The history of the Jewish people in Königsberg can be traced back as far as the early 16th century but for most of the next 350 years, the city’s Jewish population remained relatively small and the rights of Jews were limited. It was only in the second half of the 19th century that Jews were given greater rights and the population began to increase with Jews arriving from Russia and neighbouring German lands in what is today Poland.
There were at one time three synagogues in Königsberg with the predecessor of the new synagogue, called the New Synagogue being built between 1894 and 1896 to designs by architects Cremer and Wolffenstein. The synagogue became the largest in the city. Despite valiant service in the German Army in WWI by many of Königsberg’s Jewish population, who between them won 117 Iron Crosses, the city’s Jews found themselves subject to increasing persecution in the 1920s and their number was already in decline by the time the Nazis came to power in 1933. Conditions continued to decline and the New Synagogue was burned down on Kristallnacht in November 1938. Most of those that did not escape before emigration was prohibited in May 1939 perished in the concentration games across Nazi-occupied Europe. The few remaining German Jews left Kaliningrad in 1948.
Today there is a community of approximately 2,000 Jews in the oblast and after years of fighting to have a circus removed from the land that they still owned, a new synagogue is under construction. It is to be an exact replica of the synagogue burned down in 1938.
The pre-war Jewish population was home to a few notable people including Leah Rabin, wife of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin as well as the family of British writer and comedian David Baddiel, famous for being part of the team behind the England football song ‘Football’s Coming Home’. He traced his roots in the city in a 2004 edition of the BBC genealogy programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and discovered that his grandfather owned a large brick factory close to the city’s former airport at Devau.