the former

Sunderland Jewish Community

Sunderland, Tyne & Wear





From Kretinga to Sunderland


Chapter 1

The position of Jews in Russia and Lithuania 16.


Prior to 1881, the Pale of Settlement, where most Russian Jews were compelled to live, comprised fifteen provinces in the north-western and south-western regions of European Russia, including Lithuania, Belorussia and the Ukraine (vide Illustration No.1 - not currently available).

The total number of Jews in the entire Russian Empire was estimated at 4,086,650, or 4.2 percent of the whole population. Disregarding Polish Jews, who totalled 1,010,378, or 13.8 percent of the total population, - Poland not being legally part of the Pale, - this left within the Pale itself 2,912,165 Jews or 12.5 percent of the whole population. Again, disregarding the minuscule 53,574 or 0.1 percent living legally outside the Pale, 2,331,180, or just over 80 percent, lived in towns, while 580,285 resided in the countryside. There was always an indeterminate number of Jews, living illegally outside the Pale. Economic conditions had worsened for the Jews after 1861 with emancipation of the Russian peasantry and the spread of a network of railways throughout the Russian Empire.17. This meant that many traditional Jewish trades such as teamsters, peddling in rural areas, and petty trade generally were subject to great competition and, comparatively rapidly, became extremely unprofitable.18.

Unfortunately, these harsh economic conditions coincided with an unprecedented high Jewish birth rate, coupled with a relatively low infant mortality rate, leading to a great natural increase in the Jewish population.  It has been estimated that Russian Jewry, including Poles and Litvaks grew from 1.6 million, in 1820, to 2.4 million in 1851, rising to 4 million in 1881.19. During this 60-year period the Jewish population increased by 150 percent, while the general population increase was ‘only’ 87 percent.  The most plausible explanation for this demographic rise was that during this period the Pale was at peace and ‘no marauding armies traversed the Pale of Settlement.’20. The imbalance of population growth was attributed to the phenomenal Jewish birth rate allied to a comparatively low infant mortality rate compared to the native population.21. Doubtless a contributory factor to the high birth rate was the prohibition of birth control to an orthodox Jewish community.

Prior to 1881 Jews had acted as middlemen in the rural areas where most of them lived, dealing with crops in exchange for merchandise. In the Pale, Jews had an early monopoly of clothing manufacture and tailoring, innkeeping and the distillation of liquor. Traditional Jewish tradesmen were cobblers, carpenters, barbers, fishermen and porters.22. Kretinga was noted for the working and sale of amber.

After 1881, however, the laws of the Pale were far more rigorously enforced. In 1882 the repressive May laws followed, whereby all State employment was banned to Jews, as well as many professions and trades such as apothecaries, dentistry and midwifery.  Jews had to prove they had the right to live on the land prior to 1882. The death of the Czar, Alexander II, in 1881, caused severe restrictive measures against the Jewish population. Thousands of Lithuanian Jews, especially the poorer classes, were expelled from their homes and driven to cities within the Pale, causing an explosion of city populations. A witness at an important English government enquiry in 1903, cites as an example the Russian city of Tschernigor where the Jewish population of Jews leapt from 5,000 to 20,000. Tremendous congestion followed with too little work chased by too many people, that work being mainly of the labouring kind. There was gross overcrowding, but this was hardly surprising given that ‘the number of persons expelled from their homes would not be far from one million.’23. Living conditions were very poor, with wages forced downwards to the lowest level of bare subsistence, ‘conditions of life being thus rendered intolerably hard and precarious.’24.

A graphic description of life in the Pale, which sums up the ‘appalling conditions’, is given by Masha Greenbaum:-

'Unemployment was endemic; such work as was available hardly sufficed to provide a subsistence standard of living. Hunger and sickness were prevalent, aggravated by general despair. As many as 12 families shared dwellings of three or four rooms. The average worker took home 15 kopeks per day, a few cents in modem terms. Almost 40 percent of Jewish families in the Pale received welfare assistance of some kind, chiefly from overseas Jewish communities. Four-fifths of the Jewish population of Vilna lived from one day to the next.  Jews in the shtetlakh, the townlets, fared even worse; their diet was comprised of a few  potatoes and seasonal vegetables.'25.

Such difficulties were exacerbated by the fact that Jewish enrolment in high schools was limited to 10 percent; they were prohibited from either owning or tenanting land, leading to their consequent expulsion; and from entry into the legal and medical professions. A corrupt bureaucracy with large scale bribery usual, and expensive, aggravated the prevailing background of economic hardship.26. As an illustration of the very low wages, David Englander quotes some revealing figures.27.

Apart from economic factors, further inducements, attractive to migrants, were freedom of expression and freedom from persecution. Although the purchasing power of the rouble was as much as 50 percent above its nominal value in English currency, the sums that migrants to Britain were able to remit to relatives abroad made Britain appear a very desirable destination indeed £1 sent to Russia from England was a veritable fortune at that time.28. America in particular, popularly known as the ’Goldena Medina’, the Yiddish equivalent of streets being paved with gold, and also South Africa, were even more desirable destinations at which to aim.

