Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Largest Jewish Ghetto in the World: Pale of Settlement

Nadene Goldfoot                                                                      

                                                      Tevia in "Fiddler on the Roof"

 Poland went through its 3rd partition in 1795 and added Vilna and Grodno Provinces to the Russian Empire.  This completed the formation of the Pale of Settlement, the largest Jewish ghetto in the world which existed for more than a century.

Jews had lived in Poland since the 9th century.  It's not certain if the first Jewish settler came from               Germany or Bohemia from the west or from the south where the Kingdom of Kiev and the Byzantine Empire lay.  It is thought that they were reinforced by Jews from Khazaria.  We know that they were traders. Traders had opened up areas in the Dark Ages to civilizing influences.  By the year 905, Poland had its first charter for Jews.  Polish coins of the 12th and 13th centuries were minted by Jews and bear Hebrew inscriptions.  The Tartars invaded in 1240 and utterly devastated Poland. "Mongol-Tartar Golden Horde forces led by Batu Khan, (a grandson of Genghis Khan), began attacking Europe in 1223, starting with CumansVolga Bulgaria and Kievan Rus."Actually, Tartars were a Turkic people who were also conquered by the Mongols and they were mostly the Kipchaks.  They had joined the Mongol forces.  

Catherine II didn't want Jews living in Russia so she allowed them to live in the Pale, which was Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus.  She established the Pale in 1791.  This was done under pressure to rid Moscow of Jewish business competition and  the supposed "evil" influence on the Russian masses.  More than 90% of Russian Jews were forced to live in the Pale, which was only 4% of imperial Russia.  The Jewish population went from 1.6 million in 1820 to 5.6 million in 1910.  Even inside the Pale, Jews found that they were being discriminated against.  This was through paying double taxes and rules like they were forbidden to lease land, run taverns or receive higher education.

In 1860, a liberalization period started which granted Jews some privileges, but this came to an end with the May Laws of 1882. this coincides with the year of Jews who left and went to Palestine in the 1st Aliyah.   This group left from 1882 to 1903 and was led by the Bilu (1st modern Zionist pioneering movement founded in 1882 at Kharkov by Jewish students reacting against the wave of Russian pogroms.) They were first to immigrate to Palestine in 1882 and consisted of 15 young  men and women who reached Jaffa in the summer.  They were like the people on the Mayflower sailing to America.  Others followed later that year.    In 1882, 300 families and other smaller groups went to Palestine from Russia (Pale).

 These May  Laws restricted Jews in the Pale and forced them to to move to urban areas of other towns and shtetls in the Pale, which were  overcrowded and offered limited jobs.  Jews living in rural areas in 1882 of the Pale were forced to leave their homes.  250,000 Jews living along the western frontier of Russia were also moved into the Pale.  700,000 Jews living east of the Pale were driven into the Pale by 1891.  This must be the time that Tevia and his family in "Fiddler on the Roof" had to leave their little shtetl and cow in which he had milk to sell, which caused them and their neighbors to all immigrate as they found they were excluded from rural areas inside the Pale.   By 1870 and on to 1880, thousands of Jews became victims in pogroms.  They suffered form such pogroms, boycotts and other anti-Semitic depredations. In 1880, the Jews of Brody, which was just outside the Pale and actually situated in Austria-Hungary,  began the exodus of over 2 million Jews from the Pale to the USA, Britain, Europe, South America and Palestine.  There were over 4 million Jews living in the Pale by 1885.

 By 1890 all the persecutions going on sent thousands of Russian Jews to Palestine, and many Jews also chose to immigrate to the USA then as well. That was good for them, because in 1891, 2,000 Jews were deported out of Vitebsk, many of them were in chains as they left.  In that same year, 20,000 Jews were expelled from Chernigov.   This is about the time my grandfather left Lithuania for England, which led him to go to Ireland, and then finally to the USA.  All this led to mass immigration to the USA (2 million Jews between 1881 to 1914) A 2nd Aliyah to Palestine took place from 1904 to 1914.  During this period, the Kishinev and Homel pogroms and the failure of the 1905 revolution took place.  Only after the overthrow of the Czarist regime in 1917 was the Pale of Settlement ended in August 1915 and legally in March 1917.

