In the 19th century,
Tsarist Russia was home to about five million Jews, at
the time, the "largest Jewish community in the world".
Subjected to religious persecution, they were obliged
to live in the Pale of Settlement, on the
Polish-Russian borders, in conditions of great
poverty. About half left, mostly for the United
States, but many - about 150,000 - arrived in Britain.
This reached its peak in the late 1890s, with "tens of
thousands of Jews ... mostly poor, semi-skilled and
unskilled" settling in the East End of London.
By the turn of the
century, a popular and media backlash had begun. The
British Brothers League was formed, with the support
of local notables, organizing marches and petitions.
At rallies, its speakers said that Britain should not
become "the dumping ground for the scum of Europe." In
1905, an editorial in the Manchester Evening Chronicle
wrote "that the dirty, destitute, diseased, verminous
and criminal foreigner who dumps himself on our soil
and rates simultaneously, shall be forbidden to land."
William Evans Gordon is the author of
the book 'The Alien Immigrant', published in 1903, the year of his
travels discussed below. For him, this was a fact-finding tour of
Eastern Europe and the Baltic region. He travelled from St
Petersburg to Krakow, visiting and photographing the major towns of
Jewish settlement. It was Evans-Gordon's position that alien
immigration to Great Britain, especially Jewish immigration, should
be limited. He thus called on the Parliament to set up a Royal
Commission to take up this matter and, in 1905, the Aliens Act was
The act for the first time introduced
immigration controls and registration in Great Britain. The Act was
designed to prevent paupers or criminals from entering the country
and set up a mechanism to deport those who slipped through. It
provided asylum for people fleeing religious or political
persecution. Anti-Semitic elements wanted a stop or severe
restrictions on Jewish immigration to Britain, but were completely
defeated. The 1905 Act did not meet any of the demands of
restrictionists who wanted numerical restrictions on immigration.
Below is Evans-Gordon's article as it appeared in the New York
Daily Tribune on May 24, 1903.
England, of course--and America as well--attracts foreign elements
from all parts of the globe. If a line be drawn from Kustendjeh, on
the Black Sea, to Libau, on the Baltic, and another from Kalisch, in
Poland, to the easternmost point of the province of Ekaterinoslav,
in Russia, these lines will traverse the length and breadth of the
vast area from which comes a mass of immigrants whom the English and
American population must assimilate. England's doors are wide open
to these people, and many thousands yearly pass the test of the
immigration laws of the United States. The slums of Vilna and
Warsaw, the ghettos of Lemberg and Galatz, the remote villages in
the provinces of Minsk and Tchernigov, all send their quota to swell
the ever rising tide.
As a member of the Royal Commission on
Alien Immigration, I have thought it most important to investigate
this question on the spot, and accordingly I spent the last
Parliamentary recess in visiting the homes of all our different
aliens. I propose to tell here exactly what I found.
I reached Dvinsk, my first
halting place in the Russian Pale, on a mournful rainy
Saturday morning. The town is said to have eighty thousand
inhabitants, and some seventy thousand are Jews. The
persecuting May laws of 1882 drove many of these from the
villages and smaller towns into larger centres of population,
hence the high proportion of Hebrews to be found in the place;
hence also much of the misery and poverty from which these
poor people suffer. The preponderance of the Jewish race was
at once apparent, the Sabbath sending the whole place to
sleep. Not a shop was open, not a stroke of business was being
done. The only sign of life was in front of the synagogue;
there a large crowd of decent looking folk were holding their
church parade, promenading up and down.
The synagogue in Dvinsk
The market in Dvinsk
On the next day, Sunday, I was able to
see the town it its business dress, though the Russian law forbids
the opening of shops by the Jews till 1 p.m. on the Christian day of
rest. After that hour the markets were in full swing, crowded with
country folk and soldiers from the cantonments near by. All were
eagerly doing business with the Jews. A peculiar feature was that
the soldiers were mostly sellers and the Jews buyers. Strips of
embroidered Russian cloth, old boots, uniforms and a mass of
miscellaneous odds and ends were the articles which the Czar's "Tommies"
had for sale. Every article was the subject of a
protracted bargain, and each group of soldiers in their white
jackets and caps was surrounded by a crowd of Jews, in long
rusty black coats, with the characteristic stoop of the
shoulders and flowing beards. Around the
markets were many drinking and gambling dens and disorderly houses.
