As in many countries, Jewish people have had a presence in Estonia for hundreds of years. Historical archives reveal that Jews first arrived in Estonia in the 14th century. However, it was not until the 20th century that the Jewish community of Estonia, a small country that borders Russia and Latvia, encountered a series of important turning points.
In the year 1919, Jewish associations and organizations within Estonia began to grow in large numbers. A Jewish elementary school was formed, which then later expanded into another building in 1924. New clubs were established in several cities, including Viljandi and Narva. The largest of the new societies formed were the H. N. Bjalik Literature Society and Jewish Drama Society in Tallinn, the country’s capital city. In 1920, the Maccabi Sports Society was founded, and soon became well-known for its endeavors to encourage sports among Jews. Political organizations such as Hasomer Hazair and Beitar were also established.
Shortly thereafter in 1925, a dream was achieved for the Jewish community. The Estonian government passed a law pertaining to the cultural autonomy of minority peoples. The Act of Cultural Autonomy for Ethnic Minorities gave minority groups consisting of at least 3,000 individuals the right of self-determination in cultural matters. Thus, in 1926, Jewish cultural autonomy was declared. This allowed the number of Jewish organizations to increase remarkably. In the 1930s, there were over 4,300 Jews living in Estonia (which was 0.4 percent of the population). There were three Jewish schools, and about 100 Jews were studying at the University of Tartu. By 1939, there were 32 different Jewish organizations that were active and thriving within Estonia.
In 1934, there were 4,381 Jews living in Estonia. Of these, 2,203 Jews lived in Tallinn. There were a significant number of large businesses owned by Jewish families. As well as a Jewish society for tradesmen and industrialists. Tallinn and Tartu had Jewish cooperative banks, and there were more than 80 Jewish physicians. The Jewish community even established its own social welfare system- The Jewish Goodwill Society of the Tallinn Congregation. Jewish life in Estonia.
However, the peaceful and very active life of the small Jewish community in Estonia came to an abrupt halt in 1940 with the Soviet occupation of Estonia. Cultural autonomy, in addition to all of its institutions, was eliminated in July 1940. In July and August of the same year all organizations, associations, societies and corporations were closed. A large group of Jews (about 400) were deported from Estonia in June of 1941. After the German occupation later in 1941, all Jews who had failed to flee were murdered. According to data from Israel, a total of 1,000 Estonian Jews were executed from 1941 to 1944 during the German occupation of Estonia. Many Jews were transported to Nazi concentration camps in Estonia from other parts of Europe.
Following the end of WWII, the second Soviet occupation of Estonia occurred, lasting from 1944–1991. During this period, many Jews migrated to Estonia to escape the anti-Semitism prevalent in the USSR. Jews, for instance, often had difficulties gaining admittance to institutions of higher learning, especially in bigger cities. By 1960, 5,500 Jews were living in Estonia, about 80% of them in the city of Tallinn. There was, however, no rebirth of Jewish cultural life, because of the Communist Party’s hostile policies towards Jews. From 1940 until 1988 the Estonian Jewish community, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, had no organizations, associations or clubs.
At the end of the Soviet Era in 1988, the Jewish Community in Estonia experienced the rebirth that it so needed. In March 1988, the Jewish Cultural Society was established in Tallinn. The Tallinn Jewish School was re-opened in 1990, and was the first school for a national minority to be established in the restored Republic of Estonia. After the restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1991, the Jewish Cultural Society was reorganized, and the Jewish Community was established in 1992. The Jewish Museum in Estonia was opened in December of 2008 within the Jewish Community Center in Tallinn.
Today, the Jewish community of Estonia continues to make great strides in reestablishing itself. A Chabad center has been opened in Talinn, and there exists a Jewish school. The community of about 3,000 people is one of the smallest in Europe, but is bravely re-asserting itself and reestablishing the Estonian Jewish identity.