Estonia Lost and Found: The Rebirth of a Community (Or: Mazel Tov Estonia!) (2/09)

 Special to In Time, ca. February 2009

…Because of her remarkably rapid economic recovery and the prevailing low cost of living, Estonia has been called ‘the Golden Corner of Europe.’ But by whatever fair name this beautiful little country may be called on account of her economic position, it can certainly be said that her treatment of Jews does her honor. 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…


–From an article in “The Jewish Chronicle,”
an English-language newspaper about
world Jewry published in 1936

Yiddish, the so-called “lost” Jewish language contains a number of wonderful, not quite translatable words and expressions which have managed to find their way into general currency, but because they sound so good and because they are so apropos for certain people and situations. Surely, you’ve heard of mensch, the Yiddish expression for man, but a certain kind of man—an honorable man, a real man. Then there is the ever-useful schmuck, the word for another type of man, a helpless fool—a real idiot, you might say.

Then there is that ever-handy stand by, Mazal Tov, the Hebrew word for “well done” or “congratulations” but something more, really: truly well done! Jews themselves are most apt to use the expression on ceremonial occasions, particularly for bar or bat mitzvahs or weddings and the like, or, more broadly, for another truly felicitous accomplishment or special occasion—something truly worth celebrating.

Case in point: the long-awaited, truly felicitous opening of the striking Tallinn Beit Bella Synagogue on Karu Street in Tallinn, on May 16, 2007. Not only was the lovingly designed, two floor 12 million kroon modern building, certainly one of the most beautiful houses of worship built in the Baltic states in recent memory, with its soaring pylons and glass walls, an architectural marvel itself. So, too, was the occasion itself: the first opening of a new synagogue in Estonia since the long ago “good years” of the 1930s, when the then 6,000 large Jewish population of Estonia was welcome and accepted as an integral part of Estonian life. Now, the new post-reindependent Estonia, with its surging Jewish population of over 2500, had a true home again, and a beautiful one at that. It also filled a gaping hole: up until that time, Estonia was the only country in Europe without its own synagogue.

“It truly was a beautiful moment, as well as an historic one,” said Rabbi Shmuel Kot, the young, thirty two year old rabbi who was “imported” from Israel to lead the resurgent Tallinn congregation in 1999, as he recalled the emotional celebration, which was attended by representatives of Jewish congregations from around the world, as well as representatives of the Estonian government. “For the first time in sixty years—sixty years—Estonian Jews had a place to go,” said the charismatic rabbi, still wistful at the memory. “And we had so much support from everyone: the parliament, the government, as well as the people of Tallinn themselves.”

Mazel Tov, indeed.

To fully appreciate the historic nature of the opening of the Tallinn New synagogue, it is well to know something about the star-crossed, little-known history of Estonian Jewry itself, which is depicted in the undulations of the towering glass wall encasing the synagogue.

In the history of Eastern European Jewry, that story, that journey, is something of an anomaly. Like its brethren communities in the former Soviet republics and Warsaw Pact countries, Estonia’s relatively small, flourishing Jewish community was virtually wiped out during World War II.

However there the parallels end. For one, unlike in most of its neighbors or near neighbors, for example, Poland, or Russia itself, or, of course, and most tragically, Germany, there is very little history of native, as opposed to imposed, anti-Semitism or anti-Semitic measures, in Estonia itself. Indeed, before the two totalitarian states, the Soviet Union, followed by Nazi Germany, engulfed the Balts at the start of the war, bringing with them their separate and overlapping Holocausts, the Estonian Jewish community was one of the best assimilated and least harried in all of Europe. Which made its virtual extermination all the more tragic—and makes its recent renaissance, culminating with the opening of the synagogue, all the more miraculous.

Mazel Tov indeed!

To be sure, like most other areas of Europe—particularly those which fell under the long shadow of the Kremlin—there was very little in the first five centuries of Jewish habitation in Estonia to suggest that Eesti would ever become an oasis of Jewish life. Quite the contrary….

The first Jew known to have settled in Estonia was someone by the name of Johannes, in the early 14th century. Johannes’s name first appears in written documents in 1333, when a certain baker Johannes Jode paid five marks to the Town Council of Tallinn. It is not clear how much success Johannes had. At any rate, he certainly wasn’t writing home about it: it would take nearly another century before the next Jew, a man by the name of Pawel, decided to try his luck down Tallinn way.

Jews would continue to trickle into Estonia over the next few centuries, with the number increasing towards the end of Swedish rule, in the early 18th century, when Estonia passed under Russian rule. However in 1742 tsarina Jelizaveta Petrovna issued a ukase to deport all Jews from Russia. She also ordered their property, gold, silver and money to be confiscated. During the reign of Catherine II (1762-1796) so-called areas of Jewish settlement were established in the Russian empire, covering the territories of Poland, Ukraine, Byelorussia, and Estonia. However in Estonia Jews could only live with special permission.

