History of the Jews in 19th-century Poland

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Jewish Polish history during the 19th century:

Jews of Poland within the Russian Empire (1795–1918)[edit]

Official Russian policy would eventually prove to be substantially harsher to the Jews than that under independent Polish rule. The lands that had once been Poland were to remain the home of many Jews, as, in 1772, Catherine II, the tzarina of Russia, instituted the Pale of Settlement, restricting Jews to the western parts of the empire, which would eventually include much Poland although it excluded some areas in which Jews had previously lived. By the late 19th century, over four million Jews would live in the Pale.

Jewish children in a street of Warsaw, Poland in 1897.

Initially, Russian policy towards the Jews of Poland was confused, alternating between harsh rules and somewhat more enlightened policies. In 1802, the Tsar established the Committee on the Improvement of the Jews in an attempt to develop a coherent approach to the Empire's new Jewish population. The Committee in 1804 suggested a number of steps that were designed to encourage Jews to assimilate, though it did not force them to do so. It proposed that Jews be allowed to attend school and even to own land, but it restricted them from entering Russia, banned them from the brewing industry, and included a number of other prohibitions. The more enlightened parts of this policy were never fully implemented, and the conditions of the Jews in the Pale gradually worsened. In the 1820s, the Cantonist Laws passed by Tsar Nicolas kept the traditional double taxation on Jews in lieu of army service, while actually requiring all Jewish communities to produce boys to serve in the military, where they were often forced to convert. Though the Jews were accorded slightly more rights with the emancipation reform of 1861, they were still restricted to the Pale of Settlement and subject to restrictions on ownership and profession. In 1881, however, the status-quo was shattered with the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, which was falsely blamed on the Jews.

Pogroms[edit]

The assassination prompted a large-scale wave of anti-Jewish riots, called pogroms throughout 1881-1884. In the 1881 outbreak, pogroms also occurred in Russia, in a riot in Warsaw twelve Jews were killed, many others were wounded, and women were raped[citation needed] while over two million rubles worth of property was destroyed. The new czar, Alexander III, blamed the Jews for the riots and issued a series of harsh restrictions on Jewish movements, but large numbers of pogroms continued until 1884, with at least tacit government approval. The pogroms proved a turning point in the history of the Jews in Poland, and throughout the world. They prompted a great flood of Jewish immigration to the United States, with almost two million Jews leaving the Pale by the late 1920s, and the pogroms set the stage for Zionism.

An even bloodier wave of pogroms broke out from 1903–1906. Some of the worst of these were carried out by Polish people against Russian Jews living in Poland, and included the Białystok pogrom of 1906, in which up to a hundred Jews were killed and many more wounded.

Haskalah[edit]

The Jewish Enlightenment, Haskalah, began to take hold in Poland during the 19th century, stressing secular ideas and values. Champions of Haskalah, the Maskilim, pushed for assimilation and integration into Russian culture. At the same time, there was another school of Jewish thought that emphasized traditional study and a Jewish response to the ethical problems of anti-semitism and persecution, one form of which was the Musar movement. Though the Jews in the Pale were generally poorer and less educated than in other areas, they were still part of the debate over the future of Judaism in the 19th century.

Politics in Polish Territory[edit]

By the late 19th century, Haskalah and the debates it caused created a growing number of political movements within the Jewish community itself, covering a wide range of views and vying for votes in local and regional elections. Zionism became very popular with the advent of the Poale Zion party as well as the religious Polish Mizrahi, and the increasingly popular General Zionists. Jews also took up socialism, forming General Jewish Labour Bund and the Folksists (People’s Party) which supported assimilation and the rights of labor.

A Bundist demonstration, 1917

Unsurprisingly, given the conditions under Imperial Russia, the Jews participated in a number of Polish insurrections against the Russians, including the Kosciuszko Insurrection (above), and the January Insurrection (1863) as well as the Revolutionary Movement of 1905. Jewish student Michał Landy was killed by Russians during a Polish demonstration in Warsaw, 1861. Christians weren't allowed by the police to participate in his burial.

See also[edit]