Mordechai Dubin’s communal work began just after the end of the First World War, in 1919, when he was not quite 30 years old. From then until 1940 he was the heart and soul of Latvian Jewry.

The year 1928 was an election year in Latvia. Elections for the Riga City Council were held in March and elections for the third Saeima in October. Agudas Yisroel had not previously been represented on the city council, but that year Dubin decided to stand for election as the leader of the party list. Dubin was by that time leading Agudah’s parliamentary faction.

At the time Agudas Yisroel did not have its own print organ, so Dubin began publishing a special pre-election newspaper called Acht Un Tzvantzik (Twenty Eight)—their parliamentary election list number. At the same time the editor of this publication, Shimon Yitzchak Wittenberg,1 became the head of my gymnasium (later, in 1931, he was elected as a deputy to the Saeima). The director knew of my weakness for journalism and offered me to work at the newspaper. It was in the course of editing the paper that I had my first interactions with Mordechai Dubin.

On the eve of the Saeima elections that fall, I became one of the secretaries of the pre-election staff of Agudah, whose offices neighbored those of the Jewish community. Four times a week—during the day on Sunday, and evenings on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday—Dubin would see visitors at his office in the community center, and on those days he would often stop by the pre-election base and spend time there.

Jewish candidates for the Latvian Saeima from varied parties banded together to run as one bloc in 1925. Dubin can be seen on the far left.
Jewish candidates for the Latvian Saeima from varied parties banded together to run as one bloc in 1925. Dubin can be seen on the far left.

The elections of the third Saeima did not go very well for Agudas Yisroel. Rabbi Mordechai Nurock (who later became a cabinet minister in Israel),2 and his brother Aaron Ber Nurock, the rabbi of Liepaja, were both elected from Hapoel Hamizrachi’s list; Dr. Noah Meisel3 was elected from the Bund’s list; and Professor Max [Matisyahu] Lazerson4 was elected as a Zionist-Socialist. Agudas Yisroel had put up two candidates for the Saeima, but it was even with difficulty that Dubin alone was elected.

The election results upset Dubin terribly. He felt himself so responsible that rumors quickly spread throughout Riga that he planned to refuse his mandate and that representatives of the Jewish communal organizations were begging him that not to take such a step. Even his former political opponents, who had just a day earlier hounded him, turned to him with the request that he not decline his seat in parliament.

Not long after this disappointing election Mordechai Dubin offered me the job of organizing his personal archives, which was held in the office of the Riga Jewish community. Going through this archive, I became acquainted with Dubin’s multifaceted activities beginning in 1919, when Latvia was taken over by the Communists for a short period. There I found copies of his appeals to the Communist powers, documents pertaining to the period of Bermondt-Avalov’s coup at the end of 1919,5 and thousands of letters and other papers that dealt with issues of agrarian reform and various tax and duty breaks he had fought for. There were also documents with respect to emigration from Soviet Russia and a host of other issues that Jews were forced to constantly contend with.

Dubin's official portrait.
Dubin's official portrait.

When the Germans approached Riga in 1917, thousands of Rigan Jews, among them many community leaders, fled to Russia. Nevertheless throughout the German occupation, which lasted until the end of 1918, Jewish communal life in Riga continued more or less normally. In January of 1919, however, when power reverted to the Communists, the remaining communal activists hid themselves and Rigan Jewry lost their official representation. Hunger, poverty and illness raged, many Jews were arrested, and the long-term existence of the community’s religious and cultural institutions was threatened.

As his archives attested, it was precisely then that Mordechai Dubin appeared before the new Communist authorities with the compelling request that they not mix into religious activities in the city’s synagogues, nor in the education given in the Jewish community’s schools, and that they allow the continued operation of the community’s hospital and charitable organizations. Before Pesach he came to them demanding that they provide flour so the community could bake matzah. The authorities responded by threatening to arrest the energetic young activist, and they would have, had it not been for typhoid fever. Right after Pesach Dubin fell ill with the dreaded disease, and when the Chekists6 came to take him away it appeared that he lay on the edge of his grave.

In May of 1919, the Bolsheviks were driven out of Riga and the Latvian National Council resumed control. After his activism during the Communist period, it goes without saying that Dubin’s name was immediately placed among the candidates to represent Latvian Jewry in the national council. But that autumn a counterattack came, and bands of Germans and Russian White Guards attacked Latvia, capturing a part of Riga. From time immemorial, at any time of crisis anywhere, Jews become the sacrificial lamb, and in this case the Latvians began searching for enemies, first and foremost amongst the Jews. At that time Dubin managed to save a number of Jewish lives.

To this day I remember very well a story preserved in the archives: There was a Jewish man named Shapiro, a manufacturer of suspenders, who was court-martialed and sentenced to be shot. The Daugava River marked the border between military lines, and signs were taped around the whole city warning that all windows be darkened at night, especially for those living within eyesight of the river. Shapiro lived near the river and had hung up window darkeners, but they were apparently not opaque enough and light came through. This alone was enough for authorities to accuse Shapiro of espionage and court martial him. One of the Latvian generals, [Martins] Penikis, boasted then that “this time even Dubin won’t be able to rescue him.” But the general was mistaken. Dubin managed to spare Shapiro from his sentence and save his life.