Jewish life of a rudimentary sort began to take shape in Estonia in the early 19th century. A small Jewish prayer house was built in the 1820s—it could not yet be called a synagogue, but it was something—along with a Jewish cemetery.

In 1827 the small Jewish populace, numbering perhaps three or four hundred, felt the dead hand of the Kremlin again, when Nikolai I issued another ukase impressing Jews over 18 into the imperial army. The conscripts, called “Nikolai’s soldiers,” were forced to serve for no less than twenty five years, as well to convert to Russian orthodoxy. However their families were allowed to continue to practice their faith. Another prayer house was established in Tallinn in 1840, and one was built in Parnu in 1854. The first student of Jewish origin, Alexander Wulfus, was graduated from Tartu University (Dorpat) in 1854.

The situation for Estonian Jews, as well as Russian Jews improved somewhat in 1865, after the relatively benign Tsar Alexander II promulgated a law allowing some Jews, including Nikolai soldiers, as well as certified craftsmen, merchants of the First Guild who had exercised their profession for at least five years and Jews with higher education to settle in areas “beyond the pale” (hence the expression “beyond the pale”), including the relatively benign northwestern province. Ten years later, the first Jewish primary school was established in Tartu; four years later another one was set up in Tallinn.

This brief “flowering”—which also extended to other areas of the empire, including the grand duchy of Finland, where the czar was a beloved figure—came to an end in 1881 when Alexander II was assassinated. With Jews—falsely—accused of the crime, the western Russian provinces were roiled by a wave of murderous pogroms over the next to years in which thousands died.

Significantly, Estonia, which had become the most tolerant region of Russia (besides Finland) did not experience a pogrom during this period; nor has it ever. The Russian province proved remarkably resistant to the germ of anti-Semitism. It was hardly paradise: Jews did face some new restrictions, including a prohibition from residing in rural areas, as well as maintaining their own inns and restaurants.

Nevertheless Jewish life continued to grow, with new congregations sprouting up around the province. In 1883 the first full-service synagogue, with mitvah, was established in Tallinn.

In 1894, an edict by Alexander III gave the right to Jews who had been living in the Baltic provinces since 1879 to become permanent residents, which in turn caused an influx of Jews from other regions to move to Estonia—which in turn was somewhat counter-balanced by subsequent emigration to the United States.

Withal, at the end of the 19th century, Estonia could be said to have a bona fide Jewish community, albeit a small one, with a population of approximately 1500. Neverthless the seeds of a future Jewish renaissance had been planted.

The 20th century brought a radical change in the life of Estonian Jews. No less than one hundred and ten Jewish males were mobilized and sixty eight joined the army as volunteers to fight in the war of independence.

If the 1920s and 1930s were a golden time for Estonia, so were they for Estonian Jews. While Jews in the other Baltic and Eastern European countries continued to struggle with restrictions and discrimination of various kinds, Estonia’s relatively small but prosperous and well-assimilated Jewish community advanced headlong into the broad sunlight of freedom. The keynote for the new era of tolerance was set in February, 1924, when a new Jewish gymnasium was opened on Karu Street in Tallinn—not far from the site of the Tallinn New Synagogue—with President Konstantin Pats, Estonia’s benevolent interwar dictator, participating in the historic ceremony.

An even more significant milestone took place during the following year, 1925, when the Republic of Estonia passed a Cultural Autonomy Act by which cultural autonomy was granted to all cultural and religious minorities giving them the privilege of organizing their own public and private schools, amongst other rights—provided that they could adduce at least three thousand members. The Jewish community, with its official population of 3045, just made the cut.

The following year, 1926, the Jewish Cultural Council was established under the leadership of Grigori Aisenstadt, who would remain the organization’s head for the next fourteen years, until the dead hand of the Kremlin—and the even more lethal one of the Third Reich—returned to blot out the light.

But what a light it was while it shone! Under the Council’s aegie a host of Jewish organizations sprouted up, including a Jewish literary and drama society, a Zionist women’s society, and the Macabi sports society, which enabled male and female Jewish athletes to take an active role in sporting events in Estonia and broad. One prominent Maccabean, Sara Teitelbaum, was a 17 time champion in Estonian athletics and established no less than 28 records.

In 1934, the place of Jews and Judaism in Estonian society and culture was further elevated and legitimized when a chair was established at the University of Tartu for the study of Judaica in the school of philosophy. Over one hundred Jews were enrolled in the university itself, and they enjoyed membership in no less than five different student societies.

In 1934 a visiting correspondent for “The Jewish Chronicles,” a newspaper of international Jewish affairs, noted approvingly, “In sharp contrast to the other Baltic states, 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.” The writer was particularly impressed by Tallinn’s Jewish cultural club, the Bialik club, with its well-equipped library, spacious reading room and theatre, which he felt typified the unusually good, free, and rich life that Estonia’s four thousand odd Jews enjoyed. “The 300,000 Jews of Warsaw,” he wrote, “have nothing to equal it.”

