The relationship between Jews in Central and Eastern Europe and their neighbors is among the most controversial topics in the historiography of this region. Against those who have claimed that Jews there were subject to constant persecution deriving from anti-Judaic prejudice and, from the late nineteenth century, from the modern ideology of antisemitism, many scholars have stressed the success of Jews in rooting themselves in the area, establishing large communities, and creating a vibrant spiritual and cultural life. This article will attempt to determine what balance should be struck in comparing the positive and negative aspects of Jewish interaction with governments, religious authorities, and majority populations of the area.
The Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period
Until the early modern period, the fundamental norms governing relations between Jews and non-Jews were the same throughout Western Christendom and went back to the original conflict between Judaism and Christianity. To demonstrate the truth of Christianity, the church held that Jews were to be tolerated but in an inferior position. Jews were subjected to numerous special demands, including the wearing of distinctive clothing or a badge, and being prohibited to hold public office or to employ Christian servants. The church believed that Jews had rejected God and had been rejected by Him: they were no longer “chosen” or “elect.” The church—Israel in spirit—had superseded Israel in flesh.
Mass demonstration for universal suffrage organized by the Polish and Jewish socialist parties, Tarnów, 1905. (YIVO)
The Catholic churches in the eastern parts of Central Europe consistently tried to implement the directives of the Vatican on Jewish matters. In Bohemia, Ferdinand I attempted in the mid-sixteenth century to ensure that his Jewish subjects wore the distinctive clothing required by the church, and this action was repeated in the early eighteenth century by Charles VI, while, in 1630, Ferdinand II forced Jews to attend conversionist sermons preached by Jesuits. In Hungary in the thirteenth century, King András II was excommunicated because of his failure to observe the provisions of the Golden Bull (1222) that prohibited Jews from holding certain offices or being enobled until he promised the Papal legate under oath that he would alter his ways. The church Council of Buda in 1279 forbade Jews to lease land and compelled them to wear distinctive clothing. Any Christian conducting business with a Jew not so marked would be barred from church services and any Christian entrusting an office to a Jew would be excommunicated.
In Poland, provisions of the Synod of Breslau in 1267 specified that Christians were forbidden all forms of social intercourse with Jews. There were limitations of the rights of Jews to lend money, and separate Jewish residential quarters had to be established. It was also decreed a town could have only one synagogue. Jews were compelled to wear horned hats, were forbidden to employ Christian servants, and were to stay indoors with their windows closed when the Holy Sacrament was carried past. Finally, they were prohibited from holding public office, particularly the office of custom- or toll collector. These regulations were repeated at the 1279 Synod of Budzyń and that of Mikołaj Trąba in 1440, except that a red cloth circle on a Jew’s outer garments was substituted for the horned hat.
These regulations were not always effective; the wearing of special clothes or markers seems to have been at best sporadic and was, in fact, unknown in Poland. Jews often lived in areas where they were forbidden and in Poland they were often entrusted with the lease of tollhouses. The prohibition on the employment of Christian servants seems to have been disregarded everywhere as was the ban on social contact.
Along with the official Catholic teachings of contempt and supersession, a number of superstitions adhered to the Jews in their character as a pariah people that considerably worsened their position. Of these, the most important were the beliefs that Jews were responsible for spreading disease, and, specifically, the plague, which devastated Europe in the fourteenth century; that Jews used Christian blood for ritual purposes, above all for the making of matzo; and that the Jews desecrated the Host, used in the Christian Mass.
Thus the followers of the German knight Rindfleisch attacked the Jewish community in Prague in 1298 in response to an alleged Host desecration, and a similar incident occurred in Kouřim in Bohemia in 1338, while in 1305 charges of ritual murder had been brought against some Jews in Prague. Such charges recurred frequently. In addition, Jews were attacked in Prague, Eger, and Kolín following the outbreak of the Black Death; in Hungary, Jews were briefly expelled in the wake of this epidemic. In the late fifteenth century and early sixteenth century, Jews were subjected to a number of persecutions for alleged ritual murder, most notably in Trnava (Nagyszombat) in 1494 and in Bazin in 1539.
Painting depicting blood libels in Sandomierz, still on display in town’s cathedral as of 2005. Photograph by Roman Chyła. (Courtesy Magda Teter)
The Black Death had relatively little impact in Poland—indeed, this may have been one of the reasons why Jews expelled from elsewhere in Central Europe were able to settle there, but accusations of child murder and Host desecration became well established. Between 1547 and 1787, there were 81 cases of ritual murder in Poland; 16 in the sixteenth century, 33 in the seventeenth century; and 32 in the eighteenth century. The waning of such trials in the late eighteenth century was the result first of the growing influence of the Enlightenment and the consequent abolition of torture in criminal cases by the Sejm in 1776. Also important was the influence of the eighteenth-century papacy. Benedict XIV and Clement XIII both condemned these accusations. According to them, “there was no evidence that Jews need to add human blood to their unleavened bread [called] matzah” (Roth, n.d., p. 3).
Anti-Judaic traditions were part of the legacy of the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, the anti-Jewish superstitions of the blood libel and Host desecration were not a feature of Orthodoxy in the Grand Duchy of Kiev and the inheritors of its traditions, most notably the Grand Duchy of Muscovy. Their appearance in these regions seems to have been the result of contact with Western Christendom. Certainly, the first ritual murder accusation in the Danubian principalities seems to have been quite late, in 1710.
