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Pale of Settlement

Millions of American Jews can trace their ancestry to the Pale of Settlement, a large territory of czarist Russia where Jews were legally authorized to live throughout the 19th century until restrictions were lifted in 1917. Established after the second partition of Poland in 1793 and subsequently expanded, the Pale of Settlement included within its boundaries part of present day Poland, and much of what is now Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. According to an 1897 census, 4,899,300 Jews lived within the Pale, forming 94 percent of the Jewish population of Russia, and 11.6% of the total population of this area. Because of the substantial Jewish population, the area contains the largest concentration of Jewish historic sites in the world, despite the destruction in the Second World War and during the communist era.

Large areas to the east and south have somewhat different traditions and history. In these areas, in many cases settled by Jews only in the 19th century, large populations survived the Second World War and continue today. Despite emigration from Ukraine, several cities, including Dnipropetrovsk, Kyiv, and Odesa located within the Pale of Settlement, and Kharkiv, which was not, have substantial and active Jewish communities today.

The Pale of Settlement was an area of twenty-five provinces of czarist Russia within which Jews were allowed to live, outside of which they could reside only with specific permission. Some Jews within the boundaries of the Russian Empire and the USSR had a historic connection dating back to a fairly remote period. Jews first appeared in eastern Europe several centuries before the birth of Christ. By the first century AD, Jewish settlements existed along the northern shores of the Black Sea. In the eighth century, the descendants of these early Jewish settlers converted the nomadic Turkic Khazars to Judaism. Jewish communities existed in Kiev and other cities of Kievan Rus'. It has been documented that a largely Jewish ruling elite of the Kharzar Empire dominated the steppes between the Don and the Volga between 740 and 970 AD. They were destroyed, however, during the Mongol invasion in the thirteenth century.

However, the main history of Soviet Jewry begins with the reign of King Casimir III of Poland (1330-1370). He invited Jews, undergoing difficulties inCermany at that period, to settle within his dominions. Persecuted in western Europe, Jews began migrating to Poland in the fourteenth century, and from there they moved to the presentday Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Belorussian republics. In 1386 came the "Jagiellonian Union" of Poland with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Duke Vitautas, the ruler from 1392 to 1430, encouraged Jewish settlement in the "Lithuanian" parts of the combined state headed by his uncle. At the beginning of this period, these included all of present-day Belorussia and extended as far as Kiev; by the end they had temporarily reached the Black Sea. This action may be looked upon as an attempt to import a middle class, for the most part previously nonexistent in these regions.

A single government structure united the two parts of Poland-Lithuania after 1569, and by this time it held the principal Jewish population of Europe. The northern half of Italy, parts of Germany, and Avignon were the only other Christian domains where Jews were allowed to practice their religion. In 1648, Ukrainian peasants, led by Bogdan Khmelnitski's Cossacks, rose against the Polish gentry. Directed primarily at the landlords, a secondary target of the revolt was the Jews, who were considered in league with the Poles.

By the mid-seventeenth century Jews numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Although initially they were under royal protection and enjoyed communal autonomy, life for the great majority of Jews in Poland worsened, and they became as oppressed as Poland's Christian subjects. Forbidden to own land, many Jews served as estate managers and as middlemen between the Catholic Polish landowning nobility and the Orthodox Ukrainian and Belorussian enserfed peasants living on the nobles' estates. On the estates, they often collected taxes for the nobles, controlled the sale of salt and fish, ran the grain mills, and acted as overseers of peasant labor. Jews also owned the local village taverns.

Particularly insidious was the Polish Catholic nobles' practice of making the Jews collect taxes on Orthodox churches. As a result, in addition to disliking them as foreigners and non-Christians, the peasants held Jews directly responsible for their oppressed and miserable lives. These early resentments were the seeds of primitive anti-Semitism in eastern Europe and later in the Russian Empire. When the Orthodox peasantry joined the Ukrainian Cossacks in the mid-seventeenth century in a revolt against the Poles and the Catholic Church, thousands of Jews were also killed. For a dozen years Khmelnitski's army and other Ukrainian and Russian and even Polish irregular`s rampaged through the Polish kingdom. When Russian armies swept into Polish-Lithuanian territories following Muscovy's alliance with the Ukrainian Cossacks in 1654, they killed additional thousands of Jews, forcibly converting some to Christianity and driving others into exile. Some 700 Jewish communities were destroyed, and untold thousands fled the war-ravaged areas. A Treaty in 1667 restored most of Poland's former territory. Kiev and the northeastern Ukraine became quasi-independent under Russian control.

