The beginning of the presence of Jews in Ludza (Pol. Lucyn) dates back to the 16th century, which makes the local community and the Jewish cemetery some of the oldest in Latvia. The earliest community escaped from the town in 1577, saving itself from the troops of Ivan the Terrible, only to return in 1582.
The Jewish population of Ludza started to dynamically develop in the 19th century, following the legal changes adopted in the Vitebsk Governorate, prohibiting Jews from living in villages and land estates. In 1847, the local community had 2,299 members, and half a century later, in 1897 – 2,803 (54.5% of the total population). The main source of income for Jews was trade in grain and wood, as well as crafts, especially tailoring. Many Jewish people also worked in agriculture. It is worth noting that in the second quarter of the 19th century, ca. 60 Jewish families from Ludza migrated to the area of Kherson and Yekaterinoslav, where they lived off working the fields.
Ludza was an important centre of religious education, it was even called the "Jerusalem of Latvia" in the interwar period. Some of the most prominent Jews in the town were the Tzioni and Don Yahia rabbinical families, whose members consistently held the post of the local rabbi until the Holocaust. The Great Synagogue and three houses of prayer were located at Synagogalna Street. More houses of prayer operated in other parts of the city. In 1907, the Tzioni family opened their own religious publishing house; it operated until 1940 under the direction of Benjamin Don Yahia (who perished in the Holocaust). There was also a publishing house run by Wolf Suer. The opportunity to pursue secular education emerged with the launch of a private school for boys in 1865.
During World War I, hundreds of local Jews left for Russia; their homes were plundered as control of over the city was constantly passing from hand to hand. They were replaced by Jews arriving en masse from western Latvia and Lithuania. In 1920, there were ca. 2,000 Jews living in Ludza. Most of them struggled to make ends meet and only survived thanks to the aid provided by the Joint. The post-war crisis resulted in further growth of emigration indices.
In 1935, the Jewish population of Ludza comprised 1,518 people – 27% of the entire population. Jews held half of the seats in the 20-member municipal council. Most Jewish children attended the public school with Hebrew, opened in 1918. As a result, the locals were mostly fluent Hebrew speakers, with many people from Ludza going on to become Hebrew teachers. There was also a Jewish trade school in the town. The Bund enjoyed the greatest popularity among the political parties. A branch of the “Arbeithaim” leftist cultural and educational society was active in Lodza. With time, the Zionist ideology started to gain traction among the local population, with Betar and Zionist Revisionist opening their branches in Ludza.
The local intelligentsia was largely formed by Jews, including physicians: Samuel Gurevich, Sara Herman; dentists: Estera Lewin, Goda Falkova-Hnoch; and lawyer Shlomo Gurevich.
Jews were also a dominant force in trade and services. They owned 191 out of all 302 businesses operating in Ludza. Basia Bobrova ran an inn, Chana Lutkin – a diner, Mariasha Falkin and Chana Robinson – teashops. The local hotels were owned by Zalman Lotzov and Chana Feinstein. There was a bookstore owned to Leib Svoboda and a stationery shop run by Boruch Bunimovich. The owners of local grocery stores were: Dvoyra Tzilevich, Naftali Gasul, Malka Gurevich, Micha Moltinski, Abram Zhmuda, Chana Merkin, Ruven Manoim, Riva Super, Pinchus Lgov, Chava Livshitz, and 33 others. Teytelbaum, Hanza, and Naglis traded in agricultural products. One could purchase herring from Hirsh Isemin and Yosel Druyan, onion from Liba Haymov, flour from Elka Zelikman, Chaim Nagli, Wolf Maron, Pinchus Kagan, Leyba Yankel, Boruch Mankov. Bakeries and pastry shops belonged to Sora Yavich, Chaim Kochanov, Chaim Sverdlov, and others. Butcher’s shops were owned by David Super, Chana Cherfas, Notel Sandler, Bunia Super. Eyda Bash, Nechama Gurevich, David Gamza sold wine and vodka. The local breweries belonged to Benzion Melamed and Kasriel Lotkin. Sora Ztiyun traded in fruit. Bicycles were sold by Zalman Trupin and Hirsh Risin, watches – by Zamuel Suer, Mera Druyan, and Menachem Kagan. Small iron products could be bought from Fayvish Movshovich, Shifra Druyan, Mera Druyan, Isidor Druyan, Hirsh Druyan, Manka Lewin, Mera Mayofis, Sora Teytelbaum, and others. Aaron Gamza sold furniture. Textile stores were owned by Minucha Entin, Abram Lewin, Elijah Awerbuch, and 12 other Jews. Jews were also the owners of three shops with ready-made clothing, four stores with hats, seven shoe stores, and 11 leather goods stores. Zorde and Leya Berman were the owners of a shop with trinkets. Naftali Lewin and David Egnus sold wallpapers, Naftali Sloboda and Geyvush Gilevich – paints, Shapsel Freiberg – wood products. Israel Puternik traded in hay, Kasriel Lotkin – in glass and glazing, Israel Tavev and Ruvin Hnoch – in grain. Zalman Suer owned a radiotechnology shop and the "Lucia" cinema. There was also a Jewish-owned swimming pool in the town (Pinchas Zhorde), another cinema (Zalman Krup), and a bathhouse (Yitchak Teytelbaum). There were eight hairdressers in the city, including four Jewish ones.