It should be emphasized that Jews reciprocated the contempt in which their religious beliefs were held by the Christians. As Gershon Hundert has put it, “the norms of both the Church and the Synagogue were strongly segregationist in intent, and each faith taught that the other was spiritually and morally inferior” (Hundert, 1986, p. 56). Christians, lacking divinely taught ethics, were in the process of sliding steadily into chaos. A Jew could best save his soul by avoiding all contact with them. Yet one should not equate the position of the two groups. Effectively all power was in the hands of the Christians, who could at any moment expel or persecute their Jewish subjects.
Indeed the pariah status of Jews meant that they were frequently the subject of mob violence motivated substantially but not exclusively by religious hatred. In towns, Jews were sometimes harassed by Jesuit students or local residents. The most serious eruptions of anti-Jewish violence occurred in the eastern provinces of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth where the role of Jews as agents of the great Polish (and Catholic) magnates aroused the hatred of local Orthodox peasantry and Cossacks. The worst outbreak of such brutality was during the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising (gzeyres takh vetat, 1648–1649) and the wars that followed when Jews were massacred not only by Cossacks but also by Swedes, Muscovites, and Poles. Violence remained endemic in the Polish part of Ukraine in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much of it perpetrated by Haidamaks, outlaws who went from banditry to opposition to Polish rule.
The norms of the church were not always followed by secular rulers. The kings of the Czech lands, of Hungary, and of Poland–Lithuania saw Jews as possessors of useful skills. In particular, leaders valued the services of Jews as administrators of mints, as proto-bankers, as administrators of the tax system, and as long-distance traders. In Central and Eastern Europe the power of the church was weaker than in Western Europe. In addition, particularly in Poland and Lithuania, which had suffered at the hands of Teutonic knights, there was strong hostility to the crusading tradition, which meant that local Jews were not subject to the depredations of Crusaders, as was the case, for instance, in the Czech lands in 1096 and 1142, when Jewish quarters were burned and Jews murdered or forced to convert, and in Hungary at the end of the eleventh century when Crusaders attacked Jewish settlements and then in 1443, when the followers of John Hunyadi of Transylvania, on their way to fight the Turks, massacred Jews.
In all the countries of the area, Jews were guaranteed the right to trade and practice their religion. Charters or privileges detailing these rights were issued by Hungarian King Bela IV in 1251 and by Czech King Přemysl Otakar II in 1254. To the Czech charter was appended the Bull issued by Pope Innocent IV denying the truth of the blood libel. Both these charters were confirmed by subsequent monarchs. A similar charter was granted by Bolesław the Pious, Duke of Kalisz, in 1264. It was confirmed in slightly altered forms by later Polish kings and became part of the Polish legal code prepared by Jan Łaski in 1506. Analogous privileges were conceded by the rulers of Breslau in 1273, of Głogów in 1274, and Legnica in 1290. A similar charter was issued to the Jews of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania by Vytautas the Great (r. 1386–1430) and confirmed in 1507 by the grand duke, Sigismund. A charter guaranteeing Jewish rights was issued by Gabriel Bethlen, prince of Transylvania in 1623, and, from the beginning of the eighteenth century, the autonomous princes of Moldavia, still under Turkish rule, began to issue charters to induce Jews to settle in their territories.
These charters generally laid down the economic rights of Jews and authorized them to have their own court system. Although Jews were subordinated to royal courts and were exempt from the jurisdiction of municipal authorities, their security and religious rights were guaranteed. The charters often specified the character of the “Jewish oath” (which enabled Jews to swear the truth of their evidence on the Torah) that Jews had to take in court proceedings with non-Jews. In addition, Jews enjoyed wide internal autonomy. This autonomy had two sources—the inability of the modern state to administer all aspects of society and the long-established desire of Jews to control the organization of their communities.
Dependence on the monarch was not always to the benefit of the Jewish community. Kings were often impelled to follow the dictates of the church and also of their subjects who pressed for anti-Jewish actions. In 1541, Ferdinand I, the Habsburg ruler of Bohemia, insisted that the church’s regulations requiring Jews to wear distinctive clothing be followed, and he negotiated with Bohemian nobles to expel Jews from the royal cities of Bohemia, which led to all except 15 families being forced to leave Prague, although they soon returned. Jews were also expelled from a number of other Bohemian towns. The threat of expulsion continued to hang over Bohemian Jews and recurred for the last time in 1745 when Maria Theresa expelled them from Bohemia. When they were allowed to return, the number of towns in which they could settle was significantly reduced. Jews were also briefly expelled from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1495.
In the eighteenth century, the Habsburgs, who now ruled both Hungary and the Czech lands, began to implement the principles of physiocratic economics, which stressed the primacy of agriculture and the harmful effects of trade. As a consequence, the Familiants Laws limited the number of marriages in each Jewish community and imposed new restrictions on trade. The Habsburgs were also more willing to implement the doctrines of Counter-Reformation Catholicism and even considered expelling Jews from parts of the empire’s domains.
