Demographic sources for the entire period before the end of the nineteenth century are not nearly as reliable as those for more recent times. Readers should note, therefore, that the data presented below are speculative and based on the “best guesses” of scholars. A partial exception is material gleaned from the 1764–1765 census of Jews in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, which is somewhat better documented.
Jewish settlement in Eastern Europe began in the first century, when Jews from Asia Minor began to settle in the urban centers of the northern Black Sea coast. From the second to the fourth centuries, Jews lived in the capital of the Kingdom of Bosporus, Panticapaeum (Kerch’); in Phanagoria on the Taman Peninsula; in Gorgippia (contemporary Anapa); and also in Chersonesos (Sevastopol’), Partenit (not far from contemporary Alushta), and possibly Tanais and Ol’viia. Jewish proselytism contributed to the multiplication of these small Hellenized Jewish communities. In Byzantine Chersonesos, the state subjected Jews to forced Christianization in the fifth and sixth centuries, which also probably occurred in the Byzantine Bosporus (contemporary Kerch’) at the end of the ninth century.
The Khazar Khanate began to take shape in what is now Dagestan in the seventh century. In its prime in the eighth and the first half of the ninth centuries, its territory extended from the Caucasus foothills to the eastern Crimea, the lower Volga, and the middle area along the Dnieper. Jews had arrived in the area already by the fifth century, probably from the Transcaucasus and Iran. Jewish migrations to the Khazar Khanate also continued from the seventh to the first half of the tenth century, with most of the people coming from Byzantium. Jewish proselytism was very widespread in the Khazar Khanate, not only among the urban population and the Khazar elite, but also, according to some scholars, among rural dwellers and even seminomadic groups. During the tenth century, Khazaria was invaded and its urban centers destroyed. Meanwhile, Jewish communities lived in the mountains of Dagestan, the Taman Peninsula (mainly Tamatarkha), Crimea, and Alania. Jewish communities also existed in Kievan Rus’ from the eleventh to the first half of the thirteenth century in Kiev, Vladimir-Volynski, and Chernigov. At the end of the twelfth century, Turkish-speaking groups professing simplified forms of Judaism were still leading a nomadic way of life on the steppes north of the Black Sea.
“Happy New Year Ship’s Ticket—Good for a 120-year round trip in the stream of life.” Rosh Hashanah greeting card, ca. 1910. (YIVO)
Information from the end of the eleventh century indicates a Jewish presence in Peremyshl’ (Pol., Przemyśl), and from the end of the eleventh to the beginning of the twelfth century, individual Ashkenazic Jewish families settled in western Poland after fleeing from Prague during the First Crusade. From the twelfth to the first half of the thirteenth century, the Jewish population of Poland remained quite small, even though it was supplemented by a steady migration of Ashkenazic Jews from Central Europe. Toward the middle of the thirteenth century there were Jewish communities in Kraków, and possibly also in Kalisz, Płock, and Gniezno. Jewish communities remained in Vladimir-Volynski and were founded in Galich (Halicz) and possibly in Lwów by both Rabbinite Jews and Karaites from the urban centers of the northern Black Sea coast and Kievan Rus’.
By the end of the fourteenth century, devastating conquests, epidemics, and forcible Islamization had either significantly reduced or obliterated the Jewish populations in the mountains of Dagestan and Alania and in the steppes north of the Black Sea. However, Jewish communities developed in the towns along the northern Black Sea coast, most significantly alongside Genovese and Venetian trading stations (e.g., Kafa and Tana), but also in the southwestern Crimea (e.g., Solkhat).
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries both Poland and Lithuania conducted policies aimed specifically at developing urban settlement, granting various privileges to attract migrants, including Jews, from Central and Western Europe. At roughly the same time, from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries, Jews were being pushed out of much of Central and Western Europe in a series of expulsions, and also as a result of increased competition both among Jews and from the non-Jewish urban population. Generally, Jews were part of a broad eastward movement of urban Europeans largely from German-speaking territories. In the late fourteenth century, the Lithuanian Principality forcibly resettled people from the northern Black Sea coast, including Karaites who founded a new community in Troki (Lith., Trakai). Jews both from the west and the south may have founded the communities of Grodno and Brest in the same period. In Poland toward the end of the fourteenth century there were Jewish communities in Kraków, Kalisz, Poznań, Płock, Gniezno, Sandomierz, and possibly Warsaw.
Most of the migrants from Central and East Central Europe before about 1550 settled in towns and cities situated along the important land and water trade routes of western and central Poland. The largest communities in the mid-sixteenth century were to be found in Kraków, Poznań, Lublin, Lwów, Brest Litovsk (Pol., Brześć nad Bugiem), Kremenets, Grodno, Łuck, and Ostróg.
