** war and social upheaval: World War I -- the great empires and Eastern Europe

World War I: Jews of Eastern Europe

Figure 1.--The great bulk of the 4 million Jews in Eastern Europe at the time of World War I were unassimilated, leading quiet, very basic lives in shtetls. It was the largest group of Jews in the world. Most lived in the Tsarist Pale of Settlement where their lives were severely constrained by discrimatory regulations. The American Jewish popultion by this time had grown to about 2 million, primarily as a result of emigration from Eastern Europe. And American Jews were taking advantage of opportunites their parents could have only dreamed about. Unappreciated by Tsarist officials, restricting the lives of such a substantial and enerrgetic part of their populationn, they were harming their national economy and growth potential.

In the midest of rising nationalist entiment were vthe vJews of Eastern Europe. Most of the world's Jewish population at the time of World War I lived in Eastern Europe, largely in the Tsarist Pale of Settlementat. There were about 4 million Jews in Eastern Europe. Some had emigrated west, both to America and Eastern Europe. The United States would become a major center of Jewery. These Jews including the Jews in Germany and Austria-Hungary had been largely assimilated. There was anti-Semitim as evidenced by the Drefus Case in France (1894). Jews in the West suffered various forms of descrimination--often described as 'polite' descrimination. There were, however, for the most part correctly treated, tolerated, and emancipated. This was not the case in the Tsarist Pale of Settlement where Tsarist aiyhorities stoked traditional anti-Semitism. The Tsarist Ocrana (secret police) fabricated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The lives of Jews were severly constrained by a wide range of discrimnitory regulations making it difficult to pursue most occupations. As a result, most lived in extreme poverty. Few Tsarist Jews were able to assimilate even if they wanted to do so. And there was always the danger of the occassionl pogroms. You cannot say Russian Jews. The more correct term is Tsarist Jews because the Pale of Settlement was primrily Lithuanua, Latvia, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine. Jews were prohibited from living in most of Russia. This is why so many of Jews emigrating to the United States came froim Tsarist Eastern Europe. When World War I erupted (August 1914), the Eastern Front was fought in the area with a large popultion of Jews. [Barnavi] The Russians attacked into East Prussia, but were defeated and then the fighting moved into Poland with its large population of Jews (1915). The Russians were more sucessful as they attacked into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, occupying large areas of Galicia with a substantial popultion of Jews (1914-15). The Russians did not trust their own Jews, let alone the Austrian Jews. They proceededto deport some 0.6 million Jews from the front. The Tsarist soldiers and officials were often brutal and the depotations were done in the most deplorable conditions. The deportations were not only from occupied Austrian territory, but Jews from Tsarist territory near the front as well. It was not only an economic catastrophe for the Jews invioved, but many perished as a result of the deplorable conditions. As news of this leaked out, Jews around the world, especially in America, established welfare organizations to aid the impoverished Jews--the origin of the Jewish Joint Distribution Comittee (JDC). Jews like other citizens enlisted in their national armies. This included Tsarist Jews, but when the deportations began Jewish loyalties in Eastern Europe began to swing to the Central Powers. Despiite the enlistments and patriotic service, accusations of evasion and of profiteering emerged, basiclly manifestation of tranditional anti-Semitism in a more modern guise. There were official inquiries in both Germany and Russia which led nowhere. German officials tried to exploit the anti-Tsarist sentiment, especially in America where most Jews had come from the Tsarist Empire and were thus strongly anti-Tsarist. The British without a substantial Jewish population, but aware of the American Jewish population, responded with the Balfour Declaration (1917). After the War, European Jews found themselves confronting anti-Semetic hatred and a deterioting political situation made worse by the Great Depression and the new septre of Fascism. Jews tended to diverge into two directions: one, socialist internationalim and two Zionist nationalism.


Barnavi, Eli. ed. A Hisdtotrical Atlas of the Jewish People (Schocken Books).


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Created: 3:54 AM 8/7/2021
Last updated: 3:55 AM 8/7/2021