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Estonian Jewish population stable despite global increase

New figures show that the global Jewish population has risen to almost the same size as it was pre-Holocaust, but in Estonia that level sits at less than 50 percent of what it was in 1939.

Last week new figures from a report by the Jewish People Policy Institute showed that for the first time since World War II, the global Jewish population has almost reached the same size as it was before the Holocaust.

Data from the Israel-based think-tank shows that there are now 14.2 million ethnic Jews. But that figure rises to 16.5 million people if you include someone who has one Jewish parent or identifies as partially Jewish. This is the same global figure as on the eve of World War II.

But in Estonia there is now only a small Jewish community of just under 2,000 people, compared to about 4,500 who lived in the country before the Holocaust, the director of the Estonian Jewish Museum in Tallinn, Amnon-Juzef Luvistsuk told ERR News.

Statistics provided by the museum show that since 2006 the Jewish community has hovered around 1,900, after falling from more than 4,600 in 1989. The steepest decrease was during the years directly after the collapse of the Soviet Union when a lot of people emigrated to Israel, America or other parts of Europe.

“But it is stable now, and has been for a long time,” said Luvistsuk, 71, who has lived in Estonia all his life. “We don’t see any big changes in population coming or going."

Before Germany invaded Estonia in 1941, the majority of the Jewish community (56 percent) was evacuated to the Soviet Union, with around 1,000 (22 percent) people opting to stay behind.

However, the Jewish community had already been depleted with the Soviet deportations of June 14 in 1941, when thousands of Estonians were sent to Siberia, including approximately 10 percent of the country's Jewish population.

By December 1941, there wasn’t a single Jew left in the country – although a mere handful had managed to escape – and Estonia was the first nation in Europe to be decreed as “Judenfrei”, meaning free of Jews, by the Nazis.

But after WWII, virtually all Estonian Jews returned to their homeland and many Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union also immigrated to Estonia, which increased the number of Jews in the country over the years to 5,000 by 1991. One of the most prominent ones was Yuri Lotman, a literary scholar, semiotician, and cultural historian, who worked at the University of Tartu. Lotman founded the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School.

Luvistsuk said that nowadays if people move abroad it is likely they will go to America or Europe. But when asked, he wasn’t sure why more Jews didn’t opt to come and live in Estonia.

“We say that wherever we have Jews we will have anti-semitism, and also even when there aren’t Jews there will be anti-semitism,” he said. “But life in Estonia is very normal, it is safe.”

The report said that the majority of the world’s Jews lived in Israel – about 6.1 million, followed by the US which has a Jewish population of around 5.7 million.

In the former Soviet Union there were more than 4 million Jews in the 1930s, now that number stands at less than 300,000.

Editor: S. Tambur

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