Pre-War Jewish Life

Last Days of Peace
Lucy Tsybulskiy and friend on the beach, Poltava, Ukraine, c. late 1920s.
IHMEC: courtesy of Yefim Tsybulskiy.

By 1900, the Russian Empire contained the largest Jewish community in the world, over 5 million people.

Almost all were forced to live in the western portions of the Empire, known as the Pale of Settlement. Within the Pale, Jews developed a vibrant communal, religious, and cultural life of charitable organizations, educational institutions, orphanages, old-age homes, infirmaries, and burial societies.

Yiddish and Hebrew literature and theater flourished. A wide variety of political movements arose. The 1917 Russian Revolution ultimately led to the formation of the Soviet Union. Russian Jewry for the next two decades lived under an increasingly harsh Communist regime. In line with a secret clause in the German-Soviet Pact of August 1939, the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland, the Baltic states, and formerly Romanian-controlled Bessarabia and northern Bukovina. In these areas, Soviet authorities closed Jewish institutions and businesses and deported some Jews to Siberia and Central Asia.

Lidowsky/Kacel family gathering, Riga, Latvia, 1937.
IHMEC: courtesy of Boris Kacel.
Shatsman family, Leningrad (St.Petersburg), Russia, 1935.
IHMEC: courtesy of Sima Messerman.
Group of friends, Lake Morskie Oko, Tatra Mountains, Ukraine, 1927.
IHMEC: courtesy of Helen Weisman, Susan Feldman, and Israel Don.
Klara Sukhovitskaia (Bolotina)'s maternal family, Minsk, Belarus, 1933.
IHMEC: courtesy of Klara Bolotina.

Nazi anti-Jewish policy changed over time.

Persecution was first meant to spark “voluntary” emigration, making Germany Judenfrei (free of Jews). But other countries proved unwilling to accept many Jews, and German expansion continually placed more Jews under their control.

After the outbreak of war on September 1, 1939, German policy switched to isolating Jews in ghettos, and there remained serious discussion of shipping Jews to Madagascar, an island off the coast of Africa.

Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was not just a military campaign; it was also an ideological war against the Jews. With the addition of more than 4 million Jews in Soviet-occupied territories, the Nazis began a campaign of mass murder– the annihilation of all Jews and the beginning of the “Final Solution”.

Jewish men and women entering the Lodz ghetto, German-occupied Poland, March 1940.
USHMM: courtesy of Raphael Aronson.
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