Town council, Staszów, ca. 1920s. (Left to right) representative of the (non-Jewish) craftsmen; representative of middle-class householders; the mayor (from the Labor Party); representative of the National Democrats; and Leybush Feferman, representative of the town's Jews. Photograph by A. Rosenberg. (YIVO)
At the same time, the position of Jews in this area was affected by a number of other factors. The states of the eastern parts of Central Europe, at least down to the early sixteenth century, were all characterized by a weakening monarchy, a large and politically and economically dominant nobility that was represented in a well-developed parliament, a weak burgher class, and a dependent peasantry reduced to serfdom in the late Middle Ages. In addition, to use in some ways anachronistic terms, these states were all multiethnic and multireligious: Jews were not the only religious or social outgroup. All of these countries, at least until the triumph of the Counter-Reformation, were committed to the principle of religious toleration.
The Jewish position was thus largely dependent on the relationship they were able to establish with the dominant noble stratum. From the middle of the sixteenth century, approximately half of Bohemian Jewry lived in the countryside under the protection of the local nobility. Here Jews constituted the principal intermediary class, selling the agricultural produce of the estates and provisioning their households. In Hungary, too, Jews developed a symbiotic relationship with some sections of the nobility. Thus in the eighteenth century when Jews were expelled from Bratislava, Trnava, and Sopron, they were able to settle on the estates of a number of western Hungarian nobles. Earlier, Jews expelled from Vienna in 1670 found refuge in towns owned by Count Pál Esterházy. Moravian Jews seeking to avoid the rigors of the Familiants Laws were also encouraged by large landowners to settle on their domains. By the middle of the eighteenth century, most Hungarian Jews lived in villages or in small noble-controlled towns.
The relationship between Jews and the Polish nobility (szlachta) went even further. One of the main features of Polish social history was the way in which the nobility gained a monopoly of political and economic power. In 1539, legislation was passed in the Sejm, giving owners of private towns (which constituted the majority) the exclusive right to exercise jurisdiction over their Jewish communities. This was the origin of the peculiar marriage of convenience between Jews, who lived mostly in “noble” towns, and the nobility.
Much more hostile to Jews was the burgher class, predominantly German in origin, whether in the Czech lands, Hungary, or Poland–Lithuania. A wide gulf separated the Jews from the largely enserfed peasantry. A degree of hostile coexistence prevailed between these two groups, mitigated by mutual dependence but also sometimes degenerating into anti-Jewish violence.
Given their links above all with the monarchy and the nobility, Jews of the area had a strong sense of rootedness in spite of the contempt with which they were regarded and the persistent anti-Jewish violence. In Bohemia, Jews prospered in the late sixteenth century when Mordecai Maisel, the leading Jewish merchant in Prague, was also one of the principal bankers of the imperial house, and when the town became the largest Jewish settlement north of the Alps; the Jewish population increased from about 600 in 1522 to more than 6,000 at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Similarly, Jews constantly negotiated to secure their rights in Hungary, often successfully. The Jewish sense of security was perhaps strongest in Poland. Here it was reflected primarily in Jewish folklore, as in the false etymology attributed to the name of Poland, which was referred to either as Po-lin, explained as “Here find a haven” or Po-lan-Yah, glossed as “Here God rested.”
The Jews’ sense of security was not absolute. There was a strong awareness of its fragility. As in the medieval West, the Jewish elite took the view that the toleration of the Jewish community was granted in exchange for the economic services it performed. When the Sejm or Sejmiki met in Poland, Jews said special penitential prayers beseeching God for mercy and in the hope that nothing harmful to the well-being of the Jewish people would result from the meeting. Yet Jews were conscious of the difference between their situation in Poland and that of elsewhere in Europe. The way they saw their position is best summed up in another legend: The Jews came to Poland and began to build fires on an inviting broad plain. The plain turned out to be the back of a great beast, which, angered by the pain of the fires, began to move and threw them off.
Integration and Assimilation, 1750–1880
The middle of the eighteenth century saw the beginning of a new era in Jewish history. It was marked by abandonment of theologically motivated discrimination and by the attempts of the governments of the states of Europe to transform Jews from members of a religious and cultural community into “useful” subjects, or into citizens.
The political transformation was accomplished in two stages. In the eighteenth century, though the political philosophy of the Enlightenment stressed the value of religious toleration, it was also strongly hostile to all forms of particularism, including Jewish autonomous structures, which it regarded as “feudal relics.” The second stage in the political transformation saw the development of representative government—of governments that were dependent on the support of the people however defined—a process that ultimately resulted in the triumph of representative democracy based on universal suffrage. This was a process that was to be slow and that was to encounter numerous obstacles and setbacks.
Gentile wet nurse and Jewish child, Równe, Poland (now Rivne, Ukr.), 1921. (YIVO)
These developments caused a fundamental change in the way European governments saw the position of Jews. In general, inspired by the political thought of the Enlightenment, they now began to seek political integration, economic and social transformation, and purification of their religion of “medieval,” “barbaric,” and “anti-Christian” elements. The goal of political integration went along with a demand to abolish Jewish communal autonomy, which was regarded as a medieval relic and as preserving Jewish “separatism.” Economically, the advocates of Jewish integration wanted Jews to give up “unproductive” occupations, and, often, to take up agriculture. The call was also made for the reform of the Jewish educational system, so that Jews would learn the language of the country in which they lived. While some wanted Jews to be granted access to all types of schools, others felt that Jews should be kept for a transitional period in schools of their own.
Jewish responses to this new situation varied in different parts of Europe. In the Czech lands, most of Hungary, and Poland–Lithuania, Jewish communities were larger than in the West, constitutional government was slower in being established, and the Industrial Revolution only began in the 1850s. The achievement of Jewish legal equality was also slower here, and was completed in the Habsburg Empire in 1868 and in the newly unified German Empire in 1870. The process was accompanied by considerable opposition and the Jewish leadership felt the need to “justify” being granted civil rights. This desire to “demonstrate” their fitness for emancipation led to the emergence of new reformed modes of Jewish religious life, and to the Haskalah.
