Summary Of Geographical Movement Of European Jews in the Past 2,000 Years

During the past 2,000 years, European Jews have migrated extensively. From Portugal to Turkey, Jews have been attacked, banished, and forced to choose between death and converting to the prevailing religion. Homes and buildings of worship have been destroyed. Jewish people have moved away from hostile situations, sometimes voluntarily but very often by force, in search of more tolerant communities. The theme of this section is Jewish heritage and the displacement that has characterized the relationship between Jews and their sense of home.

The Jewish homeland originally was the land of Israel. Eventually, Jewish people were scattered across thousands of miles. This is known as the Diaspora, a word with Greek roots meaning a scatteringor to scatter about. Jewish scholars developed recommendations and customs during the second century in response to this widely geographically scattered population. The Jewish Diaspora was critical to the survival of Judaism.

Roman Empire (70-300): The Diaspora Grows

In 70, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem. A large part of the Jewish population was either massacred or exiled. In Judea, the area near present day Israel, 25% of the Jewish population was exterminated and 10% enslaved. Jews became a minority in their own land.

Many Jews fled to Mesopotamia, which is modern Iraq, and the rest fled to lands around the Mediterranean, presently known as southeastern Spain, southern France, southern Italy, Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey. Later, the Jews began to head north (to present day northern France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany, Austria, Bulgaria, Bosnia) and northern Africa (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco).

By 300, about three million Jews had settled in most parts of the Roman Empire, except Britain. A million lived west of Macedonia (Greece) with the majority settling throughout Asia Minor and east to the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf. Jews lived as far north as Cologne, Germany.

The Dark Ages (300-600): Chaos and Violence for Europe

In 312, Constantine gave Christianity status as the official religion of the Roman Empire. During the next three centuries, invading Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Huns, Franks, and Burgundians created a violent, unjust, and impoverished Europe. The Jews were treated as poorly as the rest of the population. Discrimination against the Jews was written into laws prohibiting Jews from holding high position in government, intermarrying with Christians, appearing as witnesses against Christians, and owning slaves. Converting to Judaism was also forbidden.

Islamic Empire (700-1200): Golden Age for Jews in Spain

Beginning in the mid-eighth century, along the southern and western rim of the Mediterranean Sea and east beyond the Caspian Sea, Jews were widely tolerated and accepted under Islamic rule. The Muslims granted Jews and Christians exemption from military service, the right to their own courts of law, and a guarantee of the safety of their property. Islamic territory included present day Iran, Iraq, Turkey, western Russia, the Saudi Arabian peninsula, northern Africa, and, in Europe, Spain, Sicily, and Sardinia. Jews experienced a Golden Age. Jewish poets, scholars, scientists, statesmen, philosophers flourished within and were an integral part of the Arab civilization. For hundreds of years, Jews and Arabs lived together in peace and with mutual respect. In the middle of the twelfth century, this Golden Age of the Muslim Empire and the Jewish Golden Age in Spain ended.

Middle Ages

Feudal Europe (600-1000) Prosperous Times for Jews

Generally, Jews were relatively free and moderately prosperous in Europe during the early Middle Ages. Pope Gregory the Great (591) forbade the forcible conversion of Jews. Both Theodoric the Great (454-526), ruler of Italy, and Charlemagne (742-814), the ruler of France and western Germany, invited Jews to live within their kingdoms, mostly for economic reasons. In 1066, William the Conqueror welcomed Jews to England. Jews were outside the feudal system and could not be tied to land nor belong to craftsmen's guilds. Because Christianity forbade the lending of money with interest, Jews became money lenders, and were valuable as the merchants and financiers of Christian Europe.

The Crusades (1095-1272): Jews as a Targeted Group

With the end of feudalism, Christians claimed the economic functions that the Jews had previously held. The Church also became less tolerant of religious freedom.

The Crusades were fought with the idea of freeing the Holy Land and turning Jerusalem into a Christian shrine. As part of this religious zealotry, all kind of heretics (Jews, Muslims, scientists, and suspect Christians) became the enemywithin Europe. There were eight Crusades, the first in 1095; the last Crusade was from 1270-72.

Many Jews fled east from areas of present day Spain, France and Germany to Poland and Lithuania.

The High Middle Ages (1200-1500): Jewish Population Dwindles in Western Europe, Builds in Eastern Europe

The Jews continued to have a very difficult time in Europe during the later portion of the Middle Ages. The beginnings of some of the antisemitic behaviors of the Holocaust can be traced to this period. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council called by Pope Innocent III, decreed that Jews must wear special dress, badges or distinctive conical hats, to distinguish them from other people. Expulsions of Jews continued throughout the continent.

The first of many ritual murder charges started in 1144 in Norwich, England. Jews were charged with killing Christian children to use their blood for making unleavened bread (matzah) for Passover. Blood libels peppered Europe throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, as well as the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Jews were accused during the thirteen through sixteenth centuries of desecrating the Host, the blessed bread distributed during the Eucharist. Now it is known that when bread deteriorates, a red mold can grow on it giving the consecrated bread the appearance of exuding blood. In 1243, in Belitz, Germany, profaning the Host was an excuse used for the first of a series of antisemitic massacres.

Europe faced a series of devastations in the fourteenth century: disastrous harvests, severe famine, and the Black Plague. Superstitions and prejudice breed during dire times, and Jews were blamed for these hardships.

Throughout Europe, the Jews were gradually confined in ghettos as the Middle Ages progressed. The first compulsory ones were established in Spain and Portugal at the end of the fourteenth century. Jewish ghettos existed in Madrid, Barcelona, Venice, Naples, Rome, Florence, and Prague, and other European cities.

