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Most Jewish people now living in Britain are descended from people who came from Russia and Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1914; but they were not by any means the first Jews to come to Britain.
The first documented Jewish presence in Britain dates from the early years after the Norman Conquest in 1066. For the most part these early communities lived, quite prosperously and peacefully at first, in what were then the major cities - Bristol, Gloucester, Lincoln, London, Norwich, York and the like. A number of documents and objects have survived from this period, and recent archaeological excavations have uncovered remains of mediaeval Jewish buildings, such as the mikvahs in both London and Gloucester.
Persecution and Expulsion
The early Jews were welcome in Britain as long as they were able to pay heavy taxes, but over a few generations these impoverished them. The Crusades, moreover, gave rise to a wave of violence against a people seen as alien in their faith and customs.
The most tragic incident occurred in 1190 in York, where most of the city's Jews were trapped in Clifford's Tower, and killed themselves to avoid capture. By contrast, in Lincoln Bishop Hugh of Avalon (St Hugh of Lincoln) protected the Jews.
Persecution worsened under King Edward 1. Under his reign, 600 Jews were imprisoned in the Tower of London and 270 of them were hanged. Finally in 1290 he ordered the expulsion of the 3,000 or so Jews left in England, and seized their houses and goods.
Between 1290 and 1656 there was no openly Jewish community in England, although the Jewish religion continued to be practised by some individuals in secret. At the end of the 15th century Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal, and from 1540 a few refugees from the Inquisition settled in Bristol and London. In 1609, King James I ordered a group of Portuguese merchants in London to leave the country when he learnt that they were secretly practising Judaism.
The Right to