Below is a map of Latvia. Riga, the capital, was the main port of the Baltic States (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) and was the main port of embarcation for transmigrants from the Russian Empire (which comprised the Baltic States, Russia, and Belarus – Izzy’s country of origin. Mendel Gilinsky was born in Dvinsk, now called Daugavpils (bottom left corner of the map). It is the second largest city in Latvia.
Jews occupied Dvinsk (now Daugavpils, Latvia) since at least the 17th century. It became one of the foremost Jewish cities of the Russian Empire and a centre of Jewish culture and commercial activity. It was part of the Russian region of Vitebsk Gubernia. Osvei, (now in Belorus), Izzy Gamaroff’s (born Gamerov) birthplace, was also situated in Vitebsk Gubernia. In the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries, the countries of Latvia and Belarus did not exist. There was only Russia (the “Russsian Empire”).
In 1910, Dvinsk numbered 111,000 of which 50,000 were Jews. It was within the Pale of Settlement. It derived its influence more from Russian, Lithuanian and Polish influence than from German influence as was the case of Libau (my mother’s birth place). Libau was German in character as a result of nearly 700 years of domination by the Baltic Germans. That is why Libau had German street and landmark names.
Commerce and manufacturing in Dvinsk were largely in Jewish hands. The most important Jewish trades were tailoring (1,210) and shoemaking (Mendel Gilinsky, my mother’s father). There were button and match factories, and a tannery, and so forth under jewish ownership. Dvinsk was one of the chief artillery depots of the Russian Empire and large garrisons of troops were stationed there.
There were many poor Jews in Dvinsk who had to rely on state aid. There were also Jewish charitable institutions that provided soup kitchens, a dining hall, a “bikkur holim” (visiting the sick), a dispensary and a hospital. All these were organised and run by the Jewish community.
Dvinsk was a key centre of Jewish thought and culture and produced a number of rabbis respected throughout the Jewish world, for example, Chief Rabbi Kuk [Kook] (1865 – 1935), the first “Ashkenazi” chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine. “Ashkenazi” refers to Yiddish speakers, who were European Jews. Sarah Feige Foner who lived in Dvinsk as a young girl gives an evocative account of Dvinsk Jewish life in the early 20th century.