The “Chronicle” reporter also spotlit the contribution Jews had made to Estonia’s economic prosperity in general, as witnessed by an Estonian civic leader who told him, “We have granted complete freedom to the Jews, just as we have to other minorities.”

To be sure, the writer also noted, some embers of Nazi anti-Semitism had inevitably spread to Estonia from neighboring Germany, in the form of the right wing extremist group, the Vaps, who had tried to incite anti-Jewish feelings. “However, thanks to Konstantin Pats, the President, the anti-Jewish movement was nipped in the bud before it could affect mutual relations between Jews and non-Jews.

If Eesti wasn’t the Promised Land, it was close.

All that changed, or began to change in early 1940, when Estonian was forcibly incorporated into the USSR. The communist authorities immediately cancelled Jewish cultural autonomy. In July and August 1940 all Jewish societies, organizations and student corporations were closed down. During the subsequent mass deportation of 1941, the Soviet authorities deported five hundred Jews, or approximately 10% of the Jewish population. Like their gentile peers, many of these exiles never returned.

Consequently, when the front line of the Second World War drew close to Estonia in August, 1941, following the German invasion of the USSR, approximately one thousands Jews, or roughly one quarter of the remaining Jewish population, chose to remain to face the Germans, rather than evacuate to the Russian hinterland, thinking that things could not possibly be worse under the swastika than they had been under the hammer and sickle.

They were wrong. Virtually all—perhaps 950 out of 1000—were immediately rounded up, often under horrific circumstances, and murdered by the roving German killing squads, amongst them Tallinn’s chief rabbi, Aba Gomer. Estonia was one of the first occupied German territories to be declared Judenfrei, or free of Jews, earning the murderous appellation in January, 1942, while the Germans had yet to move against the Jewish communities of the occupied Western countries. Additionally, 10,000 Jews were killed in Estonia after having been deported to camps there from elsewhere in Eastern Europe. What had been a relative oasis for Jews had now officially become a Nazi killing ground. And so it went.

The eclipse of Jewish life in Estonia began to lift, but only after a fashion, in 1944, after the Germans were forced out and the triumphant Soviets returned. Estonia Jews who had fought in the Estonian rifle unit, Eesti Laukurkorpus, or who had been evacuated to the USSR began to return in considerable numbers. By 1945 the Estonian Jewish population had risen from nil to 1500. Evacuated Jews who returned were joined by their compatriots from other regions of the Soviet Union, drawn by the relatively high standard of living and absence of anti-Semitism at the official level.

This was a resurgence, however, and by no means a renaissance. Stalin’s attitude towards Jews remained hostile, as did the attitude of his immediate successors. All attempts to revive Jewish life were clamped down upon by the Kremlin. For forty long years, from 1944 until 1988, the Estonian Jewish community, as elsewhere in the territories controlled by the Soviet Union, possessed no organizations, associations, or clubs. The only institutes of communal life that were allowed to function during this entire period were the Jewish cemetery in Tallinn. No synagogue was built to replace the one destroyed by the Germans; Jews had to make do with a small prayer house, just as they did during the early czarist days.

Jewish life, in its fullest sense, finally began to return in 1988, when Estonia began moving towards independence. That year, a Jewish Cultural Society was established in Tallinn, the first of its kind in the Soviet Union. Shortly thereafter, publication of Jewish periodicals were restored. Soon, too, the Jewish School reopened its doors. Another landmark event took place in March 1991, when “Radio 4, “ the national radio programme in Russian, broadcast the first programme, called “Shalom Aleychem,” on Jewish culture and the activities of the Estonian Jewish Cultural Society.

The second Jewish renaissance truly began in earnest after Estonia reachieved its independence in 1992. In April 1992, the Association of Jewish Culture and the Jewish Religious Community became the co-founders of the Jewish Community of Estonia.

In the meantime, the Jewish population continued to swell, reaching its prewar level of five thousand. In 1993, a new Cultural Autonomy Act, based on the 1925 law, was passed; now things had truly come full circle.

However the community lacked two things: a rabbi and a synagogue. The first deficiency was remedied in 1999 when rabbi Efraim Shmuel Kot, an enthusiastic young rabbi from Israel, arrived in Tallinn to lead the community, thanks to the support of the “Or Avner Foundation.”

The second began to be remedied a year later, on December 21, 2000, when, with the participation of Mart Laar, the Estonian Prime Minister, the new premises of the Tallinn Synagogue opened on the second floor of the Jewish community Centre. It was fully remedied on May 16, 2007 when a gleaming new synagogue, the first new synagogue built in Estonia since the Nazi-cum-Soviet eclipse began, rose on Karu Street, complete with a sanctuary, mikvah, and restaurant.

All we can say is Mazel Tov Estonia!