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The Russian Catastrophe, The Jewish Problem in the Modern World, J.W. Parkes, Thornton Butterworth Limited, Great Britain, 1939.

The Russian CatastropheThe Jews had originally come into Europe from the south-west, following the western trade routes of the Roman world. The Crusades, from the end of the eleventh century onward, had led to a steady movement in a north-easterly direction, out of the line of march of the crusading armies. As the Middle Ages progressed Western Europe largely emptied itself of Jews, and their numbers tended steadily to increase along its eastern frontiers. There Holy Russia imposed a barrier against further penetration by refusing admission to such unbelievers within her frontiers. The wave of flight was piled up against that barrier, and led to an extensive settlement within the wide boundaries of the ancient kingdom of Poland, where Jews formed a most useful section of the body-politic, serving as a middle class between feudal lord and ignorant peasantry.

During the same centuries another wave had been spreading slowly across the Black Sea, through the Crimea and into the territories which now form south-western Russia. The ethnic origin of these Jews was, to a large extent, not Semitic but Hittite and Tartar; and it is among them that is found most frequently those Jewish features which the anti-Semitic press loves to caricature. And the irony of it is that these “Hittite” features might by modern “racial” nomenclature be called the most “Aryan” characteristic of the Jew, for the language of the Hittites is now believed to belong mainly to the “Aryan” family of languages.

If one aspect of Russian policy was the exclusion of Jews from permanent settlement within her territory, another aspect was her imperialist ambition. The two came into conflict when her steady spread towards the south and west in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries brought within her empire an enormous population of unwanted Jews. At the end of the eighteenth century she unscrupulously divided Poland with Prussia and Austria, and the lion’s share fell to her-including the lion’s share of Poland’s Jewish inhabitants; during the same period she acquired the Crimea; in 1812 she collected Bessarabia; and, at the downfall of Napoleon, she added the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. In all these provinces there were numerous Jews. Her imperialism had thus brought beneath her sovereignty a Jewish population amounting to several millions.

Down to the end of Tsardom she remained determined to exclude this unwanted mass from penetration into the old provinces of Russia. A new kind of ghetto was created in the form of a series of provinces along the western frontier in which the Jews were compelled to live, and even within these provinces their rights of settlement and choice of occupation were severely restricted. Outside of these provinces selected categories of Jews might reside, visit certain fairs, and, provided they did not exceed a small proportion of the total enrolment, study at the universities. The area of settlement was known as the Pale, and it contained more than a half of the Jewish population of the world.

The Jews who thus passed under Russian domination were among the poorest and most downtrodden of this people. No breath of reform or of modern life and culture had touched them in the primitive towns and villages where they dwelt. Miserably poor themselves, it was their unhappy function in the corrupt feudalism of their surroundings to reduce to still further poverty the ignorant and oppressed peasantry amongst whom they lived. For a very large percentage of the Jewish population was occupied with the preparation and sale of alcohol, which was a manorial monopoly almost universally farmed out to Jews. But while this unhappy occupation neither raised their status nor endeared them to the population who lived perpetually indebted to the innkeepers, it must not be overlooked that they also performed valuable functions in the sale of agricultural commodities and the provision to the peasant of such instruments and personal effects as he needed to buy.

The policy of Russia was still further to degrade the Jews by continuous oppressive legislation, and, at the same time, to hold out the offer of complete liberation from oppression to those who would accept the faith of the Orthodox Church. Down to 1864 converts actually received a financial reward as well as the removal of all disabilities. The laws were brutal in the extreme, and the general principle that everything was forbidden which was not expressly permitted opened the door to continual bribery and corruption on one side and to equally continual pettifogging oppression on the part of local officials on the other. Jews paid double the taxes of the corresponding sections of the non-Jewish community; their communal autonomy was continually whittled down and disregarded, except when it was made the instrument of specially hateful regulations.