Table 1: Estimate of the Number of East European Jews from the End of the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century
Both Rabbinite and Karaite Jews from the northern Black Sea coast continued to migrate into the towns of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania as well as into the southeastern regions of Poland–Lithuania (and also south, to Turkey). In 1495 the Grand Duchy expelled all Jews, a population of at least 2,000; they were allowed to return in 1503.
From the second half of the sixteenth to the first half of the seventeenth century, Jews began to leave crown cities, especially those that had received the royal privilege prohibiting Jews from residence (de non tolerandis Judaeis). The migrants moved to privately owned towns as well as southeast to Ruthenia, Ukraine, and Lithuania. From the last third of the sixteenth to the first half of the seventeenth century Jews also came to Poland from the West (most signficantly during the Thirty Years’ War); small numbers came from the northern Black Sea coast and from the Ottoman Empire. A few were Sephardic Jews (e.g., in Zamość). By this time, however, Ashkenazic Jews in the southern and eastern border regions of the Polish Commonwealth had integrated the oldest communities of Slavic- and Turkic-speaking Rabbinite Jews into their communities. The few Karaite communities maintained their isolation.
Until the middle of the seventeenth century, immigration was the main cause of Jewish population growth. In the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth after that time, Jewish population growth was probably a consequence of natural increase, the difference between birth and death rates. In the mid-seventeenth century, the Jewish population suffered significant losses from Cossack uprisings and wars in Poland, as well as from epidemics and famine. It has been estimated that in the eastern regions of Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as many as 20,000–25,000 Jews were killed at that time and 3,000–5,000 were taken into captivity and carried off into the Crimean Tatar Khanate and the Muscovite state, some ending up on the slave market in Constantinople. Many were forcibly baptized. The total losses may have reached 15 percent of the country’s Jewish population. Some Jews fled from the regions engulfed in warfare and civil violence to the western regions of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and even further into Central and Western Europe. It was at this time that Jews began to settle in the Transcarpathian region (the Kingdom of Hungary), Moldavia (including what later became Bessarabia and Bucovina), and Walachia.
Until the end of the seventeenth century it was illegal for Jews to migrate to Russia. Only from the end of the seventeenth to the beginning of the eighteenth century did small groups of Jews begin to settle (illegally) in the Russian Empire in the areas along the border with the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth: Left-Bank Ukraine, the Smolensk area, and also Lifland. The Jews were expelled from Russia in 1742, returning only in the mid-1760s.
Outdoor portrait of a group of fusgeyers, Jewish emigrants who made their way on foot across Romania to their port of departure, and who were aided along their route by various Jewish communities, ca. 1900. (YIVO)
The trade centers on the northern Black Sea coast declined in importance from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, but the Jewish population there, mainly Karaite, remained stable. The largest communities were in Chufut-Kale, Kafa, Karasubazar, Gezlev, and Mangup. In Dagestan in the second half of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, the Jewish population increased.
In towns in the eastern half of the commonwealth, Jews tended to reside around the central market square, and sometimes outnumbered Christians. This contrasted with royal cities like Poznań where Jewish residence tended to be concentrated and often restricted to specific neighborhoods. The tendency for Jews in eastern regions to settle in villages as well as in private towns intensified from the seventeenth to the first half of the eighteenth century. This was most noticeable in Podlasie, but was also characteristic of virtually all the regions west of Great Poland. The largest communities in 1765 were in Brody (about 8,600), Lwów (about 7,400), and Leszno (about 6,000), followed by Kraków (about 4,150), Vilna (about 3,900), and Brest (about 3,800). In that year, Jews made up roughly half of the urban population of Poland–Lithuania.
In the absence of massive migration, the impressive population growth of Jews in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from the sixteenth to eighteenth century must be attributed to a high rate of natural increase, somewhere between 15 to 20 per thousand annually. The combination of migration from the West in the early 1500s and a relatively higher rate of natural increase augmented the proportion of Jews in the total population of Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. To cite the highest figures proposed in recent research, the proportion of Jews increased from 1.2 percent in the middle of the sixteenth century, to 3.3 percent in the middle of the seventeenth century, to between 5.3 and 9.5 percent in the 1760s. At the same time, the estimated proportion of world Jewry living in Eastern Europe also grew, from 1.4 percent at the end of the fifteenth century, to between 10 and 14 percent at the end of the sixteenth century, to 28 percent at the end of the seventeenth century, and to approximately 50 percent at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1772, more than 95 percent of East European Ashkenazic Jews lived in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. The remainder lived in Moldavia, Walachia, and Hungary.