Joseph II, emperor of Austria from 1780 to 1790, introduced a series of laws establishing a new legal position for Jews in different parts of his domains. The first of these was the Edict of Toleration for the Jews of Vienna and Lower Austria issued in January 1782, one of a series of such edicts that laid down the rights and obligations of the adherents of religions apart from Roman Catholicism. It was followed in February 1782 by a similar edict for Jews of Bohemia and Moravia. In accordance with Enlightenment principles, this other edict suspended Jewish judicial autonomy, made the use of German compulsory for business records, and opened secondary schools and universities to Jewish students. Subsequently, only Jews who had completed a German primary school could obtain a marriage license or be allowed to enter a yeshiva. Jews were also now compelled to perform military service.
These changes deeply divided Czech Jewry, with supporters of the new order being strongly opposed by the more traditional element. The process of granting full equal rights to Czech Jewry proved a long one—it was only in 1841 that the prohibition on Jews owing land was abolished and in 1846 that the special Jewish tax and the “Jewish oath” were done away with. Formal legal equality, as elsewhere in the Habsburg monarchy, came in 1868. By this time, the division between those who supported and those who opposed integration had been superseded by a new split between those who wished to be German and those who saw their future as part of the Czech people. Although culturally the community was now clearly German, the Czech national revival and the bitterness of the national conflict in the Czech lands led an increasing number of Jews, particularly those outside Prague, to see their future as Czechs. By 1900, 55 percent of Czech Jews declared their mother tongue to be Czech (clearly a political statement) while only 45 percent claimed to be German-speaking.
In the historic territories of medieval Hungary, the process of integration was similar. Here by an edict of March 1783 some restrictions on Jewish settlement were abolished; legal and commercial documents were to be drafted only in Latin, Hungarian, or German; and a network of Jewish schools that were to follow the national curriculum was created. Jews could also enter secondary schools and universities. A conflict—analogous to that in the Czech lands—as to whether Jewish integrationists should follow a German or a Hungarian cultural orientation developed but took a very different course. Since the main opponents of legal equality for Jews were the largely German burghers, and since the Hungarian noble leadership sought Jewish support in their struggle for national rights, Jews came to identify strongly with the Hungarian national cause, most notably in the revolution of 1848, for which they were subsequently penalized after the victory of the counterrevolution. By the time Hungary received its autonomy within the Habsburg monarchy, the Jewish elite was enthusiastically Magyarizing itself and saw the granting of full legal equality in December 1867 by the Hungarian parliament as the natural outcome of this process. In areas where ethnic Magyars were a minority of the population, such as Slovakia and southern Transylvania, this put the Jews at odds with the majority population.
In Poland–Lithuania, the process of integration took a different course. Attempts to transform the position of the Jews were undertaken during the last years of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, but were halted by its partition at the end of the eighteenth century. Legislative reform of the Jews’ situation was thus left to the partitioning powers—Prussia, Austria, and Russia. It was most successful in Prussian Poland, where most anti-Jewish restrictions were done away with in 1848 and where Jews identified strongly with German culture. There were a number of reasons for this development, including the eagerness of the Prussian government to integrate Jews and make them the bourgeoisie in this area, and the fact that at the outset of this process the Jewish population constituted a significantly smaller proportion of the population than elsewhere in the Polish lands, and that Hasidism, with its strongly separatist ethos, had gained few adherents there.
“Come to Krejngl’s Hall at 4 Ludwisarska Street to a protest meeting against numerus clausus.” Poster in Polish and Yiddish. Printed by Szymanowicza, Vilna, 1937. (Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ludwig Jesselson, 1998.608. Collection of Yeshiva University Museum, New York)
Elsewhere, attempts to transform Jews into citizens were far less successful. In Galicia, which was incorporated into the Habsburg monarchy in 1772, Joseph II introduced legislation on the Jews similar to that in the rest of his empire. Here, however, the integrationists, who were divided between those who favored a German cultural orientation and those who wished to be part of the Polish nation, were much weaker than elsewhere in the Habsburg lands and were strongly and effectively resisted by the traditional, often Hasidic, majority. It was only in 1868 that the Polish noble stratum, to which the Habsburgs had conceded control of the province, accepted (under pressure from Vienna) the granting of full legal equality for Jews. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, an alliance developed between this stratum and the Jewish leadership that worked very successfully for quite a long time. By this stage, the Polish cultural orientation was dominant within an important section of the Jewish elite, but came under attack as the Polish–Ukrainian conflict came to dominate the politics of the area, particularly since the bulk of Jews lived in areas in the east of the province where Ukrainians were in the majority.