Kovno was a Lithuanian city in Kaunas.  It was on the border of the Pale right across from the Baltic Sea and Germany.  Jews had lived there since the 15th century and were then expelled in 1495, right after the 1492 Spanish Inquisition.  They were able to return in 1501.  Again, they faced expulsion in 1753 but they survived.  Finally they received equal rights in 1858 and by the early 20th century numbered 50% of the total population.  It was a distinguished center of Jewish learning, which was most important to Jews, like other people needed amphitheaters to watch events.  Lithuania had their independence from 1918 to 1940.  Before WWII, there were 25,000 Jews in Kovno which was then 25% of the total population.  Then in 1941, all the Jews were herded into a ghetto by the Nazis and 10,000 were killed in a single day on October 28, 1941. The survivors were joined by 7,000 deportees from Germany and Lithuania but nearly all were exterminated by 1944.   Surprisingly, some must have returned, for there were 5,500 Jews in Kovno in 1988.

Vilna was a town in Lithuania and Jews had lived there since the end of the 15th century.  They were then banished in 1527 by Sigismund I because his burghers requested it.  Some were able to return only to become victims of a riot in 1592.  The next year they were allowed to settle, have homes and lend money.  In 1633 they were given permission to trade in precious stones, meat and livestock and to be craftsmen.  Then along came anti-Semitism in the form of a riot against them in 1635.  By 1655, those Jews left were massacred by the Cossack army.  4,000 Jews were among the victims of a famine in Vilna in 1709-10.

From the 18th century, the city became a center of rabbinical study, being dubbed the "Lithuanian Jerusalem.  The Vilna Gaon, Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, the best known scholar,  came from here.  Vilna became a Zionist center and the birthplace of the Bund.

Jews from Vilna suffered from famine under German rule in WWI and from a pogrom at the hands of the  Polish troops in 1919.  Jews numbered 140,000 at the end of the 19th century, but by 1941 were only 65,000 including 15,000 refugees from Poland.  The Germans made 2 ghettos in Vilna and 30,000 Jews were killed there by the end of 1941.  12,000 remaining Jews were increased by Jews from White Russian rural districts who were shipped in by transports in 1943.   By August 1943, Jews were deported to extermination camps.  The Russians entered the city in 1944 and found 600 Jews hiding in the sewers.  By 1988 the Jewish population rose to 13,000.

Suwalki, where my paternal grandmother, Zlata came from, was right next door to Kovno with its west side bordering Germany. Originally it was a part of Lithuania and then went to Poland.  My grandmother said she was a Litvak.

In 1911 in Zhitomir, Russia, a person's given name and its spelling sometimes was a matter of life or death.  In civil and legal situations of many Jews the fact of the military draft caused young people worry and sometimes financial destruction.  An example of the spelling of a name in one small shtetl in one year is shocking.  The names of all draftees had died before the draft.  It didn't matter, the deceased were considered to be draft dodgers and their families were fined.  For example, the name from the Draft List was Pavolotskij, Lejb-Gersh Shimonov.  The name from the Death Records Book read as Favolotskij, Lejb-Gersh Simonov.  This was all in Hebrew, and the Hebrew letter pe reads as both a p and a f, which was the cause of the confusion.

Another case as a Jew identified as Mojshe who was drafted into the army, but he was also fined 300 rubles for a supposed brother Moisej, who was said to have evaded the draft because this Mojshe had been listed as Moisej in one list.

There was the family of a Yankel Korotkin who was executed in Vilna and was fined because the deceased was accused of draft evasion.

Letichev resident Yanakael Rozenblat was murdered during a pogrom, but his family was fined.  Another family was fined because a girl named Sima was entered by in the books by mistake as Simkha.  Hundreds of such cases like these happened every year making the lives of many ordinary Jews unbearable because of the consequences of spelling errors.

Lithuanian Jews, who became Russian subjects, also contributed to the pool of names.  Such male first names as:
Aaron, Abel, Al'bert, Alexander, Alfred, Armand, Arnold, Aron, Asher, Avner, Benyamin, Bernard, Calvin, Conrad, David, Edmund, Eduard, Efraim, Elias, Eliaser, Elie, Emil, Ephraim, Eugenio, Frederic, Gabriel,  or feminine names as: Bella, Clara, Corolina, Debora, Dina, Emma, Etta, Eugenie, Eva, Fanni, Gena, Ida, Liza, Marianna, Nakhema, Nataliya, Nekhama, Rebeka, Regina, Rivka, Roda, Ruth, Sara, Sonya, Zlata.

Such names were written in Hebrew and then transliterated into Russian with the Cyrillic alphabet.