Traffic crossing the frozen Daugava River in Riga, Latvia, 1900-1918. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Traffic crossing the frozen Daugava River in Riga, Latvia, 1900-1918. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Refugees from Soviet Russia

Having become a deputy in the founding assembly of Latvia, Dubin looked upon himself not only as a Jewish communal representative but as the representative of every individual. Thus Mordechai Dubin, who at the time was little more than 30-years-old, was transformed into a traditional Jewish shtadlan, an advocate for Jewish affairs.

The first problem facing all the Jews of the independent Latvian state turned out to be a question of citizenship. By law, all non-Latvians had to produce documented proof that prior to the war they had lived on territory that now constituted independent Latvia. During the war the government’s archives had been destroyed, therefore the unlucky prospect of finding themselves citizens of a foreign government loomed over even many Latvian-born Jews. Dubin became one of the most active warriors against this unfair law. In his archives I found tens of copies of memoranda on this topic; he worked unceasingly, both as a politician and as a communal advocate, and in the end he managed to have the law corrected. The correction made it so that to prove Latvian citizenship it was enough to just have the testimony of a deputy of the Saeima attesting that the person in question had resided on Latvian territory prior to the war.

This was followed by more adversity. One problem was connected with agrarian reforms being instituted by the new government. A second problem had to do with Jews from Russia who had arrived in Latvia after World War I as repatriated citizens. These people didn’t have any documents at all, and in addition not a grosha to their soul.

Agrarian ‘reform’

While Latvia was taking its first steps as a young independent country, the hardships forced on its Jews remained the same old Jewish sorrows. As if damage caused by the war was not enough, by 1920 it became obvious to Jewish communal leaders that a new threat hung over the Jewish shtetls in the form of new agrarian reforms. The new Latvian government began confiscating plots of land from landlords and redistributing them among poor peasants. You’d think that this didn’t affect the Jews much, since few were major landowners, but that wasn’t the issue here. The agrarian reform specifically did not affect lands owned by the Catholic Church, which was precisely where the Jewish shtetls stood. All of a sudden the Roman Catholic priests began to assert their newly-realized rights of ownership and take advantage of them, not only raising rents but frequently refusing to allow the Jews to construct new buildings and the like. Dubin turned to the Catholic curia and in almost every case managed to strike a compromise with them.

Dealing with this issue stretched over an entire decade. I was already Dubin’s secretary when I remember him still taking part in every meeting of the agrarian committee, which dealt with these Jewish problems. Not only did he effectively argue that Jews should retain the rights to the plots of land they had long-worked, but he used his authority to achieve recognition of the right of Jewish people to obtain long-term loans from the mortgage bank at low percentage rates. He dealt with every question personally, himself going to the bank directors and requesting them to increase the loan sizes as much as possible. In his archives are hundreds of letters and documents with regards to mortgage loans.

The first elections for the Saeima of the new Latvia took place in the fall of 1922, and Agudas Yisroel won two seats. Latvia was divided into five election districts, with Jews concentrated mostly in Riga and Daugavpils [Dvinsk]. Dubin was a candidate in both districts and won seats in both. He decided to accept the mandate from the Riga district and a second Jewish candidate, Reuven Wittenberg (not related to Shimon Yitzchak Wittenberg), advanced in Daugavpils. Such a significant success in the elections did not in any way go to Dubin’s head.

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zak, chief rabbi of Riga until he was murdered by the Nazis. Photo: Yahadus BeLatvia Rabbonim.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zak, chief rabbi of Riga until he was murdered by the Nazis. Photo: Yahadus BeLatvia Rabbonim.

‘Repatriated’ Latvian Jews

Following the Russian Revolution and Civil War, Latvia found itself “repatriating” thousands of Russian Jews with no actual prior connection to Latvia. In Russia these Jews had been able to produce some sort of legal documents to back their claims that they had the right to be repatriated to Latvia, but when they made it to Riga they fell into the danger of being deported back to Russia. Most of these illegal immigrants intended Latvia to be a stop on the path further west, but only a handful successfully made it further, meaning they were stuck in Latvia. On the other hand, there’s no need to further explain the grave dangers of being sent back to Soviet Russia. Dubin stepped forward as the personal guarantor for all of these immigrants, arranging Nansen passports7 for all of them. He also provided them with material assistance.

Then came the wave of 1922, when thousands of legal immigrants began pouring over the Russian border in their quest to reach America. There were no diplomatic relations between the United States and Soviet Russia, therefore the immigrants who reached Riga applied and received their American entry visas there. At that time the American organization HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] opened a bureau in Latvia, and Dubin worked closely with them until July 1, 1924, when the United States slammed its doors shut on immigrants and created an entry quota. The quota left hundreds of families stranded in Latvia partway through their trip, without the means to live or even occupations of any sort. Before anything else Dubin obtained temporary rights for them to remain in Latvia, and then helped them move out of the temporary immigrant housing where they lived (called the “immigrant dormitories”), for which they had to pay, often being forced to use the funds they had saved for passage to America.