In the Kingdom of Poland, the politics of integration seemed to achieve significant successes in the years between 1860 and 1890. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Polish nobility took the view that Jewish emancipation was conditional on the Jews abandoning their religious and social separateness, a development that was regarded as rather improbable, or, at best, likely to take a very long time. The run-up to the insurrection of 1863 changed this situation, as competition developed between the viceroy of the kingdom, the Pole Aleksander Wielopolski, who was trying to introduce a measure of self-rule that would also be acceptable to the tsarist authorities, and the growing Polish national movement. As a result, Jews of the kingdom received their emancipation from Wielopolski on 4 June 1862, and this was not rescinded after the failure of the uprising. In emancipating Jews, Wielopolski had hoped that they could form a significant element in an emerging Polish middle class, which could carry out the capitalist transformation of the Kingdom of Poland and give it a much more balanced and Western social structure. This was also the hope of Polish liberals, who called themselves Positivists because of their admiration for the secular and pro-industrial ideas of Auguste Comte. It was also supported by the Jewish commercial and financial elite that was benefiting from the economic boom in the Congress kingdom that followed the opening of the Russian market in 1858 and the abolition of unfree cultivation in 1864.
In the tsarist empire, where the largest part of East European Jewry lived, the process of integration encountered the greatest difficulties. Russia was an estate society, with four main estates—the nobility, the merchants, the townspeople, and the peasants. These were self-administered; the problem for the tsarist administrators was where to fit the Jews. In addition, the tsarist empire was not a national state, but a multinational empire extending over much of Eurasia. In the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries, it was not yet government policy to Russify the population. One of the first acts of the tsarist government was to establish the Pale of Settlement to which Jews were confined. This included all the territories under the partitions of Poland–Lithuania, with the addition of areas to the north of the Black Sea that Russia had acquired from Turkey at the end of the eighteenth century. These areas were almost entirely agricultural with very little industrial development. There was very little in the way of a Christian bourgeoisie or proto-bourgeoisie in the areas into which Jews could integrate.
Tsarist policies were based on two assumptions. In the first place, Jews were seen as a harmful element—they disrupted relations between landlords and peasants in the sensitive western provinces of the empire. At the same time, it was thought that Jews could be reformed, so that they could become useful subjects. It was under Nicholas I (r. 1825–1855) that the first major attempt was made to implement these principles. Nicholas’s goal was the forcible integration of the Jews. In 1827, he imposed conscription on the Jewish community, seeing service in the army as a means for doing away with the “negative” characteristics of Jews among a section of Jewish youth. He also established a Jewish Russian-language school system, and rabbinical seminaries in Vilna and Zhitomir intended to create a new and more enlightened Jewish elite. In addition, in order to foster the “fusion” of Jews with the rest of the population, he abolished the kahal, the main organ of Jewish self-government. The effect of these changes was to create a deep division within the Jewish community. A small minority of reformers and merchants strongly supported the government, but the bulk of the community was deeply alienated, seeing the policies as a new form of forced conversion.
Under Nicholas’s successor, Alexander II (r. 1855–1881), the more punitive elements of Nicholas’s policies were abandoned. The Russian Jewish school system was abolished in 1873; a new draft system that was established the following year encouraged Jews to enter Russian schools and universities. Some of the restrictions on Jewish residence were abolished and merchants of the first guild and artisans were free to settle anywhere in the empire. However, the high hopes that Alexander aroused both among general population and among the Jewish elite proved to be somewhat misplaced. Alexander did not establish a constitution and thus did not create the conditions necessary for general Jewish emancipation. In addition, the Russian reforming bureaucrats expected the Jewish elite to carry out a fundamental reform of Jewish life that was probably beyond its capacity.
In the Danubian principalities, which were effectively controlled by Russia from 1819, there was little desire in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to integrate Jews. Legislation prevented Jews from settling in the countryside, leasing land, or establishing factories. However, in the short-lived revolutionary wave of 1848 the revolutionaries did call for equal rights for local Jews. The first ruler of the united principalities, Alexandru Cuza (r. 1859–1866), sought the financial support of local Armenians and Jews for his reformist plans. When Jewish backing was not forthcoming, he inserted in his draft constitution a clause excluding from suffrage all those who did not profess Christianity (Article 7). After Cuza was overthrown, his successor, Carol of Hohenzollern, introduced a clause into the constitution, laying down that “only such aliens as are of the Christian faith may obtain citizenship.” The Treaty of Berlin, which recognized the independence of Romania, included a clause (Article 44) stipulating that Jews should receive full citizenship. This led the Romanian government to modify the constitution, abrogating Article 7 and replacing it with a clause that “the naturalization of aliens not under foreign protection should in every individual case be decided by parliament.” The 883 Jews who fought in the 1877 war against Turkey were immediately naturalized, but in the next 38 years, only an additional 1,200 received this status. Expulsions and restrictions continued in full force.
The Challenge to Integration, 1880–1914
The last decades of the nineteenth century saw advocates of Jewish integration and the transformation of Jews into citizens come under serious attack, an attack that was part of a wider challenge to the principles of liberalism. This assault had a number of causes. One was the emergence of the new ideology of political antisemitism, which rejected integration as a feasible solution to the “Jewish problem.” This way of thinking had two main centers—German-speaking Central Europe, where integration had already been achieved and where it challenged the basis of that integration, and the Russian Empire and Romania, where Jews had not yet achieved civil rights, and where such political antisemitism was intended to provide a justification for the refusal to grant them these rights. Advocates stressed that their opposition to Jews stemmed not from religion but from Jews’ inherent “racial” characteristics. As a consequence, the principal target was Jewish emancipation and the main hostility was to assimilated and acculturated Jews. Political antisemites claimed that Jews had used the freedoms they had been granted to take advantage of the naïveté of Christians and to establish a new form of domination. Antisemitism was thus a form of political paranoia, a monocausal explanation of what was wrong with the modern world.
