Eastern European Jewry


To better understand the world we live in, it is good to learn about where we came from, as the history that impacted our ancestors' past lives affects ours today in one way or another. So why not learn more about them? Surely what kind of people they were, at least to some degree, has had some effect on who we, their descendants, are today. What kind of lives do you think they led when they were young, growing up in the "old country"? What kind of conditions did they and their fellow Jews have to live under? What were their reasons for emigrating? What were their lives like when they first came to their new country and how well did they adapt to their new situation? What effect did historical events such as the two World Wars and Great Depression have on them?
There are just so many questions that we could ask to learn more, if only we were still able. Unfortunately, many of those who could well answer these questions are no longer with us. Our saving grace in this matter is that, by the careful reading of history and by asking the right questions to those who may still have some of the answers, we may gain some knowledge and thus perspective. Perhaps our imagination will further our cause.

Let's first look at nineteenth century Russia, a time and place that many of those we have known and loved were born into...

In the 1830s there were only six thousand Jews living in the United States. Most of them were native-born and could speak English. Within the next fifty years, this number would grow to 250,000. By 1900, the Jewish population would grow to one million, and by 1924, four million Jews were living in the United States. What accounted for this great increase? What were the forces that compelled so many Jews, especially those living in Central and Eastern Europe, to leave their homeland? How did they manage to travel such long distances, cross borders and make it in time to board the ship that would take most of them on their first ocean voyage? What were the conditions that they had to suffer through on this voyage to their new land? What did our immigrant ancestors have to go through in order to gain official entry to this new land, once they arrived at its shores? When they were allowed to granted permission to enter, where did they first settle, ready to begin life anew, and what was their daily life like? Was it a better life than the one they left?

We can find many of these answers by reading books (and asking questions), but each immigrant had their own experiences that formed their own unique story. We can try to envision what it was like to live in Russia, in the Pale of Settlement, in the ghettos of the late nineteenth century, but most of us can never truly know or comprehend fully the conditions that our ancestors had to suffer under.

It is best to remember that relatively little is known about the lives of our ancestors who lived during the nineteenth century in Russia. We perhaps can only speculate on the actual reasons why they decided to emigrate. They are no longer with us, and if we have no other way of learning the facts that went into them making their decision, all we can do is try to learn about the state of affairs in Russia during the time they lived there. Many left for other countries; others decided to stay where they were. They each saw their situation in their own unique way, whether rightly or wrongly. We can only try to imagine a world completely different from the ones in which we live and, by gaining knowledge, can perhaps understand what made our ancestors who they were, and what dreams they might have had when they first disembarked from ship to foreign soil. First, we must begin by looking back into Russian history, beginning with the early 1800s.

The Czars and the Jews

At the start of the nineteenth century, Russia was very similar to Europe during the Middle Ages. They still operated under a feudal system and had serfs, who worked like the slaves once did in the United States. They made up a large portion of the Russian population. The Czars, those who ruled Russia, were responsible for much that befell the Jewish population there, and were all part of the Romanov family that ruled Russia by "divine right." A very small but influential minority of nobilities, or gentry controlled power in the empire, and they owned the large tracts of land that the serfs worked on.

NICHOLAS I (1825-1855)

In 1835 Czar Nicholas I created a giant, sprawling ghetto which was named the "Pale of Settlement." This was an area that was formed by combining regions of what are now Lithuania, Poland, and the western and southern provinces, along with Byelorussia (White Russia). Three million Jews were forced to live within its borders until 1917, at which time the Bolshevik Revolution finally upended the old regime and power structures.

Many restrictions were placed on the Jews by this czarist government. Jews could not live in most rural areas and certain cities. They were not allowed to work in agricultural jobs. They were relegated to work that required unskilled or semiskilled labor, and most were forced to become minor traders, storekeepers, peddlers, or artisans. They were not permitted to construct synagogues near churches. They could not even use Hebrew in their official documents.