Of these none was more horrible than the edict of Nicholas I of 1827 which regulated military service. In spite of the fact that the Jews possessed none of the privileges of citizenship, they were compelled to undertake a double share in military service, and the selected number of conscripts for any year could be taken from any males between the ages of twelve and twenty-five. At times even boys of eight and nine were seized to be turned into soldiers. This was brutal enough, but it was not the worst. The children were taken to the very opposite ends of Russia for their service, which lasted twenty-five years counting from the age of eighteen. In the filthy barracks in which they were herded together the non-commissioned officers combined the duties of instructor with that of missionary, and every effort was made to compel these unhappy children, far from their parents and every Jewish influence, to abjure their faith. Their food was deliberately confined to pork for periods which compelled them to eat it or to die of starvation. They were ordered to perform some Christian act, and scourged until they were dead or unconscious if they refused. They were brought to the font on parade, where refusal to obey the order to enter the water was a military act of disobedience visited with the most terrible punishments; and at the end of their twenty-five years service, those few-for it was painfully few who survived and retained their loyalty to Judaism, were immediately expelled from the city where their service had been performed, and ignominiously returned to the Pale. Only in 1856 were the worst brutalities of this system abandoned, but to the very end of the imperial regime the barbarity of military service was one of the worst terrors confronting Russian Jewish youth.

In the middle of the century there came to the throne one from whom much was expected. Alexander II was a man of very different type from Nicholas I and there is no doubt of the excellence of his intentions. But the effort involved in the emancipation of the serfs exhausted both the emperor and the bureaucracy; and, though some of the worst of the laws of the period were modified or abandoned, no fundamental change was made in the treatment of the Jews. When a reaction set in a decade before his assassination in 1881, enough remained of the previous tradition to make life a burden and a misery for the bulk of the Jewish population.

This was the easier in that what amelioration there had been had never touched the mass of this population. It had taken the form of improving the lot of selected individuals and classes. Wealthy merchants and university graduates were allowed to reside outside the Pale. Artisans who were members of gilds might seek work wherever they liked-but the moment they were found unemployed they were sent straight back to the Pale. For the rest conditions were made increasingly rigorous. Reforms, when they were made, were dropped before they had a chance of proving their effects, and those who were affected by them were then pronounced intractable and unteachable. An agricultural scheme was proposed, for example, in Siberia, and when large numbers of Jews were actually on their way there the scheme was suddenly abandoned, and the

Jews concerned treated as wandering vagrants, to be arrested and sent elsewhere at the will of the government.

Even in the misery in which they lived the Jews were given no security. They were continually in danger of being hounded from one refuge to another. In a moment of zeal the government would decide that the famines which continually smote the western provinces, and which were due to the selfishness and indifference of the landlords, were due to the impoverishment of the peasants by the Jews. All the rural Jewish inhabitants of the Pale would therefore be suddenly sent into the already overcrowded towns-a measure which was the easier in that the Jews all had to register as town-dwellers. Then it was decided that this or that town possessed privileges which were incompatible with Jewish residence, and thousands of Jews would be uprooted to establish themselves as best they might elsewhere. These unintentional refugees could never regain security, for, expelled from the township or province of their birth, they had lost their registration, and might at any time be moved on again at the simple whim of an official. As with military service bribery was the only weapon with which a Jew could purchase any basis for his existence, and the maw of the official class was insatiable.

It was not only in relation to Jews that the second half of the reign of Alexander II marks a reaction. From that time until the revolution of 1917 the government was more and more completely estranged from the general population, and particularly from the intellectuals. Revolutionary projects of varying intensity possessed the minds of almost all the professional classes. The assassins and organizers of assassins, who were responsible for hundreds of political murders during the next half-century, were mostly students or men and women of education. It was a student of nineteen who threw the first bomb at Alexander II on March 13, 1881, and the girl who waved her handkerchief as a signal of his approach was the Countess Sophie Perowska.

