Emīlija Benjamiņa (sometimes transcribed Emilija Benjamin) (10 September 1881 — 23 September 1941 Solikamsk labor camp, Soviet Union) became the richest person in pre-World War II Latvia. She was the universally acknowledged "Press Queen" of the country and became one of the wealthiest women in Europe at the time.
Born Emīlija Simsone, she was the middle daughter of Andris Simsons and Ede Usinš. Simsons was a low level bureaucrat on whose salary the family could barely make its ends meet. Both of her sisters were stage artists, the eldest, Mina (stage name Tusnelda) was an opera singer, while the youngest, Annija (Aicher) was an actress who made a name for herself in both the Latvian and German language theater.
Unlike her sisters, Emīlija early on, was attracted to the press and to business and started working at the age of 17, as an advertising agent and theater critic, for the German language newspaper, Rigaer Tagesblatt, which was owned by one of the prominent members of this Imperial Russian city's Jewish community, Blankenstein.
She married young and became Emīlija Elks. Unfortunately that marriage did not turn out to be the dream that she had envisioned. Elks became an alcoholic and was reported to have beaten her.
Sometime in 1904 or 1905 Emīlija met a man named Anton Benjamiņš. He was 21 years older than Emilija and had by that time in his life been a schoolteacher and a failed shop owner. Because he had become bankrupt, he came to Riga to look for work, which he found as the reporter on Latvian issues of the Rigaer Tageblatt. At the time, he also was married to someone else.
Over time Emīlija Elks and Benjamin took over the practical running of the Rigaer Tagesblat. Emīlija ran the business, while Benjamiņš was the editor. In 1909, Emīlija divorced Elks. For Benjamiņš however that step would prove to be much more complicated and time consuming as his existing spouse did not agree and they had three children.
In 1911 Emīlija and Benjamiņš decided to live together. And, on 8 December, Emīlija founded her own newspaper using funds she had obtained from her divorce settlement. She also persuaded all the Latvian speaking journalists at the various German and Russian language newspapers in Riga to work for her, initially free of charge, to get a truly Latvian newspaper off the ground. Jaunākās Ziņas (The Latest News) was the first, mass distribution newspaper to be published in the Latvian language; Emīlija, as Emīlija Elks, was the publisher and Benjamiņš was her editor-in-chief. Emīlija's business sense and Anton's dedication to hard work soon bore fruit and Jaunākās Ziņas blossomed. It employed many who would go on to be important names in the development of Latvian literature and culture and indeed of the written Latvian language itself, including the writer Kārlis Skalbe, the linguist Jānis Endzelīns.
At the outbreak of World War I Jaunākās Ziņas continued to publish as long as it could and made a name and market for itself by publishing the announcements of refugees searching for their family members, free of charge. But eventually, as four different sides (the Imperial German Army, the Bolsheviks, the pro-German local Landswehr and finally the Army of the new Latvian Republic) marched through Riga, Jaunākās Ziņas shut down and during the Bolshevik occupation of Riga, Emīlija and Benjamiņš had to take refuge in Berlin for some six months.
Just before the war started Jaunākās Ziņas had received delivery of the latest industrial printing presses from Germany; now, since Germany was an enemy country of Imperial Russia, the bill no longer had to be paid and still later, when the war was over, the German firm in question was bankrupt and no longer existed. Later, the Bolsheviks "expropriated" the printing plant and used it to print their propaganda leaflets; when they were driven out they abandoned tons of paper. This supplied the newly restarted Jaunākās Ziņas for free for over a year, a not insignificant commercial advantage at a moment in time when paper was a very precious and expensive commodity in short supply.
Anton Benjamiņš was finally able to get his divorce in 1922. And within a few months Emīlija and Benjamiņš were finally, legally, married.
With peace, the Benjamiņšes set about building their publishing empire with vigor. In 1924, they started a new magazine Atpūta (Leisure) which quickly became the showpiece as well as a prime mover of the Latvian culture now developing after Czarist rule and Baltic-German cultural domination. In 1928, the Benjamiņšes bought the grandest private home in Riga, the so-called "Fābu Palace". Emīlija also owned a summer home on the beach in the town of Jūrmala (the beach resort of Latvia), other buildings in Riga and bought a country estate called "Waldeck" near Kandava.
By the 1930s the Benjamiņš' publications had saturated the press market in Latvia. During a visit to Paris, she met William Randolph Hearst who congratulated her with the statement that he wished he could have the same market share in his country that she had in hers.