Cyril,  According to Webster's 7th New Collegiate Dictionary,  a ghetto is a quarter of a city in which Jews are required to live;   broadly, a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live because of social, legal, or economic pressure.  The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia defines ghetto as: a Jewish quarter, strictly, a quarter set up by the law to be inhabited only by Jews. I took it a step further calling the Pale of Settlement a huge ghetto and indeed it was.  I was not the first to say this.  That credit goes to Boris Feldblyum, born in Zhitomir, Ukraine in 1951,  who had lived in several cities in Ukraine, Russia and Lithuania before emigrating to the USA in 1979.  His book is listed in my resources.   He is a researcher of our Jewish history of the Jewish people in Russia and Eastern Europe.  He has written articles for Avotaynu, an international Journal of Jewish Genealogy on archival research and more.

The name "Ghetto" comes from the foundry or Ghetto in Venice where the Jews were segregated in 1517.  The idea of segregation of the Jews, implicit in earlier Church legislation goes back to the Lateran Councils of 1179 and 1215 which forbade Jews and Christians to live together in close contact.  In Spain, the Jews lived at least from the 13th century, in "juderias" provided with walls and gates for their protection, the city officials said.  Of course then in 1492 the Jews either had to convert or leave the country.  Their laws affected Portugal who did the same thing a few years later.  From the 15th century, the friars in Italy began to press for the effective segregation of the the Jews, and in 1555, Pope Paul IV ordered that Jews in the Papal States should be forced to live in separate quarters.  This was immediately carried into effect in Rome and became the rule throughout Italy in the course of the next generation.  The name "ghetto" which was already accepted in Venice, was now universally applied. The institution was common under the name Judengasse.  It was also found in use in Germany, Prague, where the Jukdenstadft was famous, and in some Polish cities.  It was a town within a town, enjoying a certain degree of autonomy and a vigorous spiritual and intellectual life, but it was insalubrious, overcrowded because of not being allowed to expand, and subject to frequent fires.  The system was often accompanied by forced baptism, the wearing of the Jewish Badge, conversionist sermons, occupational restrictions, etc.  It was finally abolished in Italy in the French Revolutionary Period and reintroduced locally in the 19th century and came to an end when Rome united with the kingdom of Italy in 1870. In other countries the record was similar.
Between 1939 and 1942, Jews from Poland, Germany, Czechoslovakia and other places were transferred mainly to the Warsaw and Lublin areas.  Ghettos were instituted there and at other places.  The Warsaw Ghetto population rose to 445,000.  

The Russian Catherine II used the same concept in respect to the Pale of Settlement.  Jews were confined to the Pale and could not enter Russia.  In fact, they had a very hard time leaving it.  When Jews started to emigrate to the USA in the early 1900's, my husband's family had to leave at night in the dark and sneak out at risk of their lives,and to do this they had to  pay a guide to get them out past the border.  In essence, this land was treated like a city ghetto only it was on a larger scale.  The idea was just the same.  The Jews were required to live within the borders that Catherine II allowed, and as you read, she changed her rules and confined them into the urban centers in the end.  In fact, the Pale, according to my encyclopedia was made up of 25 provinces of Czarist Russ in Poland, Lithuania, White Russia, Ukraine, Bessarabia and Crimea where Jews were "permitted" permanent residence, depending of the permanent nature of the day, it looks like, for they were forced out and lost their homes as well.  Life outside the Pale wasn't much better as those outside without permission to be there depended on the arbitrary decision of the local governor  with the borders arbitrarily restricted from time to time by the oppressive Statute of 1835 concerning Jews.  The May Laws certainly were horrible and restrictive, as bad as any city ghetto condition.
The whole concept was definitely a Ghetto action on a very large scale.  Catherine II in 1762 permitted all aliens to live in Russia except Jews.  With Poland being partitioned in 1772, 1793 and 1795, the great Jewish masses of White Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania and Courland became Russian subjects and were under the reactionary rule of the Czars.  In 1786 they were restricted to towns which lay the foundation of the Pale of Settlement.  Only the Karaites received equality of rights with the Christians in 1795.

