Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Understanding Historical Context

I began my day at the genealogy conference attending a history lecture on the Pale, the region where many Jews lived in Eastern Europe largely due to restrictions on their mobility.  At past conferences an interest in history has been awakened for me now that I have a context through which to frame it.  While I knew of the Pale and I knew that borders had changed frequently between countries in this region, Hal Bookbinder’s talk knit together many disparate pieces in my knowledge.

Bookbinder traced the history of the Pale of Jewish Settlement from its creation in 1791 until it was dissolved in 1917.  Along the way he discussed the various partitions of Poland and its arrangements with neighboring countries that influenced the movements of Jews through Eastern Europe.  He spoke of a deal that was struck between Poland and Lithuania in the 1500s when Lithuania turned over the Ukraine to Poland in exchange for protection. When the Poles took over the area they brought the Polish Jews with them.  That is why most of the Ukrainian Jews arrived there after 1569.  The earliest synagogues and tombstones date back to that period.

In 1772 there was the first partition of Poland where Russia took what is now eastern Belarus, Austria-Hungary took Galicia and Prussia grabbed the area adjacent to it.  Poland continued to exist, but twenty years later there was a second partition when Prussia grabbed Posnan and Russia grabbed the Ukraine and Belarus.  Poland continued to exist in some form for two more years until the third partition when they were dismembered in 1795.

Then Napoleon came along and beat Prussia in 1804/05.  He defeated the Hapsburgs and added Galicia to his empire and dubbed this region the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.  The way most family history researchers see this influence is in the genealogical record keeping.  The French used more of a story structure (eg. On such and such a date a male child was born to …) while the Russians used a columnar style. 

Now Napoleon met his Waterloo in 1814 and the Russians marched in and took over most of Poland.  In Vienna they created Congress Poland and declared a new independent nation of Poland with none other than the Czar of Russia as the King of Poland, independence being a relative term.  In the south of Poland, Krakow remained independent from 1815-1847 until Austria-Hungary took it over and it became part of Galicia.

The Poles were a rebellious people and after a few uprisings the Russian czar dissolved Poland in 1871 and reformatted it in the Russian manner into gubernias.  This was around the time that Russia began asserting its influence as the Polish records change from the Polish language to Russian in 1868.  This movement between Polish and Russian control begins to explain why so many ancestors wrote Russia Poland, Poland or Russia as their place of origin, all during the same period. 

With the czar as the new sheriff in town there were a new set of rules for the Jews. Typically there was less freedom of movement except when Russia needed bodies to populate new territories to keep out other countries.  In 1791 Jews were restricted from living in the heart of Russia and the official decree creating the Pale came in 1799 from Alexander I.

From 1825-1850 Czar Nicholas was in charge and he instituted the infamous Cantonist laws.  Jewish boys of 11 or 12 and sometimes as young as 7 were taken and placed in military schools.  When they became 18 they had to serve 25 years as a private in the army.  If they converted they got better food and some advancement opportunities.  Roman Catholics had a similar, but less onerous conscription rule.  In all 70,000 Jewish boys were taken until the law was disbanded in 1856.  After that a more normal conscription period of 3 to 4 years was in force, still enough to spur my draft-dodging grandfather to immigrate.

Nicholas restricted Jews from living in Kiev in 1827 and in 1843 expelled them from an area along Prussia and Austria.  Interestingly there were petitions from the local people to keep them as they did the commerce in that region.

From 1850-1875 Alexander II was the czar and a more enlightened period began.  He ended the Cantonist laws and began to open Russia up to select portions of the population.  Jewish merchants who paid taxes were permitted more freedom of movement in 1859.  In 1861 this was extended to university grads and physicians.  Former military men and certain craftsmen were also granted more freedom.

Alexander II was assassinated in 1881 by anarchists and Jews were blamed. Alexander III was an anti-Semite and encouraged a wave of pograms resulting in many deaths. Jews were forbidden to settle outside the towns.  They couldn’t own or lease land. Education quotas went into place. Jews couldn’t farm land or become doctors or lawyers or engineers.    In the early 1890s Jews were expelled from Moscow where many had lived.  They could take what they could carry.  The 1897 census identified 5 million Jews in the Pale all living under these restrictions and persistent dangers.

Pograms intensified in 1903 with thousands robbed, raped or killed.  Finally in 1917 with the fall of the Czar the Pale was eliminated.

During the period from 1881-1914 two million Jews left for the west, mine among them.  Bookbinder attributed this to the period of enlightenment of 1850-1875 followed by lack of opportunity, oppression and pograms.  Train and steamship travel was faster and relatives and friends who had made the journey encouraged them to come.

Understanding the political context creates new meaning for genealogy research explaining movements of people, changes in documentation and shedding light on some of the cultural impacts that are still felt today.  I recall when I was interviewing a Ukrainian immigrant and she told me that you had to perform better than everyone else because the deck was so stacked against you.  Those very limitations contributed to the Jewish culture  we know today with its focus on achievement and education.


  1. I guess I have to research the term "pale". When we were in Ireland, we also heard that term, (as in beyond the pale). I'd always wondered about that terminology.

  2. Interesting, I never thought of the term relative to "beyond the pale", but it makes sense that it would be related. "Pale" originally referenced a stake as you would find in a fence.