Jewish history in Riga

Jewish history in Riga
07 December 2023

In a time of rising antisemitism worldwide, it has never been more important to educate ourselves on the history of the Jewish community in Eastern Europe. Confronting such history can often feel uncomfortable and it can be difficult to reconcile with the atrocities that took place in Riga throughout the Nazi Occupation.

In this article, I’m going to introduce you to four locations of Jewish heritage that you should visit throughout your time in Riga.  Each of these locations reflect on themes of life and death as they commemorate the lives of those who perished as a result of persecution. 

Before the Holocaust, there were around 40,000 Jews living in Riga. In contrast to Vilnius, where the Jewish population lived a very separate life with their own distinct language and cultural practices, in Riga the Jewish community was more integrated into the general society, making up 13% of the population in the early 20th century. However, following the both the Soviet and Nazi occupations of Latvia, their numbers considerably dropped due to mass deportations and genocide. 

The museum of Riga Ghetto and Holocaust in Latvia

At the time of the Nazi occupation, the surviving Jewish population was forcibly relocated to the Riga Jewish Ghetto, where the Latgale suburb stands today. However in November 1941, it was liquidated and over 25,000 people were murdered in the Rumbula forest, and 35,000 in the Bikernieki forest, just outside of Riga. 

The museum itself is a memorial to not only the 70,000 Latvian Jews murdered in the Holocaust, but also to the approximately 25,000 Jews relocated to Riga by the Nazi regime. Opened to the public in 2010, the museum has a number of permanent exhibitions dedicated to the atrocities of the Holocaust, as well as the role played by the Jewish community in fighting for Latvian independence, often overlooked in more mainstream museums. 

The Kar Schul Synagogue 

Constructed in 1871, the Kar Schul Synagogue was the site of a horrific massacre of hundreds of Jewish people in 1941, as it was set alight with worshipers trapped inside. Located not far from Riga’s Central Market, there is a memorial here to those who perished. 

Riga Synagogue

The only functional synagogue in Riga, the Riga Synagogue is located on Peitavas Street, close to the Old Town with its stunning churches and cathedrals. The Synagogue itself acts as a both a place of prayer, but also as a museum to the Jewish community in Riga both before and after the Holocaust.

The Jewish community building 

Home to the Jews in Latvia Museum on the third floor, this community centre recounts the history of the Jewish community in Latvia and also features a cosy kosher café with handmade Challah bread!

In light of current events and the stark rise in antisemitism throughout Europe, it has never been more important to educate ourselves on the atrocities of the Holocaust. I hope that this article encourages you to engage with Jewish history not only in Riga, but also throughout Eastern Europe.

Darcie Peters, a student a Liden and Denz. 

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