No doubt the crowding of the Jewish
population into the towns has led to a general deterioration both
moral and physical. The struggle for life is a desperate business
for many of them, and scruples diminish in proportion to its
severity. The house accommodation is poor and squalid, but there is
always light and air and space, and, considering Dvinsk from the
purely residential point of view, I personally should prefer it to
some streets I could name in towns at home.
To those anxious to see for themselves
what a Russian ghetto is like at its worst, I would recommend a
visit to Vilna. There are said to be some eighty thousand
Jews here--not, by any means, all poor. By far the greater part of
the trade, and practically all the shops, are in their hands. But
the submerged tenth is submerged indeed.
The ghetto is a seething mass of
humanity. Many of the streets and alleys are so narrow that the
pavements almost touch. At intervals throughout their length are
arched gateways leading into courtyard around which the dens and
cellars in which the people live are clustered.
I spent the whole day visiting them. In
the corners of the court one would find a wooden trough into which
all the refuse of the houses ere thrown. The stench from these
receptacles filled the whole air. The stucco walls were blistered
and rotting as if infected by the poisonous atmosphere within.
Inside, the people were crowded pell mell, regardless of health, age
or sex. In one room I found a lunatic in the middle of a family of
young children. I was followed as I walked by a crowd of haggard,
anxious, careworn people, staring at me with mournful eyes. Some
openly begged alms; others had trifles for sale. Many seemed to pass
their time in the synagogues, rocking and chanting themselves into
oblivion of their miseries. I came across several who had been to
Whitechapel, and had been sent back, I suppose, as fit for nothing.
One man with a large family wished to make another trial of England,
and asked me, of all people, for money to help him to get there.
There are other towns, however, in the
Pale where things are better. Pinsk is one of them. Here
Jewish skill, labor and enterprise have been combined to good
purpose. It is a picturesque place. The streets of wooden houses and
cottages are lined with threes; there are a quaint old church and a
seminary, and the river banks are full of life and color.
population is forty thousand, of whom thirty-seven thousand are
Jews. This disproportion, as in most of the towns of the Pale,
would have resulted in congestion in all employments open to Hebrews
had it not been for the energy and enterprise of certain leaders of
the community, such as Messrs. Lourie and Halpern, who, by starting
factories, have succeeded in profitably utilizing the labors
of their coreligionists.
A street in Pinsk
In Mr. Halpern's match factory, for instance,
fifteen hundred hands are employed. In all there are eighteen
factories in Pinsk, employing between four thousand and five
thousand hands. If only similar industries could be started in other
centres the great and tragic Jewish question in Russia would be well
on the way to be solved. I am certain that the only true and
permanent solution will be found on these lines. The idea that Jews
will not engage in manual labor has long since been exploded.
Jewish workers log rolling,
Mr. Halpern's match factory, Pinsk
Mr. Halpern's match factory, Pinsk
In Pinsk there is plenty of poverty--the
poverty which is common to all large towns in every country--but
nothing hopeless of abnormal. The five thousand hands in regular
employment leaven the mass, and the homes, though humble and very
poor, still in several instances show signs of comfort and
From Pinsk I made a tour into the
interior of the country. I was anxious to see the conditions of
things in the small towns and villages. The enterprising Jews have
started lines of steamers which ply on the numerous streams that
intersect the country and add to the prosperity of the town. On one
of them I took a passage.
