was the private territory of Pilten in northwest Courland, which changed hands frequently in the 17th and 18th-centuries. In 1795, Courland and Pilten were annexed by the Russian empire, becoming the Courland Governate. After World War I, Courland became one of five provinces of Latvia. When the Soviets occupied the area in 1939, Courland ceased to be an administrative unit. In present-day Latvia, the Kurzeme Planning Region includes much of the original area, but is no longer an administrative province.

Jews are believed to have come to Courland between the 14th and 16th centuries. They arrived from Prussia and generally settled in the northern areas, particularly in Pilten, where they were more protected and able to work in commerce and develop communities. The earliest documents still extant indicate Jewish traders building up the amber industry as early as 1581. During the 18th-century, Courland Jews were persecuted by some and tolerated by others, depending on location and situation. The landed gentry encouraged the Jews to stay, but also required significant taxes from them for that privilege. Jews increasingly played a middle merchant role between the noblemen and the farmers.

Following annexation by the Russian Empire, Courland was not included in the Pale of Settlement. By 1799, laws were passed that gave those Jews already settled in the area the right to remain. In 1835, this was changed to only allow those Jews counted in the last census to remain in the territory, risking expulsion to the Pale. In fact, there were no deportations, but Jews were certainly encouraged to leave. The majority of Courland’s Jews did not live in cities or towns. As much as 80% lived in the countryside, connecting themselves with the estates of the German barons.

Culturally, Courland’s Jews were influenced both by the East (Lithuania) and the West (Germany). As German-speakers, they were particularly open to educators from Germany, but also connected to yeshivot in nearby Lithuania. From Dr. Shaul Lipschitz, “Where the East took the lead in Jewish religious education, the West cared for the secular aspects.”

During the late 19th and early 20th-centuries, Jews began leaving the country and the countryside. Migration to the more prosperous cities of Libau, Windau and Riga increased, as did emigration to America, England and South Africa. In April of 1915, the entire Jewish population of Courland was expelled to Russia within 24 hours, accused of colluding with the Germans. Many did not return.

Further Reading

Courland Genealogy Resources


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