Restricted to live in a Ghetto area, a quarter of land belonging to Russia, no rights like other citizens, all because of their religion being Jewish.  This is the foundation of a ghetto.  I'm looking at my map right now at Russia.  It's absolutely huge.  The countries of the Pale are barely seen on this map. The only one I can make out is Ukraine.  I would say that the Pale was only about 4% of Russia, and this reference came from Feldblyum.
                                                Russia's Pale of Settlement

Reference:  Russian-Jewish Given Names by Boris Feldblyum
The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia
Update: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tatars, Lipka Tartars in Lithuania
Update: "1648–1655
The Ukrainian Cossacks led by Bohdan Chmielnicki massacre about 100,000 Jews and similar number of Polish nobles, 300 Jewish communities destroyed."
7/11/13 http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Pale_of_SettlementUpdate: 


  1. The Mongols, not Tataars (Tartars), invaded Poland, Austria, Croatia, Serbia etc under Batu Khan. The tataars were working for them and were always placed in front of the Mongol armies. They were hybrid between Mongols and Turkish people. There was not much raping done by their armies in Europe like the way it was done in Persia, Central Asia, and Afghanistan. The reason that they did not change the European genotypes was because Batu was in a hurry to return to Karakorm to attend the grand Kuriltai to choose a successor.
    Friend, Dr. Ahmed, PhD, molecular biologist and history buff of Mongols.

  2. As far as I know, the Pale of Settlement was not at all any ghetto. What Ekaterina II. did was literally a line with a pen across the map following more or less the former borders of Russia and Poland, saying that the Jews who lived in the former large Poland, portions of which were in her time incorporated into Russia, would have to respect the "škrt" and not move with their trade and settlement eastwards beyond the "škrt". The territory west of the "škrt" was larger than most of the central European countries, hence hardly a ghetto. Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus cannot be 4% of Imperial Russia, not even when Siberia all the way to Čukotka is included in it. If the word ghetto is thus diluted, it loses its meaning and argument point and puts in question all the horrors that we generally associate with ghetto. Dr. Cyril A. Hromník, Historian

  3. Cyril, According to Webster's 7th New Collegiate Dictionary, a ghetto is a quarter of a city in which Jews are required to live; broadly, a quarter of a city in which members of a minority group live because of social, legal, or economic pressure. The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia defines ghetto as: a Jewish quarter, strictly, a quarter set up by the law to be inhabited only by Jews. I took it a step further calling the Pale of Settlement a huge ghetto and indeed it was. I was not the first to say this. That credit goes to Boris Feldblyum, born in Zhitomir, Ukraine in 1951, who had lived in several cities in Ukraine, Russia and Lithuania before emigrating to the USA in 1979. His book is listed in my resources. He is a researcher of our Jewish history of the Jewish people in Russia and Eastern Europe. He has written articles for Avotaynu, an international Journal of Jewish Genealogy on archival research and more. I posted this and more in the article. Continued there.

  4. If the Pale wasn't a ghetto, it was a series of ghettoes.
    Dictionary.com defines ghetto:
    1.a section of a city, especially a thickly populated slum area, inhabited predominantly by members of an ethnic or other minority group, often as a result of social or economic restrictions, pressures, or hardships.

    2.formerly, in most European countries) a section of a city in which all Jews were required to live.

    3.a section predominantly inhabited by Jews.

    4.any mode of living, working, etc., that results from stereotyping or biased treatment: job ghettos for women; ghettos for the elderly.

    Certainly the Pale qualifies under #3 and #4. Whatever you want to call it, Jews were confined there by law, denied educations, many occupations and the rights afforded to other Russians as citizens (often including the right to live).

    S. Ansky was a Jewish journalist who toured extensively through the Pale during WW I and chronicled not only the hardships of war but the horror of the pogroms he witnessed. His primary task was to acquire funding and set up food and medical stations for displaced and injured Jews. Ansky chronicled his journey in a book called "The Enemy at His Pleasure." A marvelous first-hand account.

    Delin Colón
    author of "Rasputin and The Jews: A Reversal of History"
    translator and annotator of "Rasputin: The Memoirs of His Secretary" by Aron Simanovitch

  5. http://empires.findthedata.org/q/5/2513/How-large-was-the-Russian-Empire-at-its-greatest-extent: 9.15 million sq miles or 23,700,000 sq km. and http://www.yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Pale_of_Settlement 472,590 sq miles or 1,224,008 sq km.

  6. Thanks, Mrs. C. That it certainly was. I'm just thankful that my grandparents happened to leave when they did and always wondered why they left, and with my research, am so glad they did, for existence there was pretty horrible. I don't want to imagine anything worse. I know the old story of young boys being forced to be in the Russian army and having to be in the very front lines. Parents were disable their sons just enough to keep them out because they were sure to be shot and killed anyway otherwise.
    Nadene Goldfoot