After the assassination of the Tsar the bureaucracy and the landed aristocracy took fright. They became the resolute opponents of all concessions to liberal or constitutional demands, and in this they were supported by the temperaments of his two successors. Neither Alexander III nor Nicholas II understood, or desired to understand, the new sentiments which were stirring in the minds of their people. Both were honestly convinced that to their exceedingly limited intelligences-for neither of them were men of any brilliance-was entrusted the power of deciding what was best for an empire of over a hundred million souls. And from 1880 to 1905 there stood behind the Czars Constantine Petrovich Pobedonostsev, Procurator of the Holy Synod, brilliant, ruthless, the inveterate enemy of progress in any form, the advocate and architect of an ecclesiastical police state which was only shattered by the war and the revolution.

There were, of course, changes and apparent advances towards constitutionalism during this period, but they were always too late and inadequate. They satisfied neither peasant nor intellectual. In such conditions universal discontent was as inevitable as was universal corruption in a system where there was neither public control nor official responsibility. But in such conditions it was also necessary to find an outlet for popular feelings and a scapegoat who could divert attention from the fundamental weakness of the whole structure of society and the increasing ineffectiveness of the government.

Such a scapegoat was found in the Jews. Among the actual murderers of Alexander there were no Jews, but it sufficed that a Jewess kept the house in which the conspirators met. The whole responsibility was deliberately placed on their shoulders. Rumours were circulated, and there is no doubt that they originated in government circles, that the people meditated some fearful act of revenge for this” Jewish” crime. Lest they should not be clear enough about what they were meditating, the peasants were told in many cases that it was the imperial will that at Easter they should punish the Jews for their enormities.

As a result of this incitement the peasants, seeing also the advantages of loot, joined with the city rabbles in violent attacks upon the Jews which came to bear universally the ill-sounding name of pogroms (literally destruction). The facts that such attacks broke out almost simultaneously in many cities, and that the routine of the police was the same in every case, are sufficient evidence that there was nothing spontaneous about them. It was rarely until the third day that police or military interfered to stop the riots. As soon as they acted they had no difficulty in restoring order, a fair proof that they could also have prevented the disorder had they willed it.

After a fortnight of rioting and disorder in all the districts where Jews dwelt, the government announced that the pogroms had been incited by the revolutionary parties, and that this incitement had only been effective because of the natural revulsion of the Christian population against the abominable behaviour of the Jews. After a few months of calm, the mob, convinced that the government had no violent objection to seeing the Jews attacked, began again. The “summer pogroms” spread to many cities spared at Easter. In a number of places, where there was no rioting, the Jewish quarters were set on fire; and at the end of 1881 the western world was shocked by a new pogrom in Warsaw, the city which had the closest economic ties with the west, and where it was therefore least possible to hide the facts.

To confirm the official view that the Jews were solely responsible for the pogroms, sixteen commissions were established in the autumn of 1881 to inquire into the matter; but, although the membership of the commissions was largely made up of the classes who had participated in the looting or sympathized with the looters (that is the peasants and landowners), five of them, when actually confronted with the task of putting on paper their views, had the courage to point out that the artificial conditions of Jewish life in Russia, and their unhealthy restriction to the Pale of Settlement, were the real reasons for their injurious economic activities.

The only action taken by the government as the result of this year of tragedy for its five million Jewish subjects was to authorize the publication of the statement that” the western frontier of Russia was open.” Already in 1881 there had been over 8,000 emigrants to the United States. In the following year the number was more than doubled. For the government followed up its announcement by doing all in its power to make its meaning clear.

In March 1882 pogroms began again and in May were published some “temporary rules” which remained in force until the war of 1914. Under these rules the Jews were not allowed to make “new” settlements in rural areas, or to buy real property or goods outside the towns. In addition they were not allowed to work on Christian festivals or on Sundays, so that their working days were considerably reduced if they wished to remain loyal to Jewish feasts and Sabbaths. There were many other vexatious regulations, and all were capable of every kind of malicious interpretation. A town in which Jews had been resident for centuries was suddenly declared to be a village, and the Jews thereupon expelled. It was the habit of Jews to go from the smaller centres to the larger for the High Holidays. On their return they might be told that they were” new” settlers, and as such refused admission.