Jewish grain exporters, Libau
It was a market day, and the river was
crowded with primitive boats and dugout canoes laden with many
kinds of produce. The Christian peasantry are engaged solely
in agriculture; all other employments and handicrafts are
conducted by Jews. Their capacity for business and
organization is on the whole, I think, a benefit to the
peasantry. It is the Jews who find a market for the produce of
the land, and every village and townlet in the Pale contains
an agent or correspondent of the big exporting firms in Riga,
Libau, or Odessa. It is this elaborate organization
which gives rise to the complaint so often heard in Russia
that the Jews are the exploiters of the peasantry. I have no
doubt that in many instances the moujiks do fall an easy prey to the superior
intelligence and astuteness of their Hebrew brethren.
At the same time, it is, I believe, a
fact that the general condition of the Russian peasants in the
region where Jews are allowed to reside is superior to that which
obtains outside the allotted provinces.
It would take too much space to describe
all I saw in Poland, Galicia and Rumania, and I must therefore
confine myself to a few points. There is one feature common to all,
namely, the tendency of the Jews to congregate in the towns. In the
fifteen provinces of the Pales they are obliged to do so by law. In
Poland and Galicia no such legal obligation exists, yet it is in the
towns we find them. In Warsaw alone some three hundred thousand Jews
have to make a living, and in Lodz, the Manchester of Eastern
Europe, there are nearly one hundred and fifty thousand. In the
latter town the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions under which
the poor people live are appalling. One tall wooden house which I
inspected was packed solid with humanity. I found people living in
the apex of the roof between the tiles and the top ceiling. I had to
crawl into this noisome receptacle on my hands and knees and to
climb a ladder to reach it. The police had interfered. I was told,
but the place was occupied again as soon as the backs of the
authorities were turned. Such incidents are reproduced in the East
End of London. Lodz is a great spinning and weaving centre,
and many of the factories are owned by Jews. I was surprised and
sorry to find that they employ hardly any Jewish labor. There seems
to be a difficulty in connection with the Sabbath and the Sunday,
and keeping the machinery idle for two days in the week instead of
one. The objection has been overcome in Warsaw, however, where, in
Mr. Finekin's lace factory and Mr. Polakiewitz's tobacco works,
Jewish and Christian hands are both employed with happy results.
These establishments left a very agreeable impression on my mind.
Every care is taken of the workpeople, even schools for the children
being provided on the premises. The wages are small judged by an
English standard, from 6s. to 15s. a week being the average, but
living is cheap and the wants of the people few, and they are
infinitely better off in every respect than persons of a similar
class earning double the money in London or New York.
In Galicia the condition of the
Jews seemed to me worse than in Russia or Poland. A fatal apathy and
bigotry seemed to have settled upon the majority of the Hebrew race
here. They are divided into factions, and engage in incessant
quarrels with one another. There are no laws to oppress them, but
hey are extremely unpopular with their Christian fellow subjects,
and as a class are wanting in those qualities of push, enterprise
and desire for education for which their coreligionists elsewhere
are so conspicuous.
A considerable portion of the land in
Bukovina and Galicia is owned by Jews, who are, moreover, said to
hold mortgages on many of the remaining estates. But there are few
manufacturers, and a great part of the Jewish population seems to
have nothing to do. The housing conditions were not bad--infinitely
superior to what I had seen elsewhere, or to what I can see any day
in my own constituency in London.
The Rumanian Jews stand head and
shoulders above their Galician brethren, and, where not interfered
with by the law, do well for themselves. I came across many robust
workingmen who presented none of the painful ghetto characteristics.
Nearly every house in a Rumanian town is roofed with tin plates, and
this industry is exclusively in the hands of the Jews. The work
needs agility and involves much exposure. It was curious to see a
church being roofed in this way by Jewish workmen who were
accompanying their labors by chanting a Hebrew psalm.
The general conclusions I arrived at
regarding the houses and life of the Jewish people whom I saw on my
journey are that their standard of existence is a much lower one
than [one] obtains in this country, their food is less in quantity and
poorer in quality--meat, for example, is seldom eaten, and a fowl
would never be killed except in case of serious illness or dire
necessity. Their wages are lower and their requirements fewer and
more simple. In the large towns the housing conditions are
deplorable, and sanitation as we understand it is unknown.