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Media biography: Emīlija Benjamiņa (1881-1941)

Emīlija Benjamiņa – from a newspaper publisher in small Latvia to one of the wealthiest women in Europe between two world wars and what can we learn from the tumultuous history of the southern Baltic towns.

Not far away from the Latvian capital of Riga, I came across a quite big, modern-style villa, tucked away in the greenery, with a lavish metal gate decorated in floral motives, facing the sandy beach of Jurmala, a royal resort that was enjoyed by Communist leaders too.

After a quick online search and a conversation with my Latvian colleagues, I started to discover pages of the villa’s exciting history and her owner who, between the two world wars, was the wealthiest woman in Latvia and one of the wealthiest women in Europe.

Emīlija Benjamiņa was the middle of three sisters in the family of Andris and Ede Simsons. Unlike her sisters, who were artists, Emīlija was drawn to media world since very young age. At the age of 17, she was already working in advertising sales and as a theatre critic for the German-language newspaper Rigaer Tagesbatt, which at that time, was published by the renowned Jewish family, Blankenstein. Back then, Latvia was a part of the Russian Empire with a large share of the Russians, Germans and Jews in the general population.


Emīlija married young and her first marriage was far from a fairy tale – her husband was an alcoholic and physically abusive towards her. Soon after she left him, she met a man by the name Anton Benjamiņš, a fellow journalist who was 21 years her senior, married with three children. In time, the couple started managing the Rigaer Tagesbatt – she was engaged more in the business side of it, and he was the editor.

William Randolph Hearst
On her visit to Paris, in the 1930s, Emīlija met William Randolph Hearst, the famous American press magnate who will later serve as inspiration to Orson Welles and his cult classic “Citizen Kane”. Hearst gave several compliments to Emīlija and added that he would love to have a share of the press market in his own country as big as Emīlija’s.

In 1911, they decided to start living together, Emīlija was finally granted a divorce and soon after, the pair launched the first newspaper in the Latvian language called Jaunākās Ziņas I (in translation “The Latest News”). They hired journalists who wrote solely in Latvian and up until then, worked only for the Russian and German language newspapers. The business was booming and the newspaper continued coming out even during “The Great War” when it became renowned for publishing advertisements, free of charge, placed by refugees who were looking for their lost family members.

Just before the war, Emīlija and Anton ordered state-of-the-art printing machinery from Germany. However, the war broke out, the invoice was not paid and the company that delivered the machinery went bankrupt and eventually went under. During the revolution, the Bolsheviks used Emīlija and Anton’s print shop for a brief period of time to print their propaganda fliers and when they left, there were tonnes of unused paper left behind them which enabled Emīlija and Anton to resume their printing business soon after the war.

In 1922, Anton was also finally granted a divorce which meant that the pair could marry now. They also launched a first-ever magazine in the Latvian language called Atpūta (in translation “Enjoyment”). In 1928, they moved into a big house, in the centre of Riga, which was aptly named the Fabu Palace, and became owners of several pieces of real estate in the town and on the Baltic coastline.

On her visit to Paris, in the 1930s, Emīlija met William Randolph Hearst, the famous American press magnate who will later serve as inspiration to Orson Welles and his cult classic “Citizen Kane”. Hearst gave several compliments to Emīlija and added that he would love to have a share of the press market in his own country as big as Emīlija’s.

GEM OF MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE: Emīlija and Anton’s mansion in Jurmala
GEM OF MODERNIST ARCHITECTURE: Emīlija and Anton’s mansion in Jurmala


Since she did not have children from either marriage, Emīlija made an agreement with her younger sister to adopt her son Georg, and change his name to Juris Benjamiņš.

As things usually happen, success in business and wealth brought a high position in the society. The lavish parties that Emīlija hosted were frequented by crème-de-la-crème of Latvia. Since the then president of Latvia, Kārlis Ulmanis was still a bachelor at the time, Emīlija was tantamount to “The First Lady of Latvia” in a way.

One of the guests at her famous parties was also the globally renowned fortune teller Eugen Finks. Upon studying her palm, Finks exclaimed – “You will die of hunger on wooden boards!” Of course, considering that we are talking about the person who was back then the richest woman in Latvia, many saw this prophecy as a “tasteless joke of a charlatan”.