Emīlija looked to expanding her business empire beyond publishing. To that end, in the latter part of the 1930s she bought a ten hectare industrial estate in Ķekava, by the Daugava river, with the intention of going into chemical manufacturing and color photograph development with her nephew and adopted son, Juris. Juris was by then a chemist and had already developed some new processes for color film printing.
Emīlija had no children from either her first or second marriage. So, to have an heir, in 1926 she had arranged with her younger sister, Annija, to adopt Annija’s oldest son, Georg Aicher (who became "Juris Benjamiņš" after the adoption), as her own.
With financial success came fame and social status which Benjamiņa showed she was worthy of. The President of Latvia, Karlis Ulmanis was unmarried during the 1930s and so, in many ways, Emīlija became the "First Lady" of Latvia. She was the one whose social events determined one's place and order in the higher society.
At one of Emilija Benjamīņa's lavish parties during this era, an event is reputed to have taken place that is still clouded in legend. Emīlija had invited as a guest a man who was world-renowned at the time as a fortune teller: Eižens Finks (Eugene Finks). About her future he said: "you will die of starvation, lying on bare wooden boards". At the time, all present considered his statement to be a bad joke.
In 1938 Emīlija Benjamīņa decided to complement the finest city residence in the Baltics with the finest summer house on the beach and commissioned the German architect, Lange to create what has become known as: The Emilija Benjamin House, in Jūrmala.
Anton Benjamiņš died on 14 June 1939, a month shy of his 79th birthday. At the time of his death Anton and Emīlija jointly owned two businesses and twelve properties. It was said that their wealth at the time exceeded 60,000,000 Swiss gold francs. In his will, Anton arranged for Emīlija to have 51% (the controlling interest) of the businesses. Anton's children from his first marriage promptly challenged the will in Court and publicly declared that their father was insane. But history soon overtook the Court Case.
On 24 August 1939, the "Treaty of Friendship and Non-Aggression between Nazi Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" generally known as the "Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact" was signed, and dated a day earlier.
The Emilija Benjamin House was finished in the fall of 1939.
On 17 June 1940 in accordance with the concept of the Treaty, the Red Army occupied Latvia and shortly thereafter incorporated the formerly independent country into the Soviet Union. Everything that Emīlija owned was "nationalized" as Soviet people’s property. Right at the beginning of the Soviet occupation the German Government created a safe passage for people to escape and Juris Benjamiņš used that to successfully evacuate the valuables from the Kr. Barona 12 house. Among them was one of the finest Sèvres porcelain collections in Europe, and Czar Nicolas II's gold cutlery collection that Emīlija had bought in Paris in the 1920s from Prince Felix Yuzupov (the man who assassinated Rasputin). The items were taken to Vienna but were stolen there and never recovered.
Jaunākās Ziņas was published for the last time on 9 August 1940. The newspaper had strongly advocated the advantages of parliamentary systems like those of the United Kingdom and Sweden and its uncompromising stand against totalitarianism had antagonized both the Communists and the National Socialists.
Emīlija apparently thought she herself would be spared. The Swedish ambassador to Latvia offered to marry her, thereby making her a Swedish citizen with diplomatic protection. But he could not offer protection for her adopted son, so she refused his offer. Rudolph Aicher (her younger sister's husband) through his contacts with Joachim von Ribbentrop, managed to arrange an interview with Heinrich Himmler in the hopes of getting the German Government's intervention on her behalf. However, after having her and her newspaper's politics investigated, Himmler concluded that she was "Reichswidrig" ("an enemy of the Reich") and would not be helped. But above all, her former employee, her regular party guest, her friend: Vilis Lacis, the new Communist Interior Minister for the Latvian Soviet Socialist Republic was the one who decided such things. And so, indeed he did.
Initially, Emīlija had been “moved” from her city residence at Kr. Barona Str. 12 to a small flat at Kr. Barona 19. On 17 June 1941 Soviet police came to the door with a list of names, told her to pack her things and took her away. Juris was also on the list, but they could not find him. Also on the train to Siberia was a wealthy Jewish family that had been neighbors of hers and the young man of that family, who survived the Soviet Camps related that when they got off the train at the end of the journey, Emīlija had trouble carrying her suitcase, but when someone offered to help she replied, "from now on I will carry my own destiny".
On the 23rd of September, 1941, a little over a week after her 60th birthday, Emīlija Benjamiņš died of starvation, lying on a "bed" of bare wooden boards.
- Simsone, Annija Atminas, Atminas (Memories, Memories) Gramatu Draugs, (Toronto, Canada) 1961; Autobiography of Emilija's younger sister Annija. (Latvian)