BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 May 2007, 12:33 GMT 13:33 UK
Estonia opens first new synagogue
By Patrick Jackson
BBC News

Rabbi Shmuel Kot poses in front of the new synagogue in Tallinn
Rabbi Kot says Estonian Jews can now live their religion fully
Estonia's first synagogue since the Holocaust has opened in the capital, Tallinn, to serve the Baltic state's current community of about 2,500 Jews.

The Nazis had described Estonia as being "free of Jews" by the time they held the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 to plot the Final Solution.

Few who escaped the Nazis returned after the war and those who did faced religious curbs under Soviet rule.

Estonia's top rabbi said his community could once again "feel like Jews".

"For a long time... there was no rabbi, no kosher food... no possibility to learn about Judaism," Chief Rabbi Shmuel Kot told The Associated Press.

The new, privately funded synagogue in central Tallinn, described by news agencies as an ultramodern, airy structure, can seat 180 people in its main worship area.

Estonia's Holocaust

Previous synagogues in Tallinn and the second city, Tartu, were destroyed during the war which saw a Jewish community of about 4,500 displaced or destroyed.

Memorial to Jews worked to death at the Nazi labour camp at Klooga, near Tallinn
A memorial marks the site of a notorious work camp at Klooga

About 3,500 were able to escape to the USSR before the Germans arrived but of the 1,000 who remained, all but seven were murdered by Nazis or Estonian collaborators, Dr Efraim Zuroff of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem told the BBC News website.

Some of those who escaped later helped defeat the Nazis as soldiers in the Soviet Army and the controversial relocation of a Soviet war memorial from a Tallinn square earlier this year had been a "sensitive issue" for the community, Rabbi Kot told Reuters.

While welcoming the synagogue's opening, Dr Zuroff told the BBC News website that Estonia was not doing enough to track down Estonian Holocaust collaborators who escaped abroad after the war - a suggestion a police spokesman has denied.

Under Nazi rule, Dr Zuroff says, Estonian security police units played a part in the Holocaust in Belarus and Poland, as well as helping murder Jews in their own country.

An unknown number of Jews from other parts of Europe were also worked to death in 20 labour camps set up by the Nazis on Estonian soil and guarded, in part, by Estonian police.

New investigations

Since gaining independence from the USSR in 1991, Estonia has convicted 11 people of Soviet-era crimes, particularly the mass deportation of 1949, but has not prosecuted any suspected Nazi-era war criminals.

Dr Efraim Zuroff (image supplied by same)
Once the criminals die, that's the end of the issue
Dr Efraim Zuroff
Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Jerusalem

The Soviet KGB extensively investigated Estonian Nazi war criminals itself and convicted at least 18 in the 1960s, Superintendent Martin Arpo of the Estonian security police board told the BBC News website.

In 2001, the police investigated an Estonian expatriate who was a police official under the Nazis, and was identified as a Holocaust suspect by the Wiesenthal Centre. The case, apparently rejected by the KGB itself in the 1960s for lack of evidence, was dropped by the Estonians for the same reason.

Two other Nazi-era cases are still under investigation, Supt Arpo added, saying he could not give names for legal reasons.

Dr Zuroff says that questions like Holocaust restitution, education and commemoration in the new Estonia can be decided in the future.

However, the prosecution of surviving Nazi war criminals, he believes, has to be decided now "because once the criminals die, that's the end of the issue".

Inside tour of the Tallinn synagogue

When giants fought in Estonia
09 May 07 |  Europe
Wiesenthal honoured at graveside
23 Sep 05 |  Middle East

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific