Estonian Jewry revisited

The Nazis who proclaimed Estonia ‘Judenfrei’ are gone; a Jewish community is still there.

Jewish youth holding placards at the Tallinn cemetery. The rabbi of Estonia, Shmuel Kot, is second from the right (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
Jewish youth holding placards at the Tallinn cemetery. The rabbi of Estonia, Shmuel Kot, is second from the right
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
There are several countries with a proud Jewish heritage whose current communities are but a shadow of their former, pre-Holocaust selves.
The names of Germany and Poland spring to mind in that regard. Estonia may not be the first country people think about in the context of the Holocaust, but it was the first to be the proclaimed by Nazi Germany as “Judenfrei” – free of Jews. The concept was first discussed by the Germans, in Estonia, in December 1941, followed by a public declaration on January 20, 1942.
Three quarters of a century later I attended a Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony held at the Jewish cemetery in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital and largest city. The ceremony did not draw crowds of hundreds, but it was graced by a number of notable officials, including the Estonian minister of education and science Mailis Reps and the Danish ambassador to Estonia. The US ambassador was among the onlookers. The 2,500-strong local Jewish community had quite a few representatives at the event, including a bunch of teenagers holding “We Remember” signs; community chairman Alla Jakobson and Rabbi of Estonia Shmuel Kot both delivered impassioned addresses.
Considering the ethnic vacuum, it would not be going too far to describe the existence of any Jewish life at all in Estonia today in terms of a proverbial phoenix rising out of the ashes of World War II.
“You could say that the Jewish community grew up out of nothing,” says Vadim Ryvlin, executive director of the Jewish Community of Estonia. “There was nothing here at all.”
The Soviets, unwittingly, lent a helping hand in the eventual resurrection of a Jewish presence in the country. Under the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which was signed on June 14, 1940, the USSR established a military presence in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, after which the latter were swallowed up by the Soviet behemoth. That lasted for just one year, and the Baltic territories became part of the expanding German Reich after the Nazis reneged on the agreement with the Soviet Union. In the interim, the Soviets closed down all Jewish institutions in Estonia, and about 10% of the community – around 400 people – were deported to detention centers in Siberia, as part of a consignment of around 4,000 Estonians. Conditions there were harsh in the extreme, but at least it meant that the deportees escaped the murderous clutches of the invading German forces.
All told, around 75% of the community managed to flee to the USSR, and the survivors formed the backbone of the postwar renewed community in Estonia.
Immediately following the German invasion, around 1,000 members of the community perished at the hands of the Nazis and local collaborators. At the Wannsee Conference, which took place in Berlin on January 20, 1942, Estonia was declared Judenfrei.
The last remnants of Estonian Jewry were wiped out when close to 2,000 inmates of the Klooga death camp, south of Tallinn, were murdered by the Nazis in September 1944, as the Soviet army advanced. Today, nothing remains of the original camp and the wooded site is marked by monuments set up over the years. I paid an emotionally trying visit to the eerie spot, together with a representative of the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as shooting from a nearby military base added a Spielberg-like touch to the powerfully emotive setting.
Following the moving ceremony at the cemetery I was taken by Ryvlin to the Jewish Community Center, which sits proudly behind sturdy fencing in an attractive complex that also takes in a Jewish school, from elementary grades through to high school, offices and a compact but well-appointed museum.
The school dates from the early days of the Estonian Republic, which came into being in 1918, and the new state proved to be something of a haven for various religious minorities. The first records of Jewish presence in the area date from 1333, and the community went through its ups and downs, enjoying a surge in the 17th century.
In that part of the world, from the late 18th century to 1917, Jews were not generally allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement, which included present-day Latvia and Lithuania but not Estonia.
Even so, a process of permanent Jewish presence in Estonia began in the 19th century, and in 1865 Tsar Alexander II allowed the so-called “Nicholas soldiers” – forcibly recruited Jews who had to serve for at least 25 years in the Imperial Russian army – to set up home outside the Pale of Settlement.
That history and, of course, the Holocaust period, are part of the curriculum of the Jewish school in Tallinn, and is also taught in state schools across the country, with that educational purview taking in the prickly issue of collaboration by non-Jewish Estonians. Reports of collaboration and of people in German- occupied countries helping Jews during World War II have changed over the years with, for example, the Dutch considered to be particularly commendable in that regard. However, it later transpired that many Dutch were more than happy to help the Nazis achieve the Final Solution.