The integrationist project also came under attack from two other sources. To increasing numbers of Jews, the divergence between what they had had to give up to achieve citizenship and the degree of their integration in civil society was increasingly evident. There was a widespread call for a return to a more authentic Jewish form of existence that often took the form of arguing that Jews were not a religious group but a proto-nation. Moreover, the triumph of the national idea among other ethnic groups led to hostility toward Jews among emergent national groups, including Czechs, Poles in Prussian Poland, Ukrainians in East Galicia, and Slovaks, Romanians, and Serbs in the borderlands of the Hungarian kingdom, who bitterly resented the links between Jews and the dominant national group in these areas, whether it was German, Polish, or Hungarian.
These developments led both to a serious deterioration of the relations between Jews and non-Jews and also to a weakening of the Jewish elite’s earlier belief in the benevolent character of the governments of the region. This was most apparent in the tsarist empire. Here the government saw the “Jewish oppression” of the peasantry as the main cause of the pogroms of 1881–1882 and concluded that its “integrationist” policies toward Jews had failed. Its goal was now primarily to restrict the “harmful” effect of Jews on the rest of the society. In May 1882, updated regulations forbade new Jewish settlement outside towns and townlets, the purchase of property in the countryside, and Jewish trade on Sundays or Christian holidays. The government also acted to restrict Jewish access to secondary and university education and generally to restrict the presence of Jews outside the Pale of Settlement. The result was a serious deterioration of the situation of the Jewish community, one aspect of which was the acceleration of mass emigration.
Many members of the educated Jewish elite now rejected the principle that Jews needed to reform themselves in order to be acceptable to the larger society. As a result, the late nineteenth century saw the emergence of ethnic concepts of Jewish self-identification, in particular Zionism and Jewish autonomist socialism (Bundism). Modernized versions of traditional Orthodoxy also developed a significant following, both Misnagdic and Hasidic. A minority within the Jewish community was attracted to revolutionary socialism with its vision of a new world where the old divisions of Jew and gentile would be subsumed by the creation of a new socialist humanity. These new ideologies went along with the emergence of Yiddish as a literary language and the development of modern Hebrew.
This process, however, was neither as rapid nor as complete as has sometimes been argued. The integrationist vision remained strong within the Jewish elite, especially among the group of bankers and prosperous lawyers in the imperial capital of Saint Petersburg and was given a new lease of life by the 1905 Revolution, which established a semiconstitutional system in Russia. Jews were an important element in the now-influential Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadety). The supporters of normative Jewish religious practice also began to organize politically and gained some support from tsarist authorities, the latter being alarmed by the strength of revolutionary views within the Jewish community.
The “new Jewish politics,” based on the belief that Jews were an ethnic or proto-national group, spread from the tsarist empire to the Kingdom of Poland, although here too it was not able to displace earlier ideologies. Certainly it contributed to the erosion of support for integration among both the Polish and Jewish elites. Here the position of the integrationists had already been weakened by the slow progress of acculturation in the context of an educational system controlled by the Russian authorities determined to prevent another Polish uprising. In addition, a large and self-confident Polish bourgeoisie did not emerge, and from the 1890s there was growing revulsion against the excesses and injustices that accompanied the progress of capitalism. This inevitably had an adverse effect on attitudes toward Jews, who were widely blamed for the defects of capitalism.
Jewish and non-Jewish members of the civilian militia organized during the German occupation during World War I, in the marketplace, Swislocz (Yid., Sislevich; now Svislach, Bel.), 1915. (Left to right) Alter Geler, Menakhem Finkelshteyn, the German captain of the militia, Velvl Goldshteyn, Avrom Faynsilber, and Matebush, a non-Jew. (YIVO)
Around the same time, the Europe-wide revival of nationalism led to the emergence in Poland of the National Democratic (Endecja) movement. Its chief ideologist, Roman Dmowski, believed that Poles should create an organic national movement that would defend their national interests. In this, there could be no place for the Jews, who were regarded as a disruptive force and could never be integrated into the national substance. Increasingly, Dmowski and his movement came to see antisemitism both as a means for mobilizing Polish society and as a catchall ideology to explain every ill from which Poland was suffering.
In Prussian Poland in the second half of the nineteenth century, the conflict between Poles and Germans became increasingly acute. Jews, caught between Poles and Germans, mostly left the province. Some of those who remained continued to support a liberal form of German politics. The remainder drew the conclusion that the growth of chauvinism on both sides of the ethnic divide showed that Jews were neither German nor Polish. The area thus became one of the strongholds of Zionism in Germany, a movement that was much weaker elsewhere in the Reich.
In the Habsburg monarchy, the results of the attack on integration varied from region to region. The Hungarian landed elite continued actively to encourage Jewish assimilation, and the majority of Jews became enthusiastic Magyarizers. Many adopted a liberal form of Jewish religious practice, although a German-style neo-Orthodoxy remained important, and Hasidism had a significant foothold in Transylvania and Subcarpathian Rus’. The position of the Jews seemed secure as was underlined when, in 1895, the Jewish religion was accorded rights similar to those enjoyed by Catholicism and Protestantism. On the eve of World War I, Jews played a prominent role both in the world of business and finance and in the liberal professions. In 1907, for instance, seven of the thirteen members of the highest appeal court were Jews. Attempts to exploit political antisemitism were as ruthlessly suppressed as the separatist aspirations of the non-Hungarian minorities.