Such “interpretations” and spasmodic pogroms made the lot of the Jews bitterer year by year. After a slight lull in 1883 the figures of emigration to the United States rose to over 15,000 in 1884. For three years it remained at that figure; then it doubled again, and before the end of the decade the average was over 30,000 a year.

The emigrants were mostly completely penniless. They waited in crowds on the western frontier of Russia and almost expected a miracle to deliver them. Organizations such as the French Alliance Israelite Universelle and the German Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden performed prodigies of improvisation to rescue the unhappy and starving victims. Committees sprang up along the route of the flight which provided food and clothing to the travellers. But year after year the situation in Russia grew more desperate, and the figures of the emigrants grew from tens to hundreds of thousands. Many were unable to afford even the cheapest passage to America. They dropped off all along the route, and every commercial city of Western Europe received its quota of penniless and almost starving Russian Jewish refugees. Only two trickles diverged from the immense stream which flowed into the expanding centres of the world’s industry. A few of the hardier were fired with the idea of resettling in Palestine, and tiny colonies of Zionists came into being. A slightly larger number settled in the Argentine, where a wealthy Bavarian Jew, the Baron de Hirsch, had acquired a large tract of land where he hoped vainly to establish hundreds of thousands of exiles in new and independent communities.

Inevitably this immense flight changed the whole face of the Jewries of the western world.

In spite of the anti-Semitic movements which have already been described, the small western Jewries were rapidly becoming totally assimilated to their environment. It might almost be said that apart from the existence of enough prejudice against them to keep alive the loyalties of members to the group, western Jewry would have vanished before the turn of the century. But what was possible for tens of thousands of cultured and westernized citizens of the Mosaic Faith was impossible for the hundreds of thousands of Jews from the inexhaustible ghetto of Russia.

In a couple of decades the Jewish population of the United States rose from less than a quarter of a million to more than a million; that of England from less than a hundred thousand to nearly a quarter of a million; while France, Holland and Germany each received between twenty and twenty-five thousand of these refugees. The new-comers were unlike any Jews whom the west had seen for centuries. The German Jews who first arrived in England in the eighteenth century had been poor, and some had not been particularly honest, but here was a sudden irruption of the fourteenth century into the nineteenth and twentieth. Totally ignorant for the most part of the elements of modern civilization, accustomed to thinking of every official as a venal enemy whose favour could at best be secured by copious bribery, compelled to live by the invention of ingenious evasions of regulations framed only for their oppression, looking on their Gentile environment as inevitably brutal, malicious and hostile, strange in their dress, their speech, their food and their mannerisms, rigidly orthodox, they inevitably created feelings more akin to disgust than to pity, to resentment than to sympathy, in the cities of their new settlement; and this feeling was the stronger and the more inevitable for two reasons. Their own poverty compelled them to crowd into the poorest districts, where the native population was most ignorant and suspicious of “foreigners”; and their great numbers coupled with the suspicion of their neighbours intensified their clannishness and the difficulty of the simplest political, social and economic assimilation.

The Jewish communities of the west made the greatest efforts to smooth their way into normal life. Shelters were created at important centres of transit and destination; schools were opened, relief was given to the aged and infirm, work was found for the able-bodied, orphanages were created for those who had lost their parents in the pogroms, legal assistance was given to those in need of it. It was a wonderful example of solidarity, and it was solidarity of a kind which could earn only the gratitude of the receiving nations. For the voluntary work of the Jews took off the shoulders of the rest of the community much of the burden which such an immigration inevitably entails. On the other hand it was not the Jews who opened the doors to immigration- it was the epoch of the” open door,” especially in England and America, where the industrial expansion of those countries required a continual flow of new workers, and made it possible for the immense majority of the immigrants to find in a relatively short time some occupation from which they could earn a meagre living. Indeed not many years passed before the most active and able of them had reached prosperity and some even wealth.

