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THE JEWISH COMMUNITY [January 2001][June 2005]

Jewish settlement in Estonia began in the 19th century when they were granted the right to enter the region by a statute of Tsar Alexander II in 1865 that allowed the "Nicholas soldiers" and their descendants, kantonists, First Guild tradesmen, artisans, and Jews with higher education to settle in Estonia and other parts of the empire. The Tallinn congregation, the largest in Estonia, was founded in 1830. The Tartu congregation was established in 1866 when the first fifty families settled. The largest synagogue was constructed in Tallinn in 1883 and one Tartu in 1901, both destroyed by fire in WWII. Jewish population spread to other Estonian cities with houses of prayer (Valga, Prnu and Viljandi). Cemeteries were erected. Although schools were begun, most of the Jewish population of small tradesmen and artisans most illiterate. At the end of the nineteenth century, Jews entered the University of Tartu, enriching Jewish culture and education.  Approximately 200 Jews fought to create the Republic of Estonia, seventy as volunteers. 1918 began a new era for the Jews as Estonia showed  tolerance towards all citizens and acted to overcome discrimination. A Jewish elementary school founded by the Tallinn congregation graduated its first class in 1923. The first gymnasium class (grade 7) started in Autumn 1923 with 223 students and the second class (grade 8) in 1924 when the new school was completed at Karu 16. On 12 February 1925 the Estonian government passed a law granting cultural autonomy of minority peoples for which the Jewish community quickly applied. In June 1926 the Jewish Cultural Council was elected and the Jewish cultural autonomy declared for the 3045 Jews. Schools proliferated throughout the country. In 1934, 4381 Jews lived in Estonia (0.4%). Jewish population of other cities: Tallinn (2203); Tartu (920); Valga (262); Prnu (248); Narva (188); and Viljandi (121) as artisans, laborers, merchants, and manufacturers, the leather factory Uzvanski and Sons in Tartu, the Ginovkeris Candy Factory in Tallinn, furriers Ratner and Hoff, and forestry companies such as Seins, Judeiniks. Tallinn and Tartu had Jewish co-op banks. 11% received higher education, 37% secondary education, and 33% elementary school. 18% only received home education. 9.5% of the Jewish population were physicians (80+), 16 pharmacists, and 4 veterinarians. The peaceful life of the small Estonian Jewish community halted in 1940 with Soviet occupation. Cultural autonomy and all institutions were liquidated in July 1940. About 400 Jew were deported on 14 June 1941. German occupation came later in 1941 with 1000 Estonian Jews executed. After WWII, some Jews who had fled to the Soviet Union returned to Soviet-occupied Estonia, but no Jewish cultural life revived due to Communist policies hostile to Jews and an anti-Zionist campaign. Without a synaogue, the congregation operated and cared for the Rahume Cemetery from a house of prayer in poor repair. Jewish language, history, and traditions were forbidden, punishable by prison camps. Establishments and offices precluded Jews. The Soviet categories of citizenship (Soviet) and nationality (Jew, Estonian, Russian etc.) stated on passports ended the cultural memory of the Jewish people; the young increasingly unaware of their ethnicity due to parents and grandparents afraid to teach children of their heritage. Even the Holocaust was ignored by the Soviets. Institutions of higher education, especially in Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, were essentially closed to Estonian Jews who attended the University of Tartu and the Polytechnical Institute in Tallinn (now known as the Technical University). In the 1970s, Estonia was known as a place from which to leave the Soviet Union. Then, in March 1988, the Jewish Cultural Society established in Tallinn, the first in the Soviet Empire, organized concerts and lectures for people deprived for fifty years. A Sunday school started in 1989 in the Tallinn Jewish Gymnasium on Karu Street then used by a vocational school. In 1990, a Jewish School with classes 1 through 9 organized. Jewish culture clubs of the Cultural Society started in Tartu, Narva, and Kohtla-Jrve. Life returned to the Jewish congregation. Social and cultural activities grew. Restoration of Estonian independence in 1991 brought numerous political, economic and social changes. Estonia traditionally regarded its Jews with friendship and accommodation. The Jewish Community received its charter on April 11, 1992. The Jewish Community in Estonia consists of about 1000 Jews of which over 50% are elderly, a Jewish synagogue in Tallinn. [March 2009]

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