In 1938, Emīlija and Anton started building a huge mansion in Jurmala, designed by the architect Lev Vitlin. Unfortunately, Anton never got to live there because he died on 14th June, 1939 leaving Emīlija 51% of his assets (worth, according to some estimates, 50 million Swiss Francs in gold) in his will which was contested in court by his children from his first marriage.

A tragic set of historical circumstances overshadowed the final ruling of the court. Following the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, formed on 24th August, 1939, Latvia and other Baltic states were put under the control of the Soviet Union. In June 1940, the Red Army troops marched into Riga and all of Emīlija‘s property was confiscated. The last issue of Jaunākās Ziņas was published on 9th August, 1940.

Emīlija did manage to vacate some of the family treasure, like Tsar Nicholas II of Russia’s gold set of plates which she bought in the 1920s from Prince Felix Yusupov, the man who killed Rasputin. She smuggled the family belongings through the corridor that the Nazis had previously used for the evacuation of the German nationals and renowned Latvian citizens when the Soviets took over the town. The collection was later stolen in Vienna, never to be found again. Emīlija remained hopeful that she would keep her business and real estate but a couple of weeks later, it was too late for everything.

The Swedish ambassador to Lativia offered Emīlija a fictitious marriage so she could be given a diplomatic immunity and leave Riga. However, she refused since this offer did not include her adopted son whom she did not want to leave behind.


As it often happens in life, Emīlija’s destiny was sealed by a man who used to work for, was a regular guest at her parties and was her close friend – Vilis Lācis, the new Interior Minister of the Socialist Latvia. On 17th June, the Soviet police showed up at the entrance of her building with a list of people to be arrested. Emīlija was allowed to bring just one suitcase with her. Juris was also on the list, but the police failed to find him.

The former wealthiest woman in Latvia died on 23rd September, 1941, in the Soviet work camp Solikamsk, a week after she turned 60. Her frozen and emaciated body was found on the wooden floor in one of the camp’s barracks.

For the next 50 years, Emīlija and Anton’s mansion in Jurmala served as a holiday property for many high-ranking Communist officials in the Soviet Union. In 1995, it was returned to its rightful owners through restitution.

The entire south Baltic coast, from Tallinn in the north to Gdansk in the south, was the epicenter of dramatic events throughout the 20th century – entire towns were razed to the ground by bombs (like Königsberg, i.e. today’s Kaliningrad in Russia), the Holocaust almost wiped out the entire Jewish population of Poland and Latvia, the territories exchanged hands based on secret agreements between big powers, the riches disappeared in confiscations or wars, workers’ uprisings that changed the course of history like the one in Gdansk in 1980 and such.

I visited a restored synagogue in Kaunas, the former capital of Lithuania, which has been declared the 2022 European Capital of Culture. Up until 1941, there were 40 synagogues and over 100 Jewish municipalities here, and Jews made up 25% of the population. As a result of Nazi’s atrocities, with a strong support from the local Lithuanian fascists, almost all Jews here ended up in gas chambers of Auschwitz. In Riga, the capital city of Latvia, I spent hours visiting the blocks of buildings built in the early 20th century Secession style which are a witness to the great wealth and progress of the Baltic ports at the time.

In Kaliningrad, the former capital of East Prussia, and the town that is the birth- and death place of Immanuel Kant, I remembered the story about the biggest maritime catastrophe in the history of human kind – the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff which, in 1945, carried 10,600 German civilians (including 5,000 children), escaping the Red Army from East Prussia. Two torpedoes fired from the Russian submarine sank the overcrowded ship and 9,600 passengers died. To this day, this is considered the biggest maritime tragedy ever. Even Gunter Grass dedicated his novel “Crabwalk” to this horrendous event.

Today, this border region between the NATO countries and Russia, populated by Catholics, Protestants and the Orthodox Christians, is one of the most prosperous in Europe. Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are all EU members with high growth rates and the respectable IT industry. Although the Germans are long gone from the Kaliningrad area, this also remains one of the most progressive and best regulated parts of Russia. The New Baltic proves that, regardless of how tumultuous a region’s history could be, it should be used only for tourist purposes and not for opening of old wounds.