Claims that 100,000-500,000 were killed in the Khmelnitski massacres have been refuted by contemporary Jewish scholars: "It is very difficult to determine the totals of Jewish casualties in the years 1648–1649. There is little hard data on the number of Jews in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth even for the occasional quiet years of the seventeenth century. In the great confusion and turmoil of the war years, certainly no one had time to keep careful demographic records, to note the numbers of deaths in each location, or to record the circumstances. It seems that at the beginning of 1648, there were about 40,000 Jews in the affected regions. It is clear that thousands were killed, thousands fled, and possibly several thousand were captured and sold as slaves in the Ottoman Empire. Some Jews converted to Christianity and saved their own lives. What is not clear is how many fell into each category.... It appears to be safe to say that most Jews fled and less than half, or fewer than 20,000, died — very possibly much less than half."

In 1772 a weakened Polish state was forced to cede considerable parts of its territory, to its powerful neighbors : Prussia, Austria, and Russia. The Russians acquired the area of northern and eastern Belorussia around Vitebsk and Mogilev, together with a bit of easte Latvia. Although Jews had been expelled from Russia in 1742, the subsequent incorporation of Polish territory as a result of the partitions of Poland meant that by the end of the eighteenth century Russia had the largest Jewish community in the world. The large Jewish population of the new territories was looked upon as a threat-by the government of Catherine II.

In 1791-1792, Empress Catherine II initiated the creation of the Jewish Pale - the territory where Jews were allowed to settle and pursue a wide range of economic activities. This policy had apparently been the practice for the preceding 20 years; Jews were forbidden to move from these formerly Polish provinces into the rest of the Russian Empire. The tsarist government prohibited Jews from living anywhere except in the area known as the Pale of Settlement, which included the Baltic provinces, most of Ukraine and Belorussia, and the northern shore of the Black Sea. The Third Partition of Poland, gobbling up the remainder of Poland, followed in 1795, bringing under Catherine's rule Lithuania, western Belorussia; and the Vol'hynia region of the northwestern Ukraine and of course even more Jews to be bottled up in the Pale.

As for the Russian people, an impenetrable wall continued as theretofore to keep it apart from the Jewish population. To the inhabitants of the two Russian capitals and of the interior of the Empire, the Pale of Settlement seemed as distant as China, while among the Russians living within the Pale the sparks of former historic conflagrations, the prejudices of the ages and the unenlightened notions of days gone by were still glimmering beneath the ashes.

Soon after the beginning of the 19th century, Alexander I ordered Jews to take surnames. These, as a rule, originated from the names of places where Jews lived (Vinnitsky from Vinnytsia, Zaslavsky from Zaslavl, etc.) or from the occupation (Soifer, Reznik, etc.). Often surnames reflected a religious characteristic, for example families of Levite origin took the surnames Levitin, Levin, Levitansky, Levitan, etc.. There were similar origins for Kogan, Kagan, Shoichet, and other names.

Many of the most important Jewish thinkers of the modern age were born in those cities. In Kyiv and Odesa, for example, the Jewish Enlightenment movement; (known as the Haskalah, found some of its earliest support. These cities were also the home of such famous Yiddish and Hebrew writers as Sholom Aliechem (1859-1916), I.L. Peretz (1852-1915), and Mendele Mocher Seforim (1835-1917) as well as important Zionist figures such as Leo Pinsker (1821-1891), Ahad Ha-Am (1856-1927), and Vladimir Jabotinsky (1880-1940). The Haskalah movement also took hold in west central Ukraine where, for example, Khotyn's Jewish population grew after Bessarabia became part of Russia in 1812. By mid-century, it had become a center for Haskalah and even had a private school for girls.

In 1817, the Jewish Pale was ratified as the territory where Jews could live in shtetls only, mainly on the lands of Galicia, Volyn, and Podolia. Ukraine, as a part of the Pale of Settlement, was densely populated with Jews. All the territory of so-called Slobozhanshina (Kharkiv, Katerynoslav, Luhansk, and others) was, however, an area where Jews were prohibited from settling. In big towns such as Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Odesa, however, Jews were allowed to live if they met certain financial and social qualifications. Thus, despite many restrictions, Jews played a prominent role in the development of commerce and industry in the region, and especially in the growth of its major cities such as Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv.