In Czech lands, the community remained divided. While the older generation held firm to the German orientation, some younger members created the Czech–Jewish Union (Svaz Čechů-židů), which was sympathetic to the Czech national movement. Some followed the advice of the Viennese rabbi Yosef Shemu’el Bloch to remain neutral in this conflict or adopted a Zionist position. This did not prevent anti-Jewish riots breaking out in many Czech towns in 1897 in response to the failure of an attempt to make Czech a requirement for Habsburg bureaucrats serving in the Czech lands.
In Galicia, integration was now widely seen as discredited. Increasing democracy brought the peasantry into politics and disrupted the alliance between Jews and the nobility. So too did the exacerbation of the Polish–Ukrainian conflict, which created particular problems for Jews, since most Jews lived in the areas in which Ukrainians were the majority, and where non-Jews began increasingly to stress their separate ethnic identity. Jewish–Ukrainian relations in Galicia were mostly hostile, and the alliance between the Jewish political elite and Ukrainians in the first parliamentary elections in autonomous Galicia was not to be repeated until the early twentieth century, when some common ground was found between Zionists and moderate Ukrainian nationalists. The growth of political antisemitism and the influence of Dmowski’s National Democrats in eastern Galicia also stimulated the emergence of autonomous Jewish politics.
In Romania, the situation worsened in these years. Jews were not permitted to be lawyers, teachers, pharmacists, or stockbrokers and could not work in state hospitals or as officials on the railways. It was only in 1904 that, under foreign pressure, the humiliating Jewish oath was abolished. The Romanian government continued strongly to resist international efforts to ensure citizenship for Jews dwelling on its territory and in 1907 a peasant jacquerie was marked by widespread attacks on Jews.
The Road to Catastrophe
The “short twentieth century” began with the devastating impact of World War I, which disrupted the political and economic equilibrium of Europe and was followed by the emergence of rival totalitarian systems of the right and left. The integration of Jews had been closely tied to the liberal political and economic system. The revolutionary challenges to this system had a devastating effect on Jews’ relations with governments and peoples of East Central Europe.
World War I saw the most serious outbreak of anti-Jewish violence in European history to that time. More than 100,000 Jews lost their lives in pogroms that accompanied the Russian Civil War. The end of the war found Jews of the area divided between national states, where they were guaranteed rights both as individuals and as a community but faced difficult political and social problems, and the Soviet Union, which ultimately adopted a new form of radical assimilationism in its Jewish policy, giving Jews full individual equality but destroying all vestiges of Jewish communal autonomy (except, during the first decades after the revolution, for a closely controlled socialist Yiddish culture).
In the newly reborn states of the area—Poland, Lithuania, Czechoslovakia, and Romania—and in Hungary, which was now independent, but with drastically reduced frontiers, the rights of national minorities, including Jews, were to be safeguarded by international guarantee and by the democratic character of the new states. In fact, the high hopes that accompanied the establishment of the Versailles system in Eastern Europe were disappointed almost everywhere. The democratic system collapsed everywhere, except in Czechoslovakia, to be replaced by semiauthoritarian states, often of an antisemitic character. Antisemitism was intensified by the widespread fear of Bolshevism, which was widely seen as a Jewish phenomenon. The economic slump that affected the region severely strengthened the belief of the radical right that all social and political problems of their countries could be solved by expropriating or expelling their Jewish populations. The belief that this could be done was strengthened by the speed with which this process was accomplished in Nazi Germany and by growing German influence over the whole region.
In the Soviet Union, the situation was only marginally better. The Bolsheviks saw national issues as “instrumental.” They were to be judged as to how they advanced the interest of the world revolution and the Soviet state. In the 1920s, the majority of Jews, confronted by the anti-Jewish violence of the Whites and Ukrainian nationalists, had come to see the Bolsheviks as a lesser evil. Those responsible for the Jewish policy of the new regime were interested in making use of this feeling to advance the interests of the regime. Certainly, according to Bolshevik theory, Jews were not a nation. A nation, according to a study of the problem carried out by Stalin at Lenin’s request in 1913, should have four characteristics: a common territory, a common language, a common economic system, and a common culture. This clearly ruled out the Jews.
The long-term fate of the Jews was to be integrated into the emerging Soviet nation. The Bolsheviks recognized that Jews possessed some proto-national characteristics. In order to facilitate their integration into the new socialist world, a specific socialist Jewish identity, expressed through a secularized version of Yiddish-language culture, could be tolerated for a period. A number of Jews, and even some Bolshevik leaders such as USSR President Mikhail Kalinin, thought this could become permanent.
Some aspects of Soviet policy certainly benefited Jews individually. These included the suppression of antisemitism and the abolition of tsarist restrictions on Jews. By 1929, for instance, 13.5 percent of all university students were Jews. Jews moved to cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev and occupied influential positions both in the economy and in institutions of higher learning, research, art, and culture. But this advance was bought at a heavy cost—the acceptance of the totalitarian Stalinist system. In particular, the socialist Yiddish culture, built up mostly by ex-Bundists in the 1920s, did not survive Stalin’s triumph, and most Jewish institutions had either been shut down or Stalinized by 1941.