While the Jewish communities made every effort to succour their brethren in distress, it was still difficult for such large numbers really to be absorbed into their new environment. The Gentile world was handicapped by the fact that the new-comers spoke only Yiddish or Russian, and did not know even the script in which western languages were written. The Churches and settlements which abounded in industrial cities were hindered in their attempt at closer contact both by the suspicion of conversionism which was inevitable on the part of Jews, and by the fact that their own efforts were often tinged by a missionary outlook which saw in the rendering of humanitarian assistance primarily an opening for the preaching of the Christian religion.

Governments and municipal administrations were likewise handicapped by the primitive state in which social and industrial legislation then was. In any case the laws, such as they were, were not framed to deal with large groups of persons accustomed to totally different standards of living. The Jewish workers were largely working for Jewish masters, who had themselves only arrived a short while earlier. They were paid miserable wages, worked for abominably long hours, and were housed in horrible conditions. All this created indignation on the part of the Gentile workers, for the immigrants worked for a rate at which they themselves could not live; and the shop keepers and manufacturers were likewise antagonized by the appearance of cheap goods with which they could not compete, and by the opening of shops by people prepared to accept half the usual profits. What was not realized was that these conditions were often Paradise compared with what the Russian Jews had been accustomed to in Russia, and that these practices were the result of ignorance and the acceptance of a standard long abandoned in the west, not of malice, covetousness or indifference to the welfare of the non-Jewish world.

As the end of the century approached conditions began to get “a little easier; the new-comers began to settle down. But Russia had not said her last word. In 1905 the pogroms broke out again with a new intensity, and the flood of refugees again assumed enormous proportions. Within twelve months 125,243 Jews left Russia for the United States alone.

Everything had to be begun all over again, although this time the new-comers received a good deal of help from Russian immigrants who had already found their own feet, and could now give employment and education to new arrivals.

Unhappily, before this second wave had a chance of being absorbed an event took place which accentuated the distinction between them and the rest of the population.

In 1914 war broke out, and these Russian Jews, settled in England, France, and later those in America, were called upon to fight as allies of the country which for generations had maltreated them, crushed them and driven them into exile. The horrors of military service in Russia itself was a very living memory to them; the responsibilities of democratic citizenship were something which they had still to learn and understand. While the youth of older Jewish communities volunteered or fought as conscripts with the same enthusiasm and heroism as their Gentile neighbours, it was asking too much of the new arrivals to expect them to face military service in combination with such an ally as imperial Russia herself with anything but the most intense reluctance. In the countries where conscription existed before the war many tens of thousands of Russian Jews had never taken out naturalization papers at all, not because of their expense, but because of their hatred of military service. Evasions, self-mutilations, desertions were not unknown, and though men in calm mood would easily understand and pardon such a situation, yet in the fevered temper of the war, both among the Allies and among the Central powers, complaints were loud and frequent against the disloyalty and ingratitude of “the Jews,” and were not silenced by the visible fact that those Jews who had learned the meaning of citizenship and under-stood its responsibilities gave their lives in equal numbers with the rest of the population.

During the war immigration of the prewar kind was impossible, but, on the other hand, the whole of the eastern front lay in the districts of Russia which had formed part of the Pale. A new type of refugee became familiar to the Central Powers, the refugee from the war area. He could only flee westward, to Germany, Austria, Hungary or Roumania, for to flee eastwards was impossible for him. During the war itself these refugees were welcomed, for they could be made to work in munition factories. But after the war, during the terrible years of starvation and depression which followed, an immense cry went up against the burden of this new “invasion.”

Meanwhile, the great unwieldy empire of the Tsars was hastening to its inevitable collapse. The breath of liberalism which, in the middle of the nineteenth century, had freed the serfs had never blown again. Groups of men who began as liberals turned more and more to violent revolution as the only solution. The towns and the mines of Siberia were peopled with those who should have been at the forefront of national life, and in every capital abroad there were little groups of exiles plotting revolution.

