The history notes below are from Moving Here - Migration Histories:
By 1800 there were about 20-25,000 Jews living in Britain, mainly in London and the major seaports. By the middle of the 19th century that figure had risen to perhaps 35-40,000, as settled migrants had families and new arrivals continued to join them.
These early migrants moved to Britain primarily for economic reasons. They were seeking better lives and the chance to practice their religion freely. In the closing decades of the 19th century, the community increased to around 250,000, with a rapid influx of large numbers from Russia and Eastern Europe. What were these people's lives like before they left? Why did they leave, and in such large numbers?
Traditional Jewish Life in Eastern Europe
Jews had moved into Eastern Europe - from the Middle East, the Mediterranean areas and Western Europe - in mediaeval times. Most lived under Polish rule, maintaining their own strong religious customs. Between 1770 and 1795 the Kingdom of Poland underwent three partitions and, by the close of the 18th century, the majority of Jews found themselves living under Russian rule. Most lived in small towns and villages called shtetls where they worked on farms, as innkeepers, dealers in liquor, rent collectors or in a variety of other trades and occupations.
A number of immigrants from this period left their memoirs of life in the shtetl Woolf Kossoff was one such: his grandson interviewed him in 1984 and the record of the interview was subsequently deposited at the Jewish Museum in London.
Jewish Life in late-19th century Russia
In the 19th century, conditions for Jewish people in Russia worsened considerably. From the early years of the century they were confined to living in an area of western Russia between the Baltic and the Black Sea, known from the 1830s as the Pale of Settlement.
Faced with the hostility of the local population, the Jews formed virtually separate communities. Their religion was different, and usually strictly observed. Their first language was Yiddish, not Russian or Polish. Their children were barred from many schools, and they had little interaction with their Christian neighbours.
Jews were also restricted to working in permitted occupations, and entry to the professions was severely limited. Until the mid-1850s, many Jewish boys were forcibly conscripted into the Russian army for 25 years' service, where they faced considerable brutality and a high chance of death. All Jews faced anti-Semitism, often officially sanctioned. Read about Symon Freeman, one man of many who escaped conscription by emigrating to England.
Jews were increasingly forced out of their villages and into towns, where they competed for a limited number of jobs and often lived in poor and overcrowded conditions. Those who were allowed to remain on the land usually had to scratch a living from tiny subsistence farms.
The restrictive laws were made even harsher by the May Laws passed in 1882, which forced Jews within the Pale of Settlement to live only in certain prescribed towns. Click here to read about the Conditions in Russia and other Countries for Russian Jews.
Most Jews were restricted to working as artisans or in trade. Many were tailors, or less commonly, metal workers, cobblers and carpenters. Some worked in the food trade, as butchers or bakers, preparing food in accordance with Jewish dietary laws. Sometimes the woman was the main breadwinner, allowing the husband time for religious studies. As more and more Jews were forced into towns, there was intense competition for jobs, and wages were forced down below the poverty line.
Economic hardship was one reason why so many Europeans - for instance the Poles, Italians, and Irish - emigrated overseas in the late 19th century. For Jews, however, there was an added reason: persecution, which was rife in Russia and the other countries of Eastern Europe.
The persecution of Jews in Russia took on a renewed vigour after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. One of those associated with the assassins was a young Jewish woman, and this was used as an excuse for a series of attacks on Jews throughout the 1880s. Read more about the violence inflicted on the Jews in Correspondence Respecting the Outrages on Jews in Russia, February 1882.
In 1903, a pogrom at Kishinev sparked off another wave of attacks, the worst being in Odessa in 1905 where 300 were killed and thousands wounded. Jews in Russia lived in fear of new restrictions, looting, and brutal attack. For many this was the spur to leave the country.
All over Eastern Europe the Jews were frequently scapegoats for the local population. In Romania persecution was especially widespread.
The mass exodus abroad that resulted from the combination of economic hardship and fear of persecution was made much easier by cheap travel. More than two million Jews left Eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914. While the great majority aimed to reach the United States, many thousands sought to make a new home in Britain, where they knew they would find kinsmen in an established Jewish community. The address of the Jews' Temporary Shelter in London - the first port of call for arriving immigrants in London - was bought and sold on by prospective migrants in Eastern Europe.
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