Liepaja (or Libau as our ancestors would have known it) is the third largest city in Latvia. It is a major port, being one of only three ice free ports in the Baltics, and is bounded on one sie by the sea and on the other by a lake. People have lived here for more than 750 years. The River Liva and the village Liva were first mentioned in writing in 1253. Most probably the name comes from the word Liiv which means sand. And having visited the Liepaja beach, I can vouch for the miles and miles of glorious sandy beaches that are every bit as perfect as the California beaches.
The recorded Jewish community dates back only about 200 years with many Jewish families migrating to the city from the outlying towns and villages. In our case, the Friedman family moved to Libau from the outlying village of Gruben or Grobina.
Although Jewish traders and craftsmen lived in Courland as far back as the 16th century, few were allowed to settle in the cities. For example, when Courland was annexed to Russia in 1795 only 19 Jews were registered in Liepaja. Restrictions eased in the 19th century leading to an influx of immigration not just from the surrounding villages but also from Latgale, Lithuania, Byelorussia and Russia. By 1914, 10,000 of the 119,000 population of Liepaja were Jewish.
During World War 11 more than nineteen thousand people were murdered on the sand dunes of Skede, just outside Libau. The murdered included some 98 per cent of the Libau Jewish community, together with many Jews from the surrounding areas as well as many other Latvians.
Today there is a small but thriving Jewish community of some 400 people. Of these, most are immgirants who settled in Liepaja from Russia or the Ukraine during the Soviet years. As an important Soviet naval base, many of the Jewish immigrants of this time came as part of their military service. Of the original pre-war Jewish Libauer community, only six families remain.
There is a Jewish community centre with a Bet Midrash. The community has several active programmes, such as a school, clubs for families and the elderly, and a welfare programme for the needy. There is a Community centre at Kungu Iela 21, which has recently been thoroughly renovated thanks largely to the generosity of Raymond and Selwyn Haas.
The community is very well integrated locally with inter-marriage being the norm rather than the exception.
The community is extremely welcoming of all visitors - especially Libauers or their descendants. If ever you want to visit Libau, contact me and I will introduce you to the redoubtable Ilana Ivanova who is at the heart of the local Jewish community
The earliest recorded member of my Friedman branch is my great great great granfather Wulf Friedman who was born circa 1800. He and his family lived in Libau (now Liepaja) a Baltic port in the Duchy of Courland in what is now modern-day Latvia.
Libau was a major trading port with an active fishing industry. Perhaps that is why so many of my more elderly relatives loved herring - although personally I hate them.
My great grandfather, David, emigrated to England from Gruben (now Grobina) in the 1860s. Gruben is a small village some 10 miles outside Libau/Liepaja.
There was a major shipping route directly from Libau to the UK and the US. In particular the Wilson Line sailed from Libau directly to Hull on a regular basis in the lste 1800s. At its peak in the 1880s, there were two crossing a week between Libau and Hull.
David arrived in Hull as a boy (I have not yet established at what age) and lodged with the Moses family in Hessle Road. He subsequently married the daughter of the house, Esther Moses. They married in 1877 when David was 21 and Esther 18. Esther came from a slightly earlier wave of immigrants having herself been born in the UK.
I have limited knowledge of what happened to other members of David's family - some stayed behind in Libau and perished in the holocaust. I visited Libau recently and took a photo of the house on Klaipeda street where my distant Friedman cousins are recorded as living in 1941.
Others presumably also emigrated from Libau to the UK , US or South Africa - the major migration destinations of the time.
However the only record I can find of a Friedman relative emigrating to the UK at that time was David's younger sister Johanna who is recorded as living with David, Esther and their chidren in the 1891 census. However by time of the 1901 census she seems to have disappeared. Johanna was much younger than David and , in fact, was almost the same age as David's eldest son, my grandfather, Sydney Friedman. What I do not know is whether Johanna really was a younger sister or whether she was some other relative but passed herself off as a sister for immigration reasons.
What I do know is that Johanna married a Julius Benjamin (a painter) in 1891 at the family home at 299 Hessle Road, Hull. I can only assume that they emigrated to the US shortly thereafter as I can find no other UK records for them.
No family member I have spoken to has ever heard any mention of Johanna or her husband Julius Benjamin. But they did both exist, are recorded in the census and we have a marriage certificate showing that the wedding ceremony took place at David's house in Hessle Road. So she existed - but who knows where her descendants, my cousins ended up.
click here for a fascinating account of Jewish migration from Libau to Hull (and elsewhere) in the 1800s
click here for more information on Jewish migration from Libau to Hull
It is a family legend that has been passed down the generations that one ancestor was made a Baron by the Tsar. If this is true and if the title passed down the line of male primogeniture (two massive ifs), that would mean that my first cousin David Friedman is today a Baron.
So is there any truth in the legend. I did manage to discover that there was a title called "Baltic Baron" that was awarded to people - often for acts of commercial reward of social help such as a mill owner offering free grain in times of famine. Also these titles could be bought and there are recorded cases of Jews becoming barons. So far so good.
The bad news is that I commisioned research from the Latvian State Archives in Riga and they can find no evidence of a Baron Friedman.
So......sorry David. It's close but no cigar. You'll just have to remain a Count like the rest of us.
Image: House on Klaipeda Street
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