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10 March 2011

Anna Katzen and the Jews of Estonia

On 28 May 1958 Anna Katzen Ace died in Kansas City, Missouri, United States. She had survived her husband, Harry, by almost 40 years since his death in 1918. On her headstone, located in the Mount Carmel Jewish Cemetery it stated that she was born 20 Mar 1872 in Estonia. Earlier records, included the 1910 Census for her in Missouri, and her mother and siblings in Manhattan, New York, all list Russia as the place of birth. So what is Estonia?
Although modern day Estonia didn't regain its Independence until 1991 with the fall of the USSR, it has a long and changing history. Since 1227, when it was conquered by the Danes and the Germans, Estonia has always been a place that others wanted to have. Because of its location other countries found it a desirable trade route between East and West. At various times Estonia has been under the rule of Sweden, Germany and Russia amongst others.
Historians claim that the first Jews into Estonia could have arrived as early as the 14th century, however, the first Jews to create settlements in Estonia, did so in 1865, when Tsar Alexander II granted them permission to do so. There was a synagogue in Tallinn in the 1830's. Following the grant of resettlement a synagogue was built in Tartu, as the first 50 families settled there.
Large synagogues were built in Tallinn in 1883, and in Tartu in 1901. According to the census records, most of the Katzen family arrived in the United States in the 1890's, so they probably never saw the Tartu synagogue.
The last part of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century saw great growth and freedom for the Jews. They were allowed to enter the University in the later part of the 1800's, and then the Independence of 1918 brought even further improvement. The creation of the Republic of Estonia in 1918, enabled the Jews to flourish. The entire country was enjoying a tolerance toward each other, which gave the Jewish community the ability to organize and grow. By 1925, there were over 3,000 Jews.
All of the peace and growth came to an abrupt halt in 1940 when Estonia was invaded by the Soviet Union. When the Nazi's began to occupy the country in 1941, all those who had not fled earlier were murdered. Following the war, the freedoms did not return, it was a dark time for the Jewish people.
Independence was regained for Estonia in 1991, and the community was reestablished in 1992. Today, there are over 1000 Jews living in Estonia, and they have recently reopened a synagogue in Tallinn. For a place that saw so many killed, both there own and others who had been transported there, maybe the light of freedom has been re lit.

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