Jews continued to flee eastward from Germany, Austria, and Hungary to Poland. Also during the High Middle Ages, Jews were leaving the area along the north shores of the Black Sea and heading northwest, into Poland. Jewish life flourished in Poland. Polish rulers welcomed Jews during the 13th and 14th centuries, issuing charters of legal rights for Jews. During the hundred years of the 15th century, the Jewish Polish population exploded from about 15,000 to 150,000.

The Early Modern Period (1500-1700): Greater Tolerance of Jews in Western Europe; Less Tolerance in Eastern Europe

The Protestant Reformation began in 1521. The Reformation changed Europe, both socially and economically. Jews were welcomed into countries from which they had been expelled centuries earlier if it was in that country's economic interest. In the words of historian Max Dimont:

The Western, Catholic, feudal countries did not want the Jews for religious reasons, and having no economic need of them, did not readmit them, whereas the Protestant countries, having an economic need of the merchant Jews, did readmit them.

Holland, beginning in 1579, allowed Jews to practice their religion freely, and a thriving Jewish community began to develop. Marranos were allowed to settle in England in 1655, and were never again expelled from England. For the three centuries from 1500-1800, in Germany and present day Austria, Jewish financiers were appointed to influential positions as financial ministers to the state, known as Court Jews. In 1780, in the Hapsburg territories of Austria, Hungary, and Bohemia and Moravia, Emperor Joseph II abolished the Jewish badge, and Jews were free to leave the ghetto, learn any trade and engage in commerce, and attend public schools and universities. The French Revolution bestowed citizenship to the Jews.

In the 1700s Moses Mendelssohn, a Jewish German philosopher and essayist, modified the Jewish religion and encouraged Jews to leave the separate and insulated Jewish ghettos and become assimilated into the German cultural community.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, Poland became the center for Jewish learning. This prosperity continued until the second half of the 17th century when a series of massacres by Cossacks ruthlessly killed Jews and Gentile Poles alike. Poland was then pummeled by another Cossack uprising, two invasions by Sweden, and a war with Turkey. In the 1700s, Poland was divided three ways, and the Jews of Poland fell under the rule of Russia, Germany, and Austria.

View images of Polish synagogues dating back to the 15th century at this site.

Jews have lived in Russia for centuries--sometimes welcomed and other times poorly tolerated. Before 1500, Jews were permitted to live anywhere in Russia. As Russia's western boundary moved west in the 1600s and 1700s, more Jews were annexed into a country which was intolerant of Jews. Catherine the Great, in the late 1700s, decreed that Jews could only live in the territory along the western Russian border, known as the Pale of Settlement. In 1772, more Jews lived in the Pale than in the rest of Europe.

The Modern Period (1800s to present): See-sawing Between New Freedoms and Continued Persecutions

Western Europe

Around the turn of the eighteenth century, France, Germany, and Italy were all experiencing revolutions which toppled monarchies and created democracies, giving citizens new freedoms and equal rights. Jews were liberated in France, Italy, and Germany. However, in Italy and Germany, freedoms and equality to Jews and other citizens brought by revolution, were soon taken away in counterrevolutions. In Britain and Holland, Jewish liberation was lasting and complete.

Nineteenth century economic expansion and opportunity improved the condition of western and central European Jewry. There was a general movement of Jews from less developed areas to cities. In Germany, Jews moved from former Polish territory in the East to the Rhineland, Cologne, Frankfurt and Berlin. French Jews migrated from Alsace to Paris; in Austria the move was from Moravia and Galicia to Vienna. In Hungary, Jews gravitated to Budapest. By the end of the nineteenth century, Jews in Europe were largely emancipated.

More than one and a half million Jews lived in Western Europe in the 1930s. The western European Jewish population swelled in the early part of the 20th century, mainly because of immigration from eastern Europe.

Eastern Europe

More than 5 million Jews--about half of the Jewish people--lived in the Russian Empire (Poland included) at the end of the nineteenth century. More than 90% lived in the Pale of Settlement.

The Pale of Settlement was reduced in size by edicts of successive Russian tsars, creating more and more difficult living conditions. These poverty stricken Jewish townships were known as shtetls . Yiddish was the language of most Jews in the Pale. Jews maintained a separate cultural identity, primarily because they were denied access to state education.

Once again, beginning in the late 1800s, Cossacks swept through Jewish settlements in the Pale, destroying, looting, and killing Jews in a series of pogroms that continued for decades. The Broadway play, "Fiddler on the Roof," is based on a story by Shalom Aleichem about a fictional Russian shtetl called "Anatevka." It depicts life in the Pale during this time.

Between 1881 and 1917, more than two million Jews left Russia in search of a better life. About two million went to the United States; 200,000 emigrated to Great Britain; 100,000 went to Canada; 40,000 to South Africa; and 300,000 resettled in Europe. Thousands also left for Palestine.

In 1917, with the fall of the Tsarist regime, all repressive edicts governing Jewish life were repealed and the Pale of Settlement was abolished. This new spirit of tolerance was very short-lived and even by 1918, Jewish activity and expression were vigorously attacked. The area near Kiev was the site of massive pogroms until 1921.

After World War I, in 1919, the Paris Peace Conference established the principle that the rights of minorities should be protected. Poland signed the treaty. Unfortunately, while negotiations were going on in Paris, the reality of the Jews living in the lands bordering Poland and the Soviet Union was deteriorating. In this region densely inhabited by Jews, civil war caused terrible suffering.

Other central European countries also signed treaties at the Paris Peace Conference. In practice, few of the new states fully upheld the Jewish minority clauses. During the 1930s, growing internal problems in most eastern European countries, and the influence of the German Nazi regime, led to a general worsening of the state of eastern European Jewry.

A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 1997-2013.

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