On Sept. 1, 1939, World War II began, and by Sept. 17 Soviet tanks had entered eastern Poland. Within the next few weeks the Soviet Union relayed an ultimatum to the Baltic States: Either they “voluntarily” allow for the establishment of Soviet bases on their territory, or the USSR would declare war on them. In this way the fate of these countries was already sealed by October, 1939. Everyone understood that demands to allow the opening of bases was only the beginning, and that the Russians were preparing to occupy the entire Baltics.

Among the Jews of Riga, conversations arose about leaving Latvia. This was of course difficult, but within certain limits it was possible. Both community leaders and regular people turned to Dubin for advice, asking him what they should do.

“Do as you feel is necessary,” he answered to them. “I am not going anywhere.”

The Latvian government even fined a man who had spread a rumor that Dubin was planning on leaving the country.

From the first days of the war Dubin threw himself into what he saw as the main task: Saving the Lubavitcher Rebbe again, this time from Poland, which was now in Hitler’s claws. On Sept. 1 he ran to the ministry of foreign affairs and requested that the Latvian embassy in Warsaw see to the well-being of the Rebbe, who had become a Latvian citizen in 1927. The Rebbe had left Latvia for Poland in 1933, living first in Warsaw and then later in the suburb of Otwock.

Contact between the ministry and the embassy in Warsaw was lost on Sept. 3, a Sunday. The very next day Dubin arranged an emergency meeting to discuss what could be done to save the Rebbe and his family. One person even volunteered to drive to Warsaw with a bus and take them out that way, but this ended up being too dangerous, and probably impossible, since the roads had already been heavily damaged.

After Dubin’s urgent intervention the Latvian government appealed directly to Berlin, requesting that a Latvian citizen currently in Poland be evacuated over the frontlines. Their exit was scheduled for Sept. 17, which was 5 Tishrei on the Jewish calendar, less than a week from Yom Kippur. The rail lines between Warsaw and Riga were bombed and so they had to go through Konigsberg. This route normally took less than 24 hours, but now it was impossible to say how long it would take and so the Lubavitcher Rebbe refused to leave, explaining that he did not want to find himself on the road on Yom Kippur. And so the Rebbe and his family remained in Poland.

Many Latvian Jews managed to escape Warsaw on this train, and in fact they arrived in Riga towards the end of Yom Kippur, at Neilah, the final prayer of the holy day.

Meanwhile the war between Germany and Poland ended and Warsaw was under the Nazi boot. Dubin knew neither rest nor calm and it was only in December that he managed to direct the Lubavitcher Rebbe and his family to Riga, from which they left in March of 1940 on the very last boat to America.

Haynt, March 16, 1939: "Hitler Enters Prague."
Haynt, March 16, 1939: "Hitler Enters Prague."

Soviet Occupation of Latvia

Fears that the USSR would fully conquer the Baltic countries soon proved correct. The Soviet Union’s ultimatum that their smaller neighbors provide them with military bases on their territories was merely a prelude to the events of June 17, 1940, when the Soviets invaded and occupied Latvia. A few days later the Soviet deputy minister of foreign affairs arrived in Latvia, none other than Andrey Vyshinsky,1 whose mission it was to organize a new, pro-Soviet Latvian government. Once in Riga he immediately summoned five people: Latvia’s minister of foreign affairs Vilhelms Munters; the general secretary of the Latvian Communist Party—which had been banned under Ulmanis—Janis Kalnberzins; candidates for prime minister Breakshis and Augusts Kirchenšteins; and the representative of the Jewish community of Riga, Mordechai Dubin.

Vyshinsky promised Dubin mountains of gold. He told him no one intended to obstruct the community’s work or interfere in its affairs; they could even continue publishing the Jewish newspaper… But these were empty promises. In Aug. 1940 the Riga Jewish Community was eliminated, its institutions closed, and Dubin’s archives confiscated and carted away.

By that time the fall holidays were approaching, and as usual, the lulavim and esrogim that had been ordered prior to Pesach arrived from Italy. All of a sudden there was no one to accept the order, for in the meantime the offices of the Jewish community had been closed. Dubin decided to involve himself, and at his direction I called the deputy minister of interior trade, Krumnish, and asked for a meeting. I went together with Dubin to that meeting, where we received permission to accept the lulavim and esrogim.

A grayer looking Dubin, late 1930s.
A grayer looking Dubin, late 1930s.

After the holidays new problems arose, as now it became impossible to obtain kosher meat, first in the provinces and then in Riga itself. The authorities had “forgotten” to allocate livestock for Jews to slaughter in accordance with kosher laws. As in previous times, the Jews of the provinces headed to Riga to find out what was going on, coming straight to Dubin. Upon his initiation a secret meeting was organized, and a delegation was elected to approach the authorities. By now a meeting of this sort was in itself threatened great danger, but Dubin acted on the principle laid out in Esther (4:16), “Go, assemble all the Jews.” It was precisely at such a time that the Jews had to gather to figure out what to do and how. In the end this attack too was averted; Dubin’s word still held some sway with Latvian officials, although they were already under the strict watch of the Soviets.

True, during the first two or three months of the occupation even the Soviets themselves acted with some reverence towards Dubin. For example, when the Soviets cleared a big apartment building in an aristocratic neighborhood of Riga as a new headquarters for the NKVD, they moved the former residents into other, smaller accommodations. Dubin, who also lived there, was given a new six-room apartment in the same neighborhood.

Haynt, June 21, 1940: "The New Regime." The newspaper was shut down within a few weeks of this announcement.
Haynt, June 21, 1940: "The New Regime." The newspaper was shut down within a few weeks of this announcement.


Citizens of the former Latvian Republic sat in agony as the arrests began. The first to go were the former politicians and members of the deposed government. Of course Dubin feared that he too would fall into this web of arrests, and every morning we would meet at the synagogue and discuss it. Dubin understood well that the Soviets had old accounts to settle with him, for in his time it was he who had torn the Lubavitcher Rebbe from their grips, and thereafter had often traveled to Russia to work on behalf of its Jews.

Dubin’s only son, Zalman, closely resembled his father, and one morning as he left his house he was snatched off the street and stuffed into a car. The agents immediately realized they had caught the wrong bird and released him, but it sent a clear message to Dubin as to what he could expect of his former Soviet “friends.” A few days later, this was in Feb. 1941, Jewish Riga shuddered from the frightful news: Mordechai Dubin had been arrested.

Visitors to him at the central prison were prohibited. From time to time the procurator allowed kosher products to be passed on to him, including a small amount of matzah for Pesach. Through other arrestees and those who were later freed we soon learned that Dubin ate nothing but dry bread in prison. Obviously our packages never reached him.

An arrested Karlis Ulmanis (left) being led by an agent of the NKVD on July 23, 1940, in Moscow.
An arrested Karlis Ulmanis (left) being led by an agent of the NKVD on July 23, 1940, in Moscow.