In 1938, the great fire of the town destroyed 212 houses and 117 stores – 95% of them belonged to Jews.
In 1940, Latvia came under the Soviet occupation. All enterprises were taken over by the state. Some of the local Jews moved to Daugavpils and Riga. On the night of 13/14 June 1941, before the German invasion of the USSR, 130 people were arrested and deported from the town. 30 of them were Jews. They were members of the families Gamza, Bunimovich, Teitelbaum, Lotzov, Rivkin, Zemel, Krupa, and others. All men were separated from women at the train station. After several months of exhausting journey, they reached the Vyatlag (Kirov Oblast in North-Eastern European Russia). Michał Zemel and Aron Ber Gamza died before being officially sentenced in 1942. Hirsh Rivkin died in April 1943. Morduch Bunimovich was released, but died in the Vyatlag in 1943. Women and children were later deported to Krasnoyarsk Krai.
German troops seized the town on 3 July 1941. The next day, a “Self-defence" unit was quickly recruited from among the local population. It arrested all non-local Jews who had escaped to the town from the German front, as well as non-Jewish people from outside Ludza who were identified by the “Self-defence" as Soviet activists. Those captured were put in prison, where they were beaten and starved. On 10–11 July 1941, a specially-appointed "commission" interrogated more than one hundred people, Jews and non-Jews. On the night of 14/15 July, 25 of them were shot to death near the brickworks in Ludza.
In mid-July 1941, a ghetto was created in the town. It was located between the following streets: 1. maija, Baznīcas, Rekašova, and Mazā Ezerkrasta. Members of the “Self-defence" entered Jewish houses, ordering the residents to move to the ghetto and only take the essential things. Ca. 800–900 people were held in the quarter. At the end of July 1941, the ghetto prisoners were allowed to visit their houses and take whatever belongings not yet looted by the Germans.
At the end of July 1941, 35 elderly Jews were taken from the ghetto, including the rabbi of Ludza – Ben Zion Don Yahia. They were shot to death at the intersection of today's Liepājas Street, Park Street and Rūpniecības Street. After the war, their remains were transferred to the Jewish cemetery. The rabbi was buried separately. This marked the end of the Don Yahia rabbinical family, which had served the population of Lodza for 150 years. Around the same period of time, 11 Jews were shot dead near a khutor belonging to a Jew, Lauders. Their bodies were buried on the spot. Their remains were buried in a mass grave many years later.
On 17 or 18 August 1941, all policemen from the town and surrounding area were gathered in the building of the Latvian secondary school. The "bravest" were selected from the crowd and transported to the execution site on the Mežciems estate (Polish: Pohulanka), located at Lake Cirma. At the same time, 50 healthy men were taken from the ghetto and ordered to dig out pits. Once they were ready, 50 elderly Jewish people and then a group of another 100 Jews were brought to the site in a car. All of them were shot to death. They were followed by several subsequent groups of prisoners (Jews were told they were going to work in Raguvėlė). A total of 600 ghetto prisoners were murdered (out of a total population of 700). Seven people managed to escape from the murder site, but they were caught by a policeman and shot (he fired 30 bullets). After the war, the policeman was sentenced to 25 years in the gulag; at that time, the death penalty was temporarily suspended in the USSR.
The remaining Jews were shot near the villages of Dzerkali (date unknown) and Kotāni (13 November 1941). The last stage of genocide was concluded on 2 April 1942. At that time, the only people left alive were professionals – physicians, shoemakers, and others; they were shot to death in the Garbari Forest.
After the war, ca. 100 Jews who had escaped to the East settled in Ludza. With time, their number decreased, mainly as a result of migration to Israel in the 1970s. In 2017, there were still 12 Jews living in Ludza.
The entry incorporates large fragments of the text Daugavpils by Mejer Meler, forming part of the book entitled Mesta Nashey Pamyati. Yevreyskie Obshchiny Latvii, Unichtozhennye v Holokoste. The text was made available to POLIN Museum courtesy of the “Jews in Latvia” Museum in Riga (Muzejs “Ebreji Latvijā”), for which we extend our deepest gratitude.
- “Ludza,” [in] The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust, eds. S. Spector, G. Wigoder, New York 2001, vol. 2, pp. 761–762.
- Meler M., Mesta Nashey Pamyati. Yevreyskie Obshchiny Latvii, Unichtozhennye v Holokoste, Riga 2010, pp. 265–274.