Kuldiga lies on the river Venta, where a waterfall named the Rumba has formed. Kuldiga has been known since the 13th century as a settlement, military and administrative center. The original inhabitants of this area, the Cours, had built a fortification here as early as the 9th century. German knights took control of this area and began to build their first castle in 1242.
Kuldiga Town View and bridge over the Venta (by Eric Benjaminson)
In 1368, Kuldiga (then known in German as Goldingen) became a member of the Hanseatic League of trading cities by virtue of its location as a river port with an outlet to the Baltic Sea. >From 1596 until 1616, Kuldiga was the capital of the Duchy of Courland, and enjoyed its most prosperous period in the 17th century. During this economic boom, a shipyard and a nail and anchor forge were established. The town was captured and damaged by Swedish armies during the Great Northern War in 1702. The town was incorporated into the Russian Empire in 1795 and suffered some stagnation until the Imperial "Rule on Trade and Industrial Freedom" in 1866 allowed economic opportunities and some commensurate growth.
History of the Jewish Community
Jews had been scattered without legal status in Courland (other than their local status in Pilten) from as early as the late fourteenth century. It is believed that the first Jewish settlement in Kuldiga began at the end of the seventeenth century. From 1799 (after Courland was annexed by Russia), Jews in the region were granted civic rights, and Jewish communities in Kuldiga and elsewhere grew quickly. In 1800, there were 658 Jewish merchants and craftsmen living in the Goldingen district (fifteen percent of the total district population 4350). In approximately 1801, the first official synagogue was built and a burial society (chevra kadisha) was founded. A short while thereafter a "talmud torah" school was built and a society for help to poor brides (gmiluth hassadim) and other Jewish social organizations were formed. The first rabbi assumed office in 1826. The first state school for Jewish boys was organized in 1850.
Jews who had the means also sent their children to the local German high school. By 1901 there were three private Jewish schools in the town; one for boys and the other two for girls. The languages of instruction at the school were German and Hebrew.
The first Jews to settle in Kuldiga were strongly influenced by German culture and by the Jewish enlightenment movement , the Haskalah. A later influx of Jews from the Pale of Settlement in Russia and from Lithuania consisted in large part of "shomrei masoret" (religious observers), and they organized a group of hassidim. Kuldiga's Jews in the beginning, with great difficulty, earned a living through small scale commerce, peddling, the sale of second-hand clothing, the leasing of inns, production of strong liquors and as middlemen. From the end of the 19th century their economic situation began to improve, and the Jewish merchants in some cases supplanted the Baltic German businessmen. Jews, for example, built a flour mill and factories for the manufacture of matches and needles and established a credit fund for Jewish merchants and tradesmen.
By 1835, the total Jewish population (families included) was 2330, already fifty-seven percent of the population. In 1850, there were a total of 2534 Jewish residents, of whom 112 were merchants and 1137 working craftsmen. In 1840, 171 of Kuldiga's Jews (22 families) left for agricultural settlements in the southern Russian province of Cherson, to take up a Czarist offer of land and exemption from military service and certain taxes in return for settling these territories bordering the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the century a large number of Latvians came to the town and the Jewish community lost its majority status. In 1897 there were 2,543 jewish residents, twenty-six percent of a total population of 9,720.
Along with difficult economic and political times in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Kuldiga's Jews began to emigrate. Some stayed in Latvia but moved to the larger port cities of Libau and Windau where there was greater economic activity. Others, either using these cities as jumping-off points or leaving directly from Kuldiga, emigrated to the U.S. or South Africa. It is also noteworthy that developments in maritime transportation both increased the number of emigrants and pointed them in specific directions. Not only did steamship services become more affordable, more regular and safer, but agents of large European shipping lines posted in Russia encouraged potential emigrants to travel to destinations according to the economic needs of the shipping companies. "Package deals" for Baltic Jews to South Africa, travelling via England, were one such incentive; passage to the U.S. via Hamburg was another.
Kuldiga's old watermill which may have powered a Jewish-owned match factory (by Eric Benjaminson)
By 1935 the Jewish population had declined to only nine percent of the town's 7000 inhabitants. Much of this decline was due to the fact that during the First World War, the Jews of Courland were banished to the interior of Russia as suspected German sympathizers. During the course of the war many community buildings and Jewish houses were destroyed. After the war about a third of the Jews returned to the town and the community was rehabilitated with the help of the "Joint" (a relief agency of American Jewry). The Jews gradually re-consolidated their position and in 1935, of the 205 shops and businesses in the town 95 were owned by Jews.
The Holocaust Period
On August 23, 1939, the Soviet Army established bases in Latvia and in the summer of 1940 a Soviet regime was installed. Jewish public institutions were gradually liquidated. After the Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941, about one-tenth of the Jews of Kuldiga succeeded in escaping to the interior of Russia. The young men among them were conscripted into the Soviet Army. On July 1, 1941, when the Nazis occupied the town, the majority of the community was still there. Immediately thereafter Latvian fascists began rioting against the Jews and murdered several of them. The remaining Jews were ordered to perform forced labor. One day all the Jews were concentrated in the synagogue from which the men were taken to a nearby forest. There they were murdered in pits which they had been forced to dig. Others were taken to be murdered in the Padura Forest a few kilometers from the town. The Kuldiga Jews were thereby destroyed by the beginning of 1942. The property of the Jews was divided among their murderers. The Torah scrolls were put into the municipal archives. Several Jews, who were hidden by farmers, survived. The town was liberated by the Soviets in 1944. After the war a number of families returned to the town. One of these Jews was killed by opponents of the Soviet regime. The survivors brought back the remains of those murdered for a Jewish burial. The Torah scrolls were returned to the Jews who organized a minyan. The synagogue, which had been converted into a movie house, was not returned (and remains today as a cinema). Over time the survivors left the town, many of them going on aliyah to Israel. The minyan ceased to exist and the Torah scrolls were sold.
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