Even so, the Righteous Among the Nations roster of Yad Vashem features the names of more than 5,500 non-Jewish Dutch, whereas Estonia has just three. Two of these are theologian and University of Tartu lecturer Prof. Uku Masing and his wife Eha Masing, who saved Isidor Levin, who was later to become a lecturer himself at St. Petersburg State University. Another University of Tartu professor, noted linguist Paul Ariste whose extensive field of research took in Yiddish, saved some of the sacred artifacts from Tartu Synagogue after it was bombed during the war. Some of the rescued holy items are now proudly displayed in the Jewish Museum in Tallinn.
Tartu, in the south of Estonia, was something of a torchbearer for the country’s then-vibrant Jewish community, and a Chair of Judaistics was established at the local university in 1934, headed by Prof. Lazar Gulkowitsch, a renowned expert in Hebrew, Aramaic and talmudic studies from Leipzig University.
Gulkowitsch and his wife both perished at the hands of the Nazis, but the department was reopened following Estonian independence and is now headed by Dr. Anu Põldsam.
When she is not attending to Jewish affairs in Tallinn, Jakobson works as a criminal lawyer and says she is keen for the younger members of the community to take on leadership positions. Despite her busy work schedule, she says she is always delighted to make time for her work at the center.
“I go to courts and police stations and I think it is important to do something positive for the development of the Jewish community every day. When I come here I get such a wonderful feeling. It changes my whole day,” she laughs.
The center exudes a sense of vibrancy.
The spacious auditorium was occupied by a bunch of high-school students being put through their theatrical paces by a director.
“They are doing a play connected to the Holocaust,” explained Ryvlin. In another part of the building, we had to pick our way through some construction detritus as I caught a glimpse of the work on a new library reading room. The center has another large area where various events are held, including musical shows and Hebrew sing-alongs. Care services are provided for senior citizens, including meals and the allocation of food vouchers for use at local supermarkets.
The jewel in the center’s crown is the impressively designed synagogue, which was largely funded by Tallinn resident philanthropist Alexander Bronstein, along with local and international donors and the Rohr Family Foundation, and which opened in 2007. Prior to that, services were held in a small synagogue that operated out of the community center, but even that was quite an improvement on the tumbled-down timber structure that served as a house of prayer – largely for Jewish soldiers in the Soviet army – after the war.
Today, relatively diminutive proportions notwithstanding, the Estonian Jewish community appears to be thriving.
The compact kindergarten, located a short drive away from the center also gave the impression of being in good health. A Russian-born Israeli teacher by the name of Gali was busy getting the Kabbalat Shabbat fixings in place. The curriculum of the older children – the kindergarten caters for children up to the age of seven – also includes learning basic Hebrew.
All that is a far cry from when Gennadi Gramberg assumed the reins of the Jewish community in the early 1990s. Official Jewish life began to raise its head cautiously in the late 1980s, as the first cracks began to appear in the Berlin Wall. Gramberg and I met up at the historic Pegasus Café in the picturesque Old Town sector of Tallinn. The eatery had a long history of housing lively social and cerebral exchanges between members of the Estonian intelligentsia, and it was there that the Estonian Heritage Society began to reemerge.
The society also took part in the revival of various ethnic groups that had been suppressed by the Soviets, including the Jewish community.
“In 1988 it was decided that a legal Jewish culture society would be founded in Estonia,” says Gramberg who, in addition to his excellent English, has a smattering of Hebrew.
Gramberg was keen to jump on the cultural emancipatory bandwagon as it picked up steam.
“The society was established in March 1988 and I joined it in May,” he says.
Gramberg soon took an incremental step to greater involvement when the first head of the society, the forerunner of the resuscitated local community, made aliya at the end of 1989.
“When I discovered it was [legally] possible to do something for the Jewish community here, I wanted to take part. In 1992 the Jewish society was transformed into the Jewish community; I was the chairman, officially, from 1993. At that time it was not only a cultural organization, it was more than that.”
Gramberg’s tenure ran until 1995 and he says significant progress was made in those early years.
“One of the most important things we achieved was to open the Jewish school,” he notes. “The funny thing is that the school is actually run by the municipality, where I now work.”
Today the Ukrainian-born 60-year-old is doing good things as head of the Tallinn city government’s Environmental Projects and Education Division, pushing local affairs into ever-greener pastures.
That sounds like a healthy pursuit and it looks like Jakobson, Ryvlin and their cohorts are keeping the seeds of the local Jewish community that Gramberg helped to sow over two decades ago well watered. Three quarters of a century after the Nazis proudly declared Estonia purged of Jews, the community is very much alive and kicking.