Postcard with view of the synagogue and (inset) a portrait of one of its oldest congregants, J. A. Jacobson, Tartu, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

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(Ger., Dorpat; Rus., Derpt, also Yurev [1893–1917]), Estonian city in the province of Livonia (Ger., Livland; Rus., Lifliandiia). Tartu has traditionally been an educational and cultural center, and after 1917 it was the second largest city in the Republic of Estonia. The city had a population of 100,800 in 2005.

Tartu, a medieval Hanseatic town, was under Polish rule from 1582 to 1625, Swedish rule from 1625 to 1704, and Russian rule from 1704 to 1918. From 1918, the town’s political history has been linked to that of Estonia, including during the years of Soviet annexation (1940–1941; 1944–1991) and Nazi occupation (1941–1944). Little documentation has survived about Tartu’s Jewish population. Eighteen Jews left the town in 1743 by order of Empress Elizabeth; later, Livonia was outside the Pale of Jewish Settlement. A Jewish community was established in Tartu in 1859, and a synagogue was built in 1903 but destroyed in 1944. The number of Jews in Tartu peaked in the final years of the Russian Empire, reaching 2,000.

The Jewish community in Tartu has been linked to the city’s academic institutions. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jewish students came mainly from the surrounding region and Lithuania. The university reopened as an imperial Russian university in 1802. Initially the number of Jewish students was low. The numbers rose in the second half of the century; in 1893, a total of 373 of its 1,546 students were Jewish. Between 1884 and 1893 the ratio of Jewish students climbed from 10.4 to 24.1 percent. In 1893, however, the numerus clausus was imposed, limiting the number of Jewish students to 5 percent, with an exception made for pharmacy students, who could total 10 percent. By 1916, the ratio of Jews at the university had again risen to 16 percent. The number of Jewish students was also high at Tartu’s Rostovtsev and Yassinski universities; these two institutions were set up mainly for Jews (and females) who encountered obstacles in seeking higher education.

The first Jewish student organization at the university was the Treasury of Mutual Help of Jewish Students, which functioned between 1874 and 1940 and supported the establishment of a Jewish primary school in 1875. The Jewish association Gesseliger Kreis, founded in 1882, split the next year, with its sides merging again in 1912 into the Musico-Literary Scientific Society of Jewish Students; in 1925, it became the basis for the student corporation known as Limuwia. In 1883, a Jewish Academic Society of History and Literature was established, functioning until 1940. The Zionist group Hasmonea opened a branch in Tartu in 1923. In 1925, Jewish women students founded the Hacfiro society, and in 1932, an organization for Jewish studies, Schatal, was formed.

Tartu University opened a chair of Jewish studies in 1934, with the initiative coming mainly from the Estonian Jewish community. Its professorship went to Lazar Gulkowitsch (1899–1941), who specialized in Hebrew and Aramaic languages and the study of Talmud. Soviet authorities forced the chair to close in 1940.

The Jewish community in Tartu lost 159 people during the Holocaust, among them Gulkowitsch. A concentration camp existed in its environs from 1941 to 1944. After World War II, the university remained the center for the Jewish community, open to students and professors from other parts of the USSR, the best known of whom was Iurii Lotman. The post-Soviet era has seen the reemergence of Jewish organizations, but the once abundant academic organizations are missing. The Jewish population in 2004 numbered just 150 people.

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; Toomas Hiio, “Jewish Students and Jewish Student Organisations at the University of Tartu,” in Tartu University History Museum: Annual Report 1998 (1999): 119–172.