World War II and the Holocaust took a heavy toll on East European Jewry. More than 90 percent of Lithuanian and Polish Jewry perished, as did 75 percent of Hungarian and Slovak Jewry and more than 50 percent of Romanian Jewry. More than one-third of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union in its 1939 frontiers were murdered, as were half in the area incorporated between 1939 and 1941. The central question in any discussion of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe is thus what responsibility the local populations bore for this situation. The primary responsibility for the massacre of Jewry undoubtedly rests with Hitler, the Nazi leadership, and the German people who for the most part followed their lead. At least until the end of 1942, Germans were operating in areas where they had absolute freedom of action. Most of the actual genocide was at this stage carried out by them. In the final stage of the genocide, which lasted until the end of the war, the Nazis were obliged to persuade or coerce their allies and puppets in the New Europe to hand over their Jews. In East Central Europe, this policy affected above all the satellite states of Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary.
The obvious overwhelming responsibility of the Nazis has not stilled the claim that others also bear a great deal of blame. Relations between Jews and gentiles had deteriorated everywhere in Eastern Europe in the years prior to the war and were further exacerbated by the resentment provoked by Soviet annexations in the area after 1939 and the belief that Jews were responsible for the worst excesses of Soviet rule. The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 was accompanied by a wave of anti-Jewish violence. None of these massacres was carried out by the Germans, although they certainly encouraged such actions and, in some cases, may have coordinated them. General Walter Stahlecker, commander of Einsatzgruppe A, reported at the time that Lithuanians had killed as many as 1,500 Jews in one night in Kaunas at the end of June 1941. Other sources estimate that in the Kaunas massacre as many as 10,000 Jews were murdered and that pogroms broke out in at least 40 Lithuanian towns. In western Ukraine, pogroms erupted in as many as 35 places after the Nazi invasion and resulted in the deaths of 28,000–35,000 Jews. A more cautious figure has put the death toll at 12,000. In Poland, there were 60 such incidents in the northeastern region of Podlasie, the worst in Jedwabne and Radziłów, although the death toll was lower than in Lithuania or Ukraine. Subsequently, in all these areas, the majority of the population was largely indifferent to the fate of Jews, making the position of the minority who wished to assist their Jewish fellow citizens much more difficult.
Countries with satellite governments—Romania, Hungary, and Slovakia—all assisted the Germans to various degrees. The Slovak government cooperated fully in the initial stages of deporting Jews, as did the Hungarians after the German occupation of the country in March 1944. The Romanian state was responsible for mass murder of Jews as it invaded the Soviet Union alongside the Germans in 1941. The first massacre took place in Iaşi, three days after the invasion of the USSR. Jews were falsely accused of aiding the Red Army and in a series of massacres, over several days, perhaps 8,000 Jews died at Romanian hands. A major role in subsequent atrocities was taken by the Romanian Army. In particular, General Antonescu was eager to expel the Jews from the areas of Bessarabia and Bucovina reconquered from the Soviet Union. In the resultant massacres, more than 300,000 Jews died at Romanian hands. In mid-1942, however, when Antonescu became convinced that the Germans would lose the war, he refused to hand over any Jews to the Nazis.
The Soviet occupations of 1939–1941 both intensified hostility to Jews and destroyed most of the organized Jewish life in the area. When mass murders began, the Soviets created the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, an organization that highlighted the nature of the Nazi genocide, which was otherwise somewhat downplayed in general Soviet war propaganda partly because the Soviets did not want their people to believe they were fighting a “war for the Jews.” In the first stage of the Nazi invasion, some Jews were evacuated, but this was part of the attempt to evacuate key Soviet personnel, rather than of an organized policy to rescue Jews.
Priest and Jewish child in a synagogue at a ceremony to inaugurate the Polish Catholic Church's first "Official Day of Judaism," Warsaw, 2005. (Photograph by Piotr Malecki/Spectrum Pictures)
After the war, the reestablishment of organized Jewish life was difficult and was obstructed by Communist policies of forced assimilation and official suppression of Jewish culture, particularly in the Soviet Union. The end of communism led to the creation of conditions in which Jewish institutions could again flourish. However, antisemites could also function freely, while the transition to a market economy caused widespread hardship. Under these conditions, more than one million Jews emigrated from the region from 1988, mostly to Israel, but also to the United States and Germany and other countries. Yet sizable communities still survive in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Hungary, while smaller ones are struggling to preserve themselves in Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Romania.
The Afterlife of East European Jewry
In recent years, there has also been considerable debate about previously taboo questions, such as the strength of antisemitism in the area, the degree of culpability of the local populations for the fate of Jews in the Nazi genocide in the eastern part of Central Europe, and the difficult problem of property restitution. There has been considerable dispute in Romania about the role of General Ion Antonescu and in Slovakia of Father Jozef Tiso and of the conduct of Nazi satellite regimes in Hungary and Croatia. There has also been a good deal of debate in Lithuania and Latvia—and rather less in Ukraine—about the participation of local militias in the mass murder of Jews. The debate in Poland intensified after the revelations of the massacre of Jews in northeastern Poland by their Polish “neighbors.”
Eastern Europe was for nearly half a millennium one of the main centers of Jewish life. It can never again occupy that position. Yet it is encouraging that attempts are being made both to provide conditions for the reemergence and the integration of Jewish life into the national story of the different peoples of the regions. The success of these efforts will depend both on the activities of Jews themselves and the degree to which pluralistic and outward-looking political systems root themselves there. The next generation will show whether such efforts can bear genuine fruit and whether it will be possible to recreate a viable Jewish life in a region that was for so long one of the principal Jewish heartlands.