It is worth noting that the Jews were excluded from most of the dominantly Great-Russian speaking regions. They were allowed to settle in Ukrainia, Belorussia, Lithuania, Romanian-speaking or Polish-speaking areas. In the territorial redistribution that followed the Napoleonic Wars, the Russian Czar was assigned the Kingdom of Poland, with nearly half of the Polish population of that era about 3,000,000 Poles and 300,000 Jews. Poland, especially at first, was governed, more liberally than Russia proper, and conditions for Jews never became as onerous as in other Czarist territories. For this reason there was a flow of Jews, into Poland from the rest of the Pale, which amoupted to a refugee movement at times, when the Czar undertook repressive measures.

About 1.5 million Jews lived in the Russian Empire in the beginning of the nineteenth century. Confined within the Pale of Settlement, they were subjected to stringent anti-Jewish regulations. Although for the next century restrictions on Jews were periodically eased, they were reimposed or even made harsher during the frequent periods of reaction that followed. After the stabilization of Russia's European frontier in 1815, the problem of regulating the somewhat unwieldy Russian Empire was the primary concern of the government.

This was particularly true of the reign of Nicholas I, 1825-55. One of his first measures against Jews was to bar them from a 30-mile belt in border and coastal areas, not only as residents but even,as traders. Nicholas I (promoted forced induction of Jewish youth into military service, where they were often coerced into being converted to Christianity. Jewish rights to lease land and keep taverns were rescinded, and the Pale of Settlement was reduced in size. The communal self-management allowed to Jews in Poland was abolished in 1843. A special program of military conscription was instituted in order to separate Jewish recruits from Judaism suggested, perhaps, by the de-Christianized Janisaries of the Turkish Empire.

However, the reign of Alexander II (1855-81) brought a relaxation of the restrictions imposed on the Jewish population: some Jews were permitted to settle outside the Pale of Settlement, to attend universities, and to enter government service. Permission to settle outside the Pale was extended first to wealthy merchants, then to those who had completed higher education (notoriously difficult for Jews, to secure at that time), to skilled craftsmen considered important in the Russian cities, and to those who, had fulfilled the 25 years of military service then required of conscripts.

After the assassination of Alexander II, however, the old restrictions were reimposed, and persecution of Jews continued until the February Revolution in 1917. In 1882 Jews in the Pale were barred from villages and thq ownership of agricultural land. Government-sanctioned pogroms against Jewish communities, during which Jews were beaten or killed and their personal property destroyed, were particularly brutal. The pogroms were led by the Black Hundreds, an officially sanctioned reactionary group composed largely of civil servants.

Pogroms became frequent in cities both inside and outside the Pale, and were generally felt to be condoned by the state. Many of the Jews living east of the Pale were from time to time forced to return there, particularly in 1891. According to Czarist Russia's only census, in 1897, all but 300,000 of 5,000,000 Jews lived within the confines of the Pale.

The principal response to worsening conditions was massive migration to the United Staten, eventually bringing well over a million Jews from Russia - 125,000 in the peak year of 1906. Zionism also gained a following, and modern secular writing in Hebrew began to appear. Many Russian Jews were involved in the political ferment of the times, leading to the formation of the revolutionary (and anti-Zionist) Bund in 1897.

In 1914-1916, fearing their disloyalty, the government moved 600,000 Jews from border areas to points farther in the interior. In1917, about a month after the Provisional Government was established, it declared the legal equality of Jews with all other Russian citizens. After the October Revolution, a Bolshevik commissar decreed that Jews were a nationality; somewhat uncharacteristically, Lenin accepted this classification, although it went contrary to his own opinion that a nationality must have a territory. The followiiig year the Soviet government outlawed anti-Semitism. A number of prominent Bolsheviks were of Jewish origin, and by the end of the civil war, the sympathies of Jews were generally Red. After World War I nearly half the prewar Jewish population ended up in Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, or Romania. Released from residence restrictions, many Jews within the Soviet Union migrated to the large industrial cities -- particularly to Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev. A cultural movement developed, focusing on the Moscow Yiddish Art Theater and producing a large number of books and-journals in Yiddish. Soviet anti-religious Policy made traditional Jewish education impossible.

By the time of World War II, about three-quarters of the 3,000,000 Soviet Jews still lived in areas that had formed part of the Pale of Settlement. when the German troops attacked in 1941, there was a mass exodus to the east, including (in particular) Soviet Jews and Jewish refugees from Poland and other countries overrun by the Nazis. Of the 20,000,000 Soviet war dead about 1,000,000 were Jews: the exterminated; those who died in the hardships of evacuation; civilian casualties of bombing, shelling, and strafing; and large numbers killed fighting in the Red Army. During the war, the anti-religious stance of the government was considerably relaxed, and Jews as well as others met fewer obstacles to practicing their re1igion than at any other time since 1917.

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Page last modified: 21-04-2022 13:40:52 ZULU