“Jews in Tallinn! . . . Don’t forget that by voting now you are deciding the fate of Jewish cultural autonomy in Estonia.” Yiddish poster. Printed by B. Beilinson, Tallinn, n.d. The poster urges Jews who are “against party politics and factionalism” to vote for candidates affiliated with the Economics Group. (YIVO)

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(Ger., Reval; Rus., Revel, later Tallin), historical capital of the Province of Estonia. Christianized in 1219 by Danish crusaders and then a member of the Hanseatic League, Tallinn was under Swedish rule from 1561 to 1710 and Russian from 1710 to 1918. Beginning in 1918, Tallin was the capital of the Republic of Estonia, including during the years of Soviet annexation (1940–1941, 1944–1991) and Nazi occupation (1941–1944). Its population in 2005 was 402,000, and it still serves as the industrial, logistical, and administrative center of Estonia.

A Jewish presence in Tallinn was first recorded in 1333. Numerous authorities hindered Jewish immigration, and during the time of the Russian Empire, Jews were not permitted to settle anywhere in the province. Nonetheless, a Jewish community may have existed by 1830. In the 1840s, the so-called Nikolai-soldiers (retired cantonists) served in Tallinn, including about 500 boys from Courland and Lithuania.

Mr. and Mrs. Maxim Kagan, a Jewish couple, and friends at a festive gathering, Tallinn, 1931. Photograph by Parikas. (YIVO)

The Jewish community became permanent after Alexander II issued a ukase in 1865 by which several categories of Jews—former soldiers, certified craftsmen, merchants of the first guild, and people with higher education—could reside outside the Pale of Settlement. In 1880 a primary school was founded, followed by a synagogue in 1883. The community numbered about 1,100 in 1913, consisting mainly of artisans and merchants.

In May 1919, the First Congress of Estonian Jewish Congregations was held in Tallinn. In February 1925, the Cultural Autonomy Act of the Republic of Estonia was passed, and Jewish cultural autonomy was promulgated on 26 June 1926 with Tallinn as its seat. In the 1920s, Jewish organizations emerged in the city, including the Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik literary and drama society, a WIZO group, youth organizations including Betar and Ha-Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir, the leftist Likht, and the Maccabi sports society. In 1919 a Jewish primary school was opened, and in 1923 a secondary school was founded. In 1940, all Jewish organizations were closed by Soviet authorities.

Nazi occupation led to the murder of 518 Jews in Tallinn. Altogether, the Estonian Jewish community of 4,500 people (approximately half living in Tallinn) lost 929 people during the Holocaust; already in 1941 some 400 Estonian Jews were deported to the gulag by the Soviets. In the postwar era, national organizations were forbidden (a drama society and a modest synagogue did, however, exist). Perestroika enabled the reemergence of Jewish cultural activities in March 1988. In 1990, the Jewish school (housed in the building of the original institution) was reopened, and in 1992 the Jewish community was officially organized with the official establishment of the Jewish Community of Estonia (Eesti Juudi Kogukond).

The losses of the Holocaust and Soviet repression, and the migration of Jews from other parts of the USSR changed Tallinn’s local Jewish community, making the city an important locus of Jewish residence. The highest ratio of Jews in the Estonian population was recorded in the 1959 census—more than 5,400 people, with 3,714 in Tallinn. Emigration has diminished this number. In 2004, about 1,500 Jews were living in Tallinn, representing about 75 percent of Estonia’s Jewish community.

Suggested Reading

Eugenia Gurin-Loov, Eesti juutide katastroof 1941 / Holocaust of Estonian Jews 1941 (Tallinn, 1994); Eugenia Gurin-Loov and Gennadi Gramberg, Eesti juudi kogukond / The Jewish Community of Estonia / Evreiskaia obshchina Estonii (Tallinn, 2001), in Estonian, English, and Russian.