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Riga is the capital of Latvia, located at the mouth of the Daugava river on the Baltic Sea. The presence of Jews in Riga dates back to the 16th century, when Jewish merchants arrived in the city to trade. However, few were permitted to settle there. Riga was conquered by the Russian Empire in 1710. The Russian authorities allowed some Jewish merchants who represented their interests to settle in Riga, and in 1725, a Jewish cemetery was founded in the city, which marked the birth of Riga’s Jewish community. Jews were expelled from Riga between 1743 to 1766, when Empress Catherine the Great lifted the ban. In 1840, the first Jewish school was established in Riga, and in 1857, Jews were finally given the right to buy property in the city, settle in it, and join guilds. Jewish life and culture thrived in Riga during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The city possessed multifaceted Jewish communities: there was a division between the majority of Jews in the city, who spoke Yiddish, and a minority of Jews who spoke German and were culturally influenced by Germany. Many synagogues were built in the second half of the 19th century, including the Great Choral Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Riga, which was completed in 1871. The period of 1880-1914 saw a rise in the creation of Jewish schools in Riga. These new schools offered Russian and Hebrew classes, among other subjects, and taught all courses in these languages. Regarding Jewish politics in Riga, Zionist organizations first emerged in the city during the 1880s and grew after the First Zionist Congress in 1897. By 1897, Riga was home to 21,963 Jews, who made up 7.9% of the city’s total population. The Jewish community and the city of Riga itself expanded during the second half of the 19th century, and throughout the last third of the century, Jews controlled a third of Riga’s trade. Jews participated in, and were prominent members of, many trades and professions in Riga during the late 19th century, including the export of grain, flax, hides, and eggs, the lumber industry, textile and clothing stores, banking and finance, and dentistry. After World War I ended in 1918, Latvia became independent from Russia with the founding of the Republic of Latvia in 1920. In the 1930s, Jews maintained a portion of their economic strength in Riga, although their fortunes had declined following the emergence of a newly-independent Latvia. By 1935, 43,672 Jews lived in Riga, making up about 11% of the city’s total population. The USSR invaded Riga on June 17, 1940. The Soviets shut down all Jewish political and cultural organizations, sending the leaders of these organizations into exile in Siberia. Jewish Rigan education was converted into the Soviet model, and Yiddish was the only language of instruction during the Soviet occupation for Jewish schools. Nazi Germany invaded Riga just over a year later on July 1, 1941, during Operation Barbarossa.
Immediately after Nazi Germany occupied Riga on July 1, 1941, Latvian nationalists organized pogroms against Riga’s Jews. Jews were killed daily during these pogroms, and others were arrested and tortured in jail. Latvians looted and burned down Jewish homes and synagogues, evicting Jews from better residences so they could be replaced by gentiles. Jews were also pressed into forced labor units, since the Nazis requisitioned a slave labor force of 20,000 Jews. The first Aktion in Riga took place in July 1941, when 5,000 Jewish prisoners were transported to the nearby Bikernieki forest and shot. The Germans established the Riga ghetto in mid-August 1941, which was sealed a few months later in October. Approximately 30,000 Jews were imprisoned inside the ghetto. On November 26, 1941, the ghetto was divided into two sections. A smaller portion, called the “small ghetto,” was reserved for working men while the other Jews remained in the “big ghetto.” On November 30, 1941, the western portion of the “big ghetto” was liquidated. The Jews living there, who were mostly women, children, the elderly, and the sick, were escorted to the nearby Rumbula forest. There, they were stripped naked, forced to lie in pits, and were shot by Germans and Latvians. Similar to other places in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, Jews were made to lie on top of the dead and dying before they were executed as well. The eastern half of the “big ghetto” was soon eliminated in a similar fashion on December 8-9, 1941. These two Aktions claimed the lives of 25,000-28,000 people. The Jews who were not murdered in the Rumbula forest remained in the “small” ghetto. There were 4,000-5,000 of them. The Nazis replaced the Jews they killed from the “big ghetto” with 15,000-16,000 Jews from Germany, Austria, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. 1,000 German Jews were executed in the Rumbula forest, and later, most of the remaining German Jews in the Riga ghetto were also shot in the forest. Hundreds of Jews in the ghetto organized a resistance movement against the Germans. Small groups of Jews tried to escape and join Jewish partisans operating in nearby forests, and some succeeded. In October 1942, the Germans discovered the Jewish underground movement when they captured some of its members outside of the ghetto. As a result, the Germans killed approximately 100 people from the ghetto as a reprisal and killed nearly all of the ghetto’s Jewish police force. In the summer of 1943, the Germans deported some of the ghetto’s inhabitants to the Kaiserwald concentration camp, which had been established in the north of Riga in March 1943. Kaiserwald had multiple subcamps, and Jews in the ghetto were deported to them in addition to being sent to the main camp. The Riga ghetto was liquidated in December 1943 and its remaining Jews were deported to Kaiserwald. The few surviving Jews of Riga and most of Latvia were concentrated in Kaiserwald and its subcamps until Soviet liberation in 1944. In 1944, as part of Operation 1005, the Nazis forced detachments of Jewish prisoners to reopen the mass graves in the Rumbula forest and burn the bodies. The Jewish sonderkommandos who performed this task were killed once it was completed. In the summer of 1944, most of the remaining Jews of Riga in the Kaiserwald camp and its subcamps were killed. The few who were alive were sent to the Stutthof concentration camp in Germany. By the time the Soviets liberated Riga on October 13, 1944, almost all of the city’s Jews had been murdered.
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