Baltic States. Boundaries shown are ca. 2000.

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(Ger., Kurland; Lat., Kurzeme), a historic and ethnographic area of west and southwest Latvia. The territory of Courland was conquered in the thirteenth century by the German Livonian Order. One-third of its territory (Piltene) went to the bishopric of Courland and two-thirds to the Livonian Order. In 1309, Jews were banned in the territories by Siegfried von Feuchtwangen, Grand Master of the Order. In 1561 a treaty between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Livonian Order ended Livonian independence; the document forbade Jews to settle in Courland or even to reside there temporarily for commercial transactions. The Duchy of Courland was dependent on the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth throughout its existence (1561–1795). Perhaps reflecting scattered and periodic Jewish residence, a series of laws to ban Jews from engaging in commerce was adopted in the Courland Landtag in 1692, 1698, and 1699. Only in autonomous Piltene, formerly ruled by the bishop, and, from 1585, by Poland, was Jewish residence officially permitted.

Children from a children’s home maintained by the Central Jewish People’s Relief Committee in Liepāja, a center of Jewish life in Courland, on a forest outing, ca. 1920s. Photograph by E. Jacubovits. (YIVO)

Despite prohibitions, there is abundant evidence that toward the end of the seventeenth century, Jews began to settle in Courland in larger numbers, where they often leased custom duties and engaged in commerce. By the eighteenth century, Jews were permitted to live both in the towns and in the countryside, and to do business as retail traders, innkeepers, distillers, and middlemen, despite attempts in 1714 and 1760 to expel them.

In the first half of the eighteenth century, Jewish communities existed in Mitau (Lat., Jelgava), Bauske (Lat., Bauska), Jacobstadt (Lat., Jekabils), and Friedrichstadt (Lat., Jaunjelgava). Also in that century, Jewish artisans (construction workers, roofmakers, inlay workers, tailors) arrived in Courland not only from the commonwealth but also from German territories. In 1780, a Jewish school was opened in Mitau. It is estimated that at the end of the century there were about 9,000 Jews in Courland, with only 37 percent of Courland’s Jewish population living in towns in 1797.

With the annexation of Courland to Russia in 1795, the Russian Emperor Paul promulgated a law in 1799 granting Jews in Courland the right to enjoy legal status as permanent inhabitants while being subjected to double taxation. This allowed them to vote in local government elections and stimulated the integration of Courland’s Jews into the German-speaking burger class. Moreover, Courland and its Jews were not included in the Pale of Jewish Settlement, established in 1804.

Sofia Weinreich, mother of scholar Max Weinreich, with his sons, Uriel and Gabriel, in Kuldiga, a town in the Courland region, 1932. (YIVO)

In 1835, a new code was published, continuing to allow permanent residence to Jews living there with their families if they were registered locally according to the last census of the population. The same rules were applied to Jews in the city of Riga. By 1852 in Courland guberniia, there were 23,743 Jews, a number that rose to 57,200 by 1914. Tsarist authorities had with moderate success encouraged Jewish emigration to agricultural colonies in the south of Russia; some 2,400 Jews left to settle there. In the nineteenth century, however, Jews of Courland followed German patterns of acculturation and integration, and the Yiddish spoken by local residents had a stronger German element than elsewhere in Eastern Europe. These factors differentiated the Jews of Courland substantially from those in other communities in the Russian Empire.

Russian authorities expelled some 40,000 Jews from western Courland during World War I. After Latvia achieved independence in 1918, Courland’s Jewish history continued as an integral part of Latvian Jewish history.

Suggested Reading

Tatjana Aleksejeva, “Some Aspects of Hebrew History in the Duchy of Courland, 1561–1795,” Historical Minorities in Latvia 2.3 (1994): 4–22; Tatjana Aleksejeva, “Judisches Schicksal in Herzogtum Kurland im 17. und 18 Jahrhundert,” in Das Herzogtum Kurland, 1561–1795, ed. Erwin Oberländer, vol. 2, pp. 239–277 (Lüneburg, Ger., 2001); Mendel Bobe et al., eds., The Jews in Latvia (Tel Aviv, 1971).