Apart from these legal immigrants were also many illegal ones, people who had risked their lives crossing the Soviet-Latvian border. Those caught at the border or in Latvia were released from prison by petition of Dubin, who personally vouched for the political trustworthiness of each one. Illegal immigration from Russia was especially intense in the 1920s but also continued on a smaller scale through the 1930s.

I especially remember the story of Rabbi Yechezkal Abramsky.8 Venerable rabbis were like a bone in the throat to the Yevsektzia (Jewish section of the Communist Party). Abramsky was arrested a number of times in Russia, including being sent to the Gulags for a number of years, before, at the end of 1931, they finally told him he would be allowed to leave the country if he could obtain an entry visa into any other country. When Dubin found out about this he immediately procured a Latvian entry visa for Abramsky. But this was too much for the Yevseki.9 They couldn’t stomach that a rabbi—a cleric, a reactionary—would have the luxury of leaving Russia with a proper passport and visa, so they dumped him at the border in the middle of the night without any documents whatsoever. Abramsky turned to the chief of the border crossing point and requested he contact Saeima deputy Mordechai Dubin. The chief called Dubin at home in the middle of the night, and Abramsky was immediately delivered to Riga where Dubin handed him a Nansen passport. Abramsky used this passport to leave for London where he headed the Beth Din for a number of years, before becoming the head of the committee of yeshivot in Jerusalem.

The extent of Mordechai Dubin’s power in the Latvian government is illustrated by this next story as well.

After Latvia became independent, the chief rabbi of Riga, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Zack,10 founded a small yeshiva in the capital. It never grew very large and its impact wasn’t felt very widely in the city. Dubin wanted very much to make Latvia a place of Torah study, but the problem was where to find students. So he came up with a plan: He turned to the Ministry of the Interior with a proposal, explaining that in order to win the battle against communism and other atheistic movements, the religious front must be strengthened. As far as the Jews were concerned, he told them, he could establish a network of yeshivot throughout Latgale (a region in Latvia). Prior to World War II this part of Latvia bordered Poland, and since Latvia itself did not have many Jewish youth who wished to study in yeshivah, he proposed the government allow Polish yeshivah students to come to Latvia. The government would only have to close its eyes to their crossing the border into Latvia.

Many of the Polish yeshivah students did not have external passports and were therefore not allowed to leave Poland. Some of them weren’t even Polish citizens, and so ensuring legal entry into Latvia was difficult and expensive. Dubin managed to convince the Ministry of the Interior to allow a specific number of yeshivah students to illegally cross the border and settle in Latvia.11 Students and a few teachers of the famous yeshivah in Novogrudok (Novardok)12 took advantage of this idea, and when they got to Latvia they received Nansen passports and permission to remain in the country through Dubin.

A central yeshivah was established in Daugavpils—the city of the famed Rabbi Yosef Rosen (the Rogatchover Gaon), of righteous memory13—led by Rabbi Dovid Budnik. In due time a number of yeshivot opened in several villages, and the Novardeker students were joined by a number of local Jewish youth as well. On the orders of the Minister of the Interior all the students had to renew their residency permission at a police station once a year. One year, failing to pay attention to such mundane, worldly matters14, the Novardoker students neglected to show up at the police station to renew their visas.

Dubin’s concern with the Jews of Daugavpils would continue for decades. After the passing of the Rogatchover in 1936, cracks began appearing in the previously impregnable walls of the Daugavpils Jewish community. By 1939 some shopkeepers dared even open their businesses on Shabbat. Dubin and Shimon Yitzchak Wittenberg traveled to Daugavpils and took the floor in the Beit Medrash, calling on the local Jews to be more careful about upholding Shabbat. The synagogue was jam-packed with attendees, and the chief of police offered Dubin to send a few policemen to maintain order. Dubin thanked him but responded that Jews could maintain order on their own, without the assistance of the police. Then the chief of police complained that the students of the yeshivah had not come to the station to extend their visas, as was required, and he’d like to meet with the head of the yeshivah. Dubin passed on the information to Budnik, who got very frightened. Dubin calmed him down and explained there was nothing to be afraid of and all he had to do was honor the police chief with his visit and compel the students to show up at the station once a year to get marked off.

These yeshivot stayed in existence for some time, even after the arrival of the Soviets, but it all came to an end not long after Dubin’s arrest—as did all Jewish life in Latvia.

 Rabbi Dovid Budnik, who was the rosh yeshiva of the Novardok yeshivah in Daugavpils (Dvinsk). Photo: Yahadus BeLatvia Rabbonim.
Rabbi Dovid Budnik, who was the rosh yeshiva of the Novardok yeshivah in Daugavpils (Dvinsk). Photo: Yahadus BeLatvia Rabbonim.