From 1827 until soon after the end of his reign in 1856, Nicholas I passed a law that allowed for the drafting of Jewish boys who were as young as twelve years of age, six years younger than for non-Jewish boys. They could be kept in the Russian army for as long as twenty-five years. In actuality, Jewish boys as young as eight or nine years of age were often conscripted into the army. The Russian Army was no place for the Jew. There was little opportunity for the Jewish soldier to advance in rank, and much pressure was placed on them to convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Those that did convert, of course, fared much better than those who did not.

ALEXANDER II (1855-1881)

When Nicholas' son and successor Alexander II took the reign of power in 1855, he showed that he was much different than his father. He instituted many reforms that were favorable to the Jews, and relaxed some of the restrictions that his father had previously imposed. Poor economic conditions still existed for many Jews, and most still lived in poverty. Advances for Jews, though, were made only during the years of his reign. Jews could now travel outside the Pale, and thus were exposed to new ideas, and became "enlightened." They were now allowed to attend high schools and universities, and when they did, performed very well.

Alexander II also reformed the military and the judiciary system. He formed a system of representative institutions that he hoped would lead to an all-Russian parliament.

On March 3, 1861, Czar Alexander II freed more than fifty million serfs with his "Emancipation Edict," much like Abraham Lincoln did just eighteen months later when he signed the "Emancipation Proclamation." The Czar did not do this from some idealistic bent, but more for practical reasons. Russia had very much wanted to partake in the new Industrial Revolution that had begun in the Midlands in England and was spreading all throughout the European continent and the United States. In order to do this, serfdom had to be abolished because it was a very inefficient system. It created a deficiency of capital and a lack of well-skilled labor.

The newly freed serfs were supposed to receive a plot of land from the gentry, who had owned the land and were to be compensated for their loss. This plan, however, was poorly thought out and poorly executed, and things did not work out to either's benefit. There was no crop rotation that would have kept the land more fertile, and poor fertilization techniques were used. Over time, the land that was to feed a large nation of people could not produce enough food for all and many starved. The masses, which had been increasing in number, became discontent. The serfs, because of the above reasons, could not fully feed the nation, let alone their own families. This meant that they could not earn enough money to pay the taxes that were imposed upon them. All of this would create a great deal of unrest in the country and would help instigate the eventual uprising among the Russian peasantry, and thus help propagate the Russian Revolution of 1917.

When the Industrial Revolution finally took root in Russia, more people prospered and the middle class grew. This was at the expense of the gentry who once owned most all the land, whose numbers lessened. The laborers, however, were not paid well, nor were they well skilled. The advancements that would have led to greater factory production were not there, as it had been in Europe and the United States.

The good fortune that improved the lives of the Jews under Alexander II all but disappeared the day that a terrorist bomb killed the Czar in March 1881. There was a feeling that he was killed by a group of revolutionaries, secretly sponsored by a clandestine group within the government. The successor to Alexander II, who would now become the head of the Russian regime, was called Alexander III.

ALEXANDER III (1881-1894)

Alexander III was neither the benefactor nor emancipator that his predecessor was. He was greatly influenced by his advisor Konstantin Pobiendonostzev, his former teacher from his boyhood days. Pobiendonostzev was the official lay leader of the Russian Orthodox Church. His influence on the Czar was great, and he has been quoted as having said: "One-third [of the Jews] should emigrate, one-third become Christianized, and one-third should perish." This obviously bode poorly for the Jews who, once again as throughout history, would be made the scapegoat for the ills within Russian society, in order to deflect criticism from the poor decisions or judgments of others.

During the year that followed the assassination of Alexander II, the Jews were beset by a series of pogroms that were carried out in more than two hundred communities. This resulted in many houses being burned down, leaving many Jews both homeless and destitute. During these wanton acts of violence, women were raped and others were robbed or killed. It has been suggested that the Russian government actually endorsed and encouraged such actions in hopes of diverting the revolutionary ferment that was sweeping through a hungry nation. "Barefoot brigades" as they were called, were made up of the proletariat middle class and peasants. They would rampage through Jewish communities, plundering synagogues, burning houses, until Russian troops finally decided to quell the rioting. Later, in December 1881, the Jewish community of Warsaw was ravaged. This time there were 20,000 Jews that were made homeless, and many of them fled and sought refuge in neighboring Galicia, a region that had been part of Poland but at the time was divided up and given to the Austrian Habsburg Empire.

