Ebenezer Operation Exodus - History of the Jewish People in the Former Soviet Union

History of the Jewish People in the Former Soviet Union

Centuries of suffering: the Jews of Russia

Jewish people have lived for many centuries in the territories known today as the former Soviet Union and for virtually the whole of that time they have suffered persecution. Jews first settled in the border regions beyond the Caucasus and the shores of the Black Sea. The first recorded antiSemitic violence took place in Kiev in 1113. It set a pattern that has continued to the present day, down through the 19th century pogroms and finding its ultimate savagery in the Nazi holocaust in Ukraine and Stalin's Gulag.

The Mongol invasion of Russia in 1237 brought much suffering to Jewish people there. Under Lithuanian rule Jewish communities in western Russia were granted extensive privileges at the end of the 14th century, but between 1648 and 1651 the Cossacks massacred over 100,000 Jews in Ukraine (then part of Poland-Lithuania) revolting against the Polish army. Some years later invading Moscow troops annihilated Jewish people in cities in Belarus and Lithuania.

The Mongol invasion of Russia in 1237 brought much suffering to Jewish people there. Under Lithuanian rule Jewish communities in western Russia were granted extensive privileges at the end of the 14th century, but between 1648 and 1651 the Cossacks massacred over 100,000 Jews in Ukraine (then part of Poland-Lithuania) after revolting against the Polish army. Some years later invading Moscow troops annihilated Jewish people in cities in Belarus and Lithuania.p>

Jewish people have never been tolerated in the principality of Moscow, centre of what became the Russian empire. Ivan the Terrible ordered the drowning of all Jews who refused to convert to Christianity. Decree after decree by Russian rulers banned Jewish merchants from entering their territory. Jewish people in Ukraine found themselves under Russian rule following the partition of Poland at the end of the 18th century. Their numbers swelled largely through the creation of the Pale of Settlement, an area covering most of present-day Ukraine, Belarus, eastern Poland and Lithuania. Jewish people were forced to live there between 1835 and 1917.

The Pogroms

At the start of the 20th century some 2.3 million Jews lived in western and central Ukraine. Odessa became the city with the highest number of Jewish people and the centre of Jewish culture. It was there in 1871 that the first modern pogrom (the Russian word for "a violent mass attack") took place, with many Jewish people being beaten up on the streets, Jewish shops looted and property wrecked. With the Tsarist rulers encouraging the growing anti-Semitism, Jews were killed and women raped by the mobs in many places as the Russian empire slid towards revolution. In 1905 over 300 Jewish people were put to death in Odessa and thousands made homeless following Russia's naval defeat by Japan.

The Revolution in February 1917 brought Russian Jews a brief springtime. One of the Provisional Government's first measures was to abolish the Pale of Settlement and restrictions affecting Jewish people, which gave them the chance to gain positions in government administration, practice law and be promoted in the army. But that October the Bolshevik revolution plunged Russia into civil war and soon the Red Army was systematically murdering Jews, especially in Ukraine. The Ukrainian independence army and the anti-Bolshevik White army massacred over 60,000 Jews in an area south of Kiev in 1919.

With the Bolsheviks firmly in power, the Jewish communities were dissolved in August 1919. Synagogues were turned into clubs, workshops and warehouses. Every aspect of Jewish life was attacked. Under Stalin the Soviet government set up a Jewish national district in 1928 in Birobidzhan. It was proclaimed the Jewish Autonomous Region a year later, but attempts to lure Jewish people away from Ukraine and other parts of western Russia failed. Few went voluntarily and most left when they saw the harsh conditions. Jewish leaders were soon being executed - destroying the myth that Jewish life would be free to flourish there.

Hitler's invasion of Russia in 1941 brought new depths of anti-Semitic barbarity. In the wake of the German army's conquest of Ukraine and other parts of western Russia came units tasked with slaughtering the Jews. An estimated 2.25 million Jewish people were killed in Ukraine and three million in all the occupied territory between 1941 and 1943. Most of them were murdered as soon as the Nazi troops arrived, the rest in concentration camps and ghettos.

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