It is not altogether surprising that Jewish emigration to the West sharply increased in the 1880s.  Between 1880 and 1914 over 2 million Jews from Russia and surrounding or satellite countries had emigrated. In this period the Litvaks remaining who originally constituted 25 percent of the entire population of Lithuania, both Jews and Gentiles, fell to 20 percent.29. An estimated 125,000 Jews from Eastern Europe settled permanently in Britain.  In 1881 the Anglo-Jewish  population comprised only an estimated 60,000 persons. By 1891 this had risen to 101,000 and to 300,000 by 1921.30. Further demographic figures can be found in The Report.31. One notable statistic is that the Jewish emigrants arriving in Britain from Russia and Poland, in the 10 years between 1893 and 1902, totalled 628,870, of whom 164,000 stated that they were not en route to other countries.  Although these figures need some qualification, for example excluding seamen and transients, they do show a very rough approximation of only 1 in 4 immigrants shipping to Britain, who became permanent settler.32.

There is some disagreement as to whether pogroms and persecution or basic economic pressures were the prime cause of increased immigration. The popular Jewish view33. has always favoured the former view and emphasised the impact of intolerance. However, modern historians such as Aubrey Newman and John Kliers, and Nicholas J. Evans, attribute more weight to economic theory. Newman, in collaboration with Evans, has established that in Lithuania there were no Cossack attacks or pogroms that would account for the steady stream of migrants up to 1914. He emphasised that economic factors was the prime cause but noted as a contributory cause that a whole network of local agents, employed mainly by the shipping lines, aggressively promoted migration, often quite unscrupulously.34. A taped interview taken at Manchester Jewish Museum on 4th February 1975 between Bill Williams and William Shaylton, a former immigrant from Vitelbsk in White Russia, supports this lack of pogroms.35.

That the economic hardship at home and the economic potential abroad, triggered the urge to migrate seems indisputable, but one surely must regard low wages and bare subsistence, as a direct result of persecution and deprivation. Given that the standard of living in Lithuania, for Jew and the poorer Gentile alike, was very low, and for the disadvantaged Jew in particular, the urge to emigrate was bound to be a mixture of persecution, direct and indirect, and economic constraints.

Footnotes    (returns to main text)

  1. John D. Klier and Shlomo Lambroza eds. Progroms: Anti Jewish violence in Modern Russian History, p.5 (1992).

  2. Idem.

  3. Ibid., pp.5-6.

  4. Alexander Orbach, The Russian Jewish Community, 1881-1903, Klier and Lambroza, Ibid. p.139.

  5. Nancy Schoenburg and Stuart Schoenburg, A History of Lithuanian and Lithuanian Jewry, p.29 (to whom an Acknowledgement is given for Illustration No 2 - Pale of Settlement - not currently available) and Vide Klier and Lambroza Idem.

  6. Idem.

  7. Ibid., p.31.

  8. Evidence given by Major W. E. Evans - Gordon, Report on Alien Immigration Act 1903 [hereinafter referred to as The Report] pp.451-566.

  9. Ed. and compiled by David Englander, A Documentary History of Jewish Immigration in Britain, 1840 - 1920, pp.7-11.

  10. Masha Greenbaum, The Jews of Lithuania, 1840 - 1920, p.158.

  11. The Annual Register, 1890

  12. in 1905, in Russia and in Lithuania, the maximum yearly wage for tailors was the equivalent of £25 (about 50p per week), for shoemakers £15 (about 30p. per week), for laundry women £10 (approximately 20p. per week), and for female lace workers about £4.10s (a meagre 9p per week).

  13. Englander Op Cit p. 15. (Taking the figures quoted above, as an extreme example, this equated to almost three months wages for a female lace worker.)

  14. Nancy Schoenburg and Stuart Schoenburg Op Cit p. 33 and Vide Masha Greenbaum op cite p. 134.

  15. Jewish Year Book 1994, cited by Englander.

  16. The Report, particularly Tables V and VI in the Appendix.

  17. The Aliens Lists, from whence these statistics were compiled came from the docking ports in Britain, those in North East England being Middlesbrough, Newcastle upon Tyne, Hull, North Shields, South Shields, Sunderland and West Hartlepool.

  18. Based on hearsay accounts and entrenched as almost mythical belief.

  19. Aubrey Newman. Trains and Shelters and Ships. The Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain in April 2000, pp.1-13.

  20. Reference, J218 Q. Did you have any instances of pogroms? A. Never, Never, Never. There was no pogroms at all. In White Russia there was no pogroms at all. Q. So this could not play any part in your leaving Russia. A. Never, Never, Never! The most pogroms was in Ukraine and Poland but in White Russia there was no pogrom at all.


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