What was said about the Jews that made others turn against them so horrifically? Why were the Jews singled out for such outrages? The Jews were a foreign people. They kept to themselves and spoke a different language. Jewish businessmen, who were often in contact with the non-Jewish peasants, were accused of taking advantage of them and oppressing them. They were made the enemies of the Russian people. The Russian Orthodoxy spread the rumor that the Jews were the killers of Christ. They were supposed to be using the blood of Christian children in their religious rites and to make matzoh.

All of this hatred and violence forced more than one-third of the Russian Jews to emigrate, in fear for their lives. More than ninety percent of them immigrated to the United States, where they felt there was a good opportunity to be free of persecution and have a chance for advancement. Also, many Jews from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Romania, where life had been as bad as it was for Jews in the Pale, followed the emigration trail. In 1881, 13,000 Jews left Russia for the U.S., an amount almost equal to the number that had done so over the previous decade.



Chatzkel Burack, born in 1865, was my beloved grandmother Flora's uncle. He emigrated from the Lomza region of Russian Poland between 1888 and 1890, leaving behind his wife Lena and their first child Mendel (Max). He later returned to Eastern Europe for his wife and child and brought them back to the United States in 1895. They settled in New Haven, Connecticut, where Chatzkel worked as a cobbler in his own shoe repair store. He and wife Lena raised five boys and one girl, and lived in New Haven the rest of their days.



This is not to say that the Jews of Eastern Europe had not been emigrating for many years, even before Alexander III took the reign of power. More than 65,000 Jews had already said goodbye to Russia and Galicia, with about sixty percent immigrating to the United States. Between the years of 1881, the year that Alexander III took power, and 1890, 240,000 Jews left Russia and came to live in the United States.

As mentioned previously, the Jews of the Pale would suffer a great deal in 1882, the year following the assassination of Czar Alexander II. In order to "protect" the native citizenry from falling victim to the "dangerous" Jewish people, Czar Alexander III invoked the "May Laws," which was supposed to have been only a temporary measure, but lasted until 1917. Jews were now forbidden to live in "villages," even if these villages existed within the Pale of Settlement. Jews could not rent land (all leases were cancelled) nor could they buy land. This forced Jews by the hundreds of thousands to leave these villages and head to the cities, having now to find work within the framework of the poorly managed Russian Industrial Revolution.


My paternal great grandfather, Srul Gniazdowicz, was born in Poland in the mid 1860s. Like many of the men in his extended family, he worked as a 'milarz,' which is the Polish word for 'miller.' They all lived in the surrounding areas of Sniadowo, such as the shtetls of Koskowo and Gniazdowo. The flour millers served a very important function in the community, as they were the ones who would grow such grains as wheat and rye in their fields. This grain was used to make the bread that was badly needed to feed and nourish the growing population. Most of the Gniazdowiczs chose to remain in Poland rather than emigrate, and presumably died in the Shoah.



Much devastation occurred to the Jews until the reign of Alexander III ended. There were many outbreaks of violence, still spurred on by a corrupt government, and more than 30,000 Jewish families in the northwest provinces fell victim to rioting. In 1885, more laws were enacted that affected and reversed the previous access that the Jews had to high schools and universities. Within his reign, all the liberal policies, and all the stringent Anti-Jewish laws that had been relaxed under his predecessor Alexander II, had disappeared.


When you consider all of what befell the Jews during that period of Russian history, you must realize that this was a precursor of what was to come. Most of our families had at least spent part of their lives there, either during the last quarter of the nineteenth or the first quarter of the twentieth century. There were many threats from near and far that gave them cause to be gravely concerned. Imagine reading the local newspaper and hearing of all the violence that had been occurring against their own elsewhere, wondering if they would be next. Some felt a false sense of security, perhaps feeling that violence against the Jews only occurred in the bigger cities. Others believed that it was time to escape from their life of restrictions and feelings of despair, so they sought to travel to a land where they and their families could have a better life, free from religious and economic persecution. Such a journey would be an arduous one, but hundreds of thousands dared to try...




Copyright 2006-8  Museum of  Family History

All rights reserved.  Image Usage Policy