The Estonian Jewish community is the smallest of the Baltic states, and historically, the one that played the least important role in Yiddishland before the Shoah. Indeed, the community never counted more than 4500 members.
Although present in Estonia since the fourteenth century, the Jews did not assume a permanent residence in Estonian territory until after 1865, when the czar abolished the decree forbidding them to live there.
The cantonists, Jewish soldiers serving in the imperial army, established the community in Tallinn in 1830; that of Tartu was begun in 1866. Synagogues were built in the two cities in 1883 and 1900, respectively; both burned down during the Shoah.
Nothing remains of the small Jewish communities of Narva, Valga, Pärnu, and Viljandi, which were destroyed during the war. Jews in Estonia today are in very large part Russian-speaking Jews who arrived after 1945.
During the interwar period, independent Estonia treated its Jewish minority fairly. Jews enjoyed all the civil liberties granted to other Estonian citizens, and beginning in 1925, cultural autonomy as well. A minority chose to settle in Palestine, where they contributed to the foundation of two famous kibbutzim: Kfar Blum and Ein Gev.
The 1940 Soviet occupation of Estonia put an end to all Jewish communal life: 400 Jews were sent to work camps. The Nazi invasion in July 1941 succeeded in exterminating the community, whose members were killed by the Einsatzgruppen with the active complicity of local collaborators, most notably militants from the Omakaitse Fascist movement.
After 1945, the Soviet state outlawed all forms of Jewish cultural activity: all that remained was a small community that maintained the cemetery of Tallinn (which still exists). In contrast, one of the effect of anti-Jewish Soviet policy in terms of higher education was that a number of Jewish students from Moscow, Leningrad (Saint Petersburg), and Kiev went for their studies to the University of Tartu or the Polytechnic Institute of Tallinn, which were considerably more open.
Also, during its Soviet occupation, Estonia was a relatively accessible open door for the refuseniks heading toward the United States or Israel. The Jewish community in nearby Finland had helped and continues to aid many Estonian Jews.
Jewish life in Estonia began again in 1988 with the creation of a Jewish Cultural Society and later a school in one of the locations of a former Jewish gymnasium. Since Estonia’s independence in 1991, the Jewish community has become openly active. It scarcely numbers 1000 people (mostly of retirement age) according to official Estonian sources -3000 according to Jewish sources.
In October 1993, a law granting economy was passed. Unlike the tendencies in Latvia and, to a lesser degree in Lithuania, the former Estonian Waffen SS receive absolutely no official or public support and the extreme right is hardly visible.