Life in the Courland During an Independent Duchy
What is the Himelhoch history? How did the family come to Michigan, and then ultimately be part of the department store sensation that defined high fashion in the Motor City?
In the late 1870s, bothers Wolf, Isaac and Meyer Himelhoch left a town called Sasmaken, relatively close to the major Baltic port of Riga in a then-province called Courland, which along with the adjacent provinces of Livonia and Latgale, in 1917, was consolidated into a country called Latvia, a total space slightly larger than West Virginia.
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Map of the Courland (from Curland Research Group)
Unfortunately for its inhabitants, these three provinces had been long-term components of the Russian Empire - in the case of Courland, since 1795. They had been originally settled by tribesmen, who were conquered in the 13th century by Germanic Teutonic knights, whose family and vassal decedents continued in the Courland throughout the centuries as the huge land owner aristocratic barons, remaining the dominant economic force unimpaired by political fallout.
During a short Swedish annexation, authority and administration was pretty much limited to Livonia. Later, a Polish conquest involved the close cooperation of the Germanic nobles whose dominant role even increased. Courland became an independent Duchy under the protection of Poland, but a key section, only a few miles from Sasmaken, Pilten, through a complicated separate agreement, was placed directly under the rule of the king of Poland. Because of the Bishop of Piltan, who was given complete autonomy, and himself, the largest land owner, the Jews were not subjected to the same adverse restrictions as existed in the Duchy.
In the interest of his own extensive land holdings and his Germanic background, he was anxious to enhance trade relations with East Prussia, utilizing the port of Ventspils better known as Windau. He encouraged immigration of East Prussian Jews to stimulate the economic growth of the entire area and extended Jews’ rights of domicile. These East Prussian Jews constituted significant immigration, even though it was much smaller than Lithuanian and Russian immigrations that followed considerably later.
The Russian rule of Courland began in 1795, but, as previously stated, the wealthy German land owner power remained. A strange interdependence with the Jews evolved, and the barons’ lifestyles became a targeting factor in Jewish assimilation, including adoption of status sounding German names like Himelhoch.
There is strong evidence that the three Himelhoch brothers were at least the third generation of Sasmaken Jews. Based on graves and death certificates, it appears S.W., their father, was born in Sasmaken in 1808, and his father, N., was also born there. This would likely place N’s birth back to sometime in the 18th century, probably before the Russian rule, which started in 1795, when there were fewer than 5,000 Jews in all the Courland.
It could be that the Himelhochs represent an extension of the original immigration from East Prussia. This might explain the name, which admittedly might have come later.
East Prussia seems more logical than the Lithuanian and Russian immigrations, which in the main did not occur until late in the 19th century when the Himelhochs had already departed for America.
Next page -> The Himelhochs Among the Jews of Pilten
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