A number of momentous border changes made many East European Jews the subjects of Russia, Austria, and Prussia. Most significant were the three partitions of Poland. Other border changes involved Russian annexations of the northern Caucasus, the Khanate of the Crimean Tartars, and East European territories of the Ottoman Empire during the last third of the eighteenth and first quarter of the nineteenth centuries. The political map of Eastern Europe was reshaped by Austria’s annexation of Bucovina in 1775 and even more by the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
During the last quarter of the eighteenth century, growing overpopulation in Galicia along with Austrian population restrictions on Galician Jews intensified the tendency of Galician Jews to migrate. Because of Austrian prohibitions on Jewish settlement in the empire’s German and Czech lands, Jews moved east and south from towns in Galicia to rural areas in Hungary (about 15,000) and to Romanian lands, as well as to Russian-ruled Novorossiia (the northern Black Sea coast area). Jews also migrated to eastern Belarussia, Volhynia, Podolia, and especially to the area along the Dnieper River.
There was a spurt of emigration to Palestine by both Hasidim and Misnagdim in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1849 these groups accounted for 370 families there.
By 1800 the number of Jews in Eastern Europe had reached 1,275,000, of whom as many as 70,000 resided in Hungary and southeastern Europe. In addition, approximately 15,000 non-Ashkenazic Jews—Mountain Jews, Karaites, Crimean Jews (Krymchaks), and Sephardic Jews—lived in Dagestan and Novorossiia, Bessarabia, Lithuania, Galicia, and Volhynia.
Table 2: Major Jewish Communities in Eastern European Cities in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries
While the nature of the sources makes precision impossible, it seems clear that during the nineteenth century the Jewish population grew much more rapidly than the population of Eastern Europe as a whole. This growth maintained itself despite a steadily mounting wave of emigration that by the end of the nineteenth century had acquired a mass character.
(Table 3: Estimate of the Number of Jews in Eastern Europe in the Nineteenth Century)
The Jews of Posen province (Prussia) were allowed to migrate freely until 1834. In that period, Jews from Prussian Poland as a rule migrated to other German states and Western Europe (mainly England and the Netherlands); after 1834 they began to move to Berlin and other large German cities. The number of Jews emigrating from Prussian Poland, beginning in the 1830s, outweighed the natural population increase so that the total Jewish population in the region began to decline. This tendency continued right up to World War I.
Austrian law denied Galician Jews the right to move into the western regions of Habsburg territories—the so-called Czech and German lands, including Vienna—until 1849. Migration to Hungary, on the other hand, was relatively unrestricted. Thus, during the first half of the nineteenth century, Jews migrating from Galicia went mainly to Hungary, the Romanian lands, the Duchy of Warsaw, and, in the late 1820s, to Novorossiia. From the middle of the nineteenth century many Galician Jews migrated to Vienna. During the second half of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews tended to move from Galicia’s western (Polish) part into its eastern (Ukrainian) part and also to Bucovina, Transcarpathia, and Romania.
Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in a farming colony in Argentina, 1905. (YIVO)
Until its downfall in February 1917, the Russian Empire also limited the right of Jews to move into interior regions. During the first half of the nineteenth century, Jews from the Lithuanian and Belarussian (northwestern) provinces of the Pale migrated to Novorossiia, including Bessarabia and as well as Ukraine. As a rule these moves were motivated by economic opportunity. From the second half of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, economic prospects spurred the internal migration of Jews from the northwestern and southwestern provinces of the Pale into Novorossiia as well as into Russia’s interior provinces and the Kingdom of Poland, which was becoming economically more dynamic.
Before the reforms of Alexander II, Jews had the right of permanent settlement outside the Pale only in Courland, Lifland, and the Caucasus—that is, in those regions where Jewish communities had existed before their annexation to the Russian Empire. Before World War I, only about 6 percent of the Jewish population of the European part of the Russian Empire resided legally outside the Pale. Jews who managed to settle outside the Pale illegally were subjected to periodic expulsion. Even within the Pale limitations were periodically placed on the right of Jews to reside in rural areas, in the zone along the frontier, and in certain towns.
While Galician Jews were moving to rural areas at the end of the nineteenth century, Jews in the Russian Empire were urbanizing. Urbanization was especially noticeable in the industrial centers developing in Poland and Novorossiia. Nonetheless, in 1897 the overwhelming majority (86.9%) of Jews in the provinces of the Pale and the Kingdom of Poland still lived in towns and villages. Jews constituted 52.6 percent of the total urban population in the southwestern provinces of the Pale, 37.7 percent in the Kingdom of Poland, 35.9 percent in the northwestern provinces, and 23.6 percent in Novorossiia.
