The Synagogue of Riga, Latvia
The Synagogue of Riga, Latvia
Haim F. Ghiuzeli
The only functioning synagogue in Riga, Latvia, is located on Peitavas street, after which it has been long known as the Peitavas street Synagogue or the Peitav-shul, also sometimes called Di Shtat Shul – the City Synagogue, in Yiddish.
The synagogue was built in 1905 with the help of a donation by the industrialist Ulrich Milman according to the plans of the H. Silverlich & Neuman architects office. The Peitavas synagogue was one of the about forty synagogues that functioned in Riga before the Holocaust serving the forty thousand strong Jewish local community. It is a stone structure with a Neo-Classic façade. The interior, however, has a dominantly Moresque style design. The wooden bimah is adorned with geometrical patterns and is located at the eastern side of the prayer-hall. The Holy Ark is decorated with multicolored Moresque motives and is covered by a golden cupola. There are two women’s galleries located on both lateral sides of the praying hall. A large chandelier with a Magen David motif hangs from the ceiling.
During the interwar period the synagogue served two groups of worshipers: a group of Hassidim and one of Mitnagdim. Each year before Passover a matzoth bakery operated within the synagogue premises. It also housed a ritual bath and a small ritual slaughterhouse in the courtyard.
During the Holocaust the building was desecrated and confiscated by the Germans who subsequently turned it into a storehouse. It was the only synagogue in Riga that was not destroyed by the Germans, presumably because of its proximity to other buildings in the Old Town. Some damage was inflicted to the interior furnishings, but the Holy Ark survived while the Torah scrolls were saved, having been hidden by local worshipers. The Jewish population of Riga, nonetheless, was annihilated in the Holocaust with only about 150 Jews left alive in Riga at the end of the war.
It was in the Peitavas street synagogue that the first public prayer after the Holocaust was attended by hundreds of Jews on Yom Kippur 1946. During the 1950’s there were three regular daily services in the synagogue, but during the 1960’s and 1970’s the number of synagogue goers declined sharply. During the Soviet period the Peitavas street synagogue served as the main point of meeting for the Jews of Riga, especially the youth, who congregated there in large numbers during the Jewish holidays, particularly on Simchat Torah.
In the 1990’s, with the restored national independence of Latvia, the synagogue became the main center of the renewed Jewish life in Riga. The Peitavas street synagogue was twice targeted by bomb attacks, the first on May 6, 1995, that caused relatively small damage, and a second on the night of April 2, 1998, when a more powerful explosion wrecked the front door and destroyed the original 1906 stained-glass windows that managed to survive the Germans. The attacks were allegedly perpetrated by anti-Semitic elements within the Latvian society belonging to former SS members and their sympathizers. Both attacks were strongly condemned by the Latvian authorities.
The Peitav shul
6/8 Peitavas Street
LV 1322 Riga