PortCities London

The Jewish community and the port

The Jews of Poland and Russia
 

The Jewish community in Poland

Map of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
View full size imageThe Polish Commonwealth in 1582. © NMM

The Jewish community of the East End came almost entirely from the Russian Empire, in particular from the territories of the former Polish Commonwealth.

In the Middle Ages, many Jews settled in Poland because of the tolerance of the local rulers and aristocrats, who found them useful. Eventually, Poland had the largest Jewish population anywhere in the world. 

The Polish Commonwealth had been a powerful state. It included most of the present-day Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States.

By the 18th century, Russia was emerging as the new power in the east. In three Russian-led partitions – in 1772, 1793 and 1795 - the territories of Poland were divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria. Most of the Jewish population of Poland passed under Russian rule.

Under Russian rule

Map of the Pale of Settlement
View full size imageThe 'Pale of Settlement' in Tsarist Russia. © NMM

Life under the Tsars was far more unpleasant than it had been in Poland. Many laws discriminated against Jews, who were often singled out for persecution.

Jews were allowed to live only in the so-called ‘Pale of Settlement’ - mainly the lands taken during the partitions of Poland. 

The harshness of Russian rule meant a small but steady flow of Jewish emigrants throughout the 19th century. Many were small-scale craftsmen – goldsmiths, jewellers – who moved to Western Europe.

After 1881

After revolutionaries assassinated Tsar Alexander II in March 1881, Jews suffered renewed oppression throughout the Russian Empire. Not for the first time – and certainly not for the last - Jews were used as a convenient political scapegoat, and were blamed for many of the country’s problems.

The authorities encouraged ‘pogroms’ – over 200 outbreaks of organized violence against Jews. These included looting, rape and murder. If the brutality was not enough, official repression followed. Under the 'May Laws' of 1882:

  • Jews were forced to live in the towns and small towns of the Pale; more than a million Jews living outside these towns were forced to leave their homes
  • restrictions were placed on Jewish trading
  • Jewish students were allowed only 10% of the total university places available. 

Mass emigration

The Hamburg-Amerika Linie passenger liner 'Columbia' (1889).
View full size imageThe Hamburg-Amerika Line liner Columbia (1889). © NMM
After the atrocities and the official repression, few Jews felt safe in the Russian Empire. More than 2,500,000 - over a third - left Russia in search of a more normal life elsewhere.

Most left for the United States. Of these, over a million went through Hamburg, mainly on the ships of the Hamburg-Amerika line.

Significant but smaller numbers of Jews also emigrated from Austria-Hungary and Germany. Most of these came from the territories that had once formed part of Poland, or had moved to those countries from the Russian Empire.