Jews from Prussian Poland constituted a large proportion of Jewish emigrants from the German states to the United States during the first six decades of the nineteenth century. Between 1820 and 1870, about 20,000 Galician Jews also emigrated to the United States, along with about 10,000 from the Russian Empire.
Beginning in the last third of the nineteenth century, Jewish emigration from Eastern Europe assumed massive proportions. Emigration was stimulated by a variety of factors: the adverse effects of rapid modernization on traditional Jewish society, a deepening socioeconomic crisis, the economic attraction of the United States, and intensified antisemitism. The number of Jews emigrating from Russia between 1903 and 1914 was so large that it exceeded their rate of natural increase.
From 1871 to 1880 about 70,000 Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe, including 15,000–20,000 from the Russian Empire, a dramatic increase over previous decades that was overshadowed by subsequent developments. From 1881 to 1900 more than 760,000 Jews left Eastern Europe, and in the period from 1901 to 1914 about 1.6 million Jews emigrated. The overwhelming majority left from the Russian Empire (about 2 million) and Galicia (350,000). In all, prior to World War I about 3.5 million Eastern European Jewish emigrants and their descendants settled outside Eastern Europe. They lived mainly in the United States but also in Hungary, Romania, the Asian part of the Russian Empire, Great Britain, Argentina, Canada, Germany, Austria, South Africa, Palestine, and France, although smaller groups could be found in practically every corner of the globe.
A group of Jews who tried to emigrate from Iaşi to a Turkish-controlled area in Galați and were expelled, with the corpse of a man drowned when Romanian soldiers refused the group reentry to Romania and threw them in the Danube, 1866. Postcard printed in Germany, captioned with a quote by Romanian Prime Minister Petre P. Carp (1900–1901; 1911–1912): “We no longer live in times when it is permissible to throw Jews in the water.” (YIVO)
The settlement of Jews in Palestine was distinctive because it was motivated by ideological factors along with economic ones. However, prior to World War I Palestine attracted less than 2 percent of all Jewish emigrants.
Up to the last third of the nineteenth century, both the birth and death rates of the Jews in Eastern Europe were gradually and synchronously declining. Since the death rate declined more rapidly than the birth rate, the rate of natural increase rose. It peaked in the 1890s to 20 to 21.5 per thousand annually. Particularly significant in this regard was the relatively low rate of infant mortality among Jews, accompanied by a relatively low rate of Jewish childbirth outside of marriage: 4 per thousand from 1900 to 1904, versus 24 per thousand for the whole population of European Russia.
In the first half of the nineteenth century East European Jews also began adopting more modern conventions in marriage and family life. The age at marriage gradually began to rise. The median age of Jewish women at marriage in Vilna rose from 18 years in 1837 to 22.9 years in 1890 and 23.2 years in 1895. That the modernization process among Eastern European Jews did not proceed uniformly is indicated by the fact that in Korostyshev, Kiev province, marriage age remained very stable from 1850 through 1880, never exceeding 19.7 years and rising to 21.1 years only in 1895. Taking European Russia as a whole, 60.9 percent of Jewish women marrying in 1867 were 21 years old or less, but in 1902 only 23.8 percent married that young (Binshtok and Novoselsky, 1915, p. 21).
Family planning and birth control were probably not widespread among East European Jews up to the end of the nineteenth century. The situation began to change noticeably at the beginning of the twentieth century, perhaps as a result of secularization. Indeed, secularization, together with changes in age structure caused by mass emigration (working-age people with children were the first to go) provides an explanation for the appreciable decline in the birth rate. Even before World War I the rate of natural increase among Jews of European Russia had declined, becoming practically identical to that of the entire population (16.7 per 1,000 from 1905 to 1909).
In nineteenth-century Russia, an estimated 69,400 Jews were baptized as Orthodox Christians, with about 12,000 becoming Catholics, and more than 3,000 Lutherans. From 1900 to 1914 approximately 20,000 Jews converted to Christianity. In Galicia and Bucovina the number of converts to Christianity was smaller. Until the end of the 1850s, most Jews who underwent baptism were compelled to do so. Thus, from 1827 to 1856 about half of the 50,000 Jewish adolescents recruited into the Russian cantonist battalions were converted. Jews who converted were often seeking to escape discriminatory legislation, avoid criminal prosecution, or marry Christians. While mixed marriages were legalized in 1906, their number was relatively small. Even in Saint Petersburg, where such marriages became commonplace prior to World War I, they constituted only 15.7 percent of all marriages contracted by Jews from 1906 to 1910.
Prior to World War I, Ashkenazic Jews constituted 99.4 percent of the total Jewish population of Eastern Europe (6,289,000 persons). In addition to this group there were about 20,000 Mountain Jews, 14,000 Karaites, and 7,000 Krymchaks.)
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