Jewish population of Latvia has burgeoned in the 19th century when the ruling Russian Empire limited Jewish settlement to just a few regions. Latgale (Eastern Latvia) was among such regions. Some of the Latgalian towns thus even became Jewish-plurality, including the region‘s hub Daugavpils. Elsewhere in Latvia, the Jewish populations were limited by Russian laws and therefore remained small.

By ~1900 Latvia‘s Jews were rapidly emigrating for more opportunities abroad (mainly in the USA). The trend has continued throughout the 20th century.

During the Nazi German occupation of Latvia (1941-1945), most of the remaining Jews were either killed or fled the country, their share declining from 4,8% in 1935 to 1,8% in 1959.

Mark Rothko art center in Daugavpils
Mark Rothko art center in Daugavpils. Born as a Jew in Latgale, he became famous in the USA as modern painter. Some of his works are now exhibited in this new museum at his hometown. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

During the Soviet occupation, the rest of Jews have largely moved to Riga, although their population continued to decline due to emigration to Israel. This emigration reached its zenith after the 1990 independence, when Soviet migration restrictions were removed. Jews made up 0,9% of Latvia‘s population in 1989 but just 0,3% today.

Traditionally, Latvia’s Jews spoke Yiddish and professed Judaism. However, many Jews became communists and assimilated into the “Soviet nation”. Today therefore the majority of Latvia’s Jews speaks Russian natively and are atheists.

Kuldīga synagogue
A synagogue in Kuldīga town. Neglected under the Soviet rule Jewish religious heritage is repaired by modern Latvia, but lacking believers it is not used for religion anymore. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

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