Antisemitism was used continually as a safety-valve for the masses, but it could not avail to conceal from either the outer world or the leaders of Russian thought the necessity for a radical transformation of the whole structure, which, by the beginning of the twentieth century, had sunk into such confusion that the ablest ministers of the Tzar could scarcely make it work. As was to be expected, the Jewish middle classes sympathized with the reforming parties, since they had the additional reason for detesting the government that they were exposed to continual petty persecution, even when their residence outside the Pale preserved them from actual physical danger or the violent destruction of their property. Things reached such a pass that an English baronet and member of Parliament was turned out of his hotel and expelled from Moscow on the day of his arrival, on the grounds that Jews were not allowed to sleep in the ancient Muscovite capital. That a number of the younger and more hotheaded Jews, together with some of the Jewish proletariat, sided with the revolutionaries and terrorists is equally natural.

In 1917, under the strain of the war, the empire finally crashed. The Jews every where hailed its disappearance, and the installation of the democratic government which followed, with the uttermost joy. Unhappily the government of Kerensky was unable to hold its own, and after only a few months collapsed before the brilliant and ruthless strategy of Lenin and the Bolshevik leaders. The October revolution of 1917 installed the present government of Russia in the saddle.

There is no doubt that at the beginning the bulk of the Jews of Russia were amongst the most vigorous opponents of the Bolsheviks. In the elections for a “constituent assembly” which followed the downfall of the Tsar the Jewish districts recorded the strongest votes against the Bolsheviks. This was natural, as nothing in Jewish tradition or experience in Russia predisposed a Jew to be a “collectivist.” The original strength of the Bolsheviks lay in the factory workers and Russian urban proletariat. Jews, like peasants, hated the Tsarist regime, but all that they wanted was to be their own unrestricted masters. At the same time, it very soon became clear to them, that the acceptance of the Bolshevik regime was the only possible policy, and indeed the essential basis of survival. For the armed intervention of the Allies in support of the various generals of the White armies, led to the bloodiest pogroms that had ever marked Jewish history. The victims were to be numbered in tens of thousands, and whole communities were entirely wiped out. And, by the end of 1918 there was no via media possible. If the Jews did not accept the Bolshevik regime, the only alternatives before them were either to be massacred by the White armies for the mere fact of being Jews, or to be shot by the Bolsheviks for being enemies of the people.

In the result their acceptance of the regime also meant a prominence which has been the basis of the continuous identification of “the Jews” with communism. In the original leadership of the party there were no Jews at all. Bolshevism may be an adaptation of the writings of Karl Marx, but it was an entirely Russian adaptation. It was less than a couple of decades before the Revolution that a number of Jews became prominent among the personalities of the Bolshevik party. The first government contained about a third of Jewish commissars (the actual figures are quite impossible to establish, but they lay between a quarter and a half). They represented little more than themselves in so far as Russian Jewry was concerned. But once the civil war broke out, and the appalling massacres of the middle and upper classes began, there disappeared into the White Armies, exile or the grave the bulk of those who had the education to fill government posts. Of those who were left the Jews showed by far the highest proportion of men who could read and write; and since, as has already been said, they were compelled by circumstances to accept the regime, they found themselves also compelled to provide a totally disproportionate number of its clerks and officials. The ordinary public, Russian or foreign, met these second-grade officials more often than they met the actual leaders of the revolution themselves. The number of Jews among them was too great to escape comment. The ascription of the whole revolution to “the Jews” was not unnatural, however erroneous, especially as the foreign observers did not see the much larger numbers of Jews to whom the revolution, with its detestation of the petty trading class to which most Jews belonged, spelt complete ruin. Had the frontiers been open, there would have been as large an exodus of Jews from

Russia after the war as there had been in the years preceding it, but the final argument which compelled them to accept the regime was the fact that all the countries on the western frontier, once they had established order within their borders, closed them to the east, and that America and the countries of Western Europe would no longer accept immigrants. Some thousands of Jews managed, undoubtedly, to penetrate into Poland, the Baltic countries and Rumania, but they were but a fraction of the hundreds of thousands who would have liked to follow them.

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