The first Jews arrived in what is now Estonia as early as in the year 1333. In the seventeenth century, the number of Jews in the region increased, proven by the fact that the authorities introduced an oath of loyalty especially for the Jews. In 1721 Estonia became part of the Russian Empire, but was situated outside the Jewish Pale of Settlement established by the tsarina Catherine II (1762-1796). However a process of permanent Jewish presence in Estonia began in the nineteenth century. In 1865 Tsar Alexander II allowed the so-called “Nicolas soldiers”, also called “cantonists”, to live permanently outside their Pale of Settlement.
The cantonists were forcibly recruited Jews who had to serve for at least 25 years in the Imperial Russian army. After their term expired they had however the right to remain in outer-Pale. A small prayer-house is known to have existed in Tallinn in the 1840’s probably used by the cantonists. From that period we also possess birth and death certificates issued by a local rabbi. The Tartu congregation was established in 1866 when the first fifty families settled there. In 1875 they founded the first Jewish student organization ever in Estonia. The majority of the Jewish population, at that time consisted of small tradesman and artisans, but at the end of the nineteenth century several Jews entered the academic world.
From the very first days of her existence as a free and an independent state (1917-1940), Estonia showed tolerance towards all religious minorities. Since 1926 Jews have enjoyed cultural autonomy that was guaranteed by law. 1464 people i.e. 71% of the Jews with Estonian citizenship participated in the first elections to the Council of the Cultural Autonomy. The cultural self-government was a unique phenomenon in the history of European Jews. Societies and clubs were established even in smaller cities like Viljandi and Narva. On the eve of the Shoah, nearly 4,500 Jews lived in the country, 2,500 of them in the capital.
During the first Soviet occupation (1940-1941), all Jewish institutions were closed down, and about 10% of the Jewish population was deported to detention centers in Siberia and elsewhere in the Soviet Union. In the summer of 2011, which marks the 70 years anniversary of those dreadful events, the Jewish Community inaugurated a monument for the Jews who were deported to Siberia and who never came back.
When the frontline of World War II drew near Estonia, 75% of Estonia’s Jewish community managed to escape to the Soviet Union. Immediately following the German invasion about 1,000 members of the community perished at the hands of the Nazis and their local henchmen. At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, Estonia was already declared Judenfrei!
On 27 January 2012, the Jewish Community inaugurated the Memory Gallery bearing the names of the 974 Estonian Jews who were killed by the Nazis.
More information about the history of Jews in Estonia can be found on the website of the Estonian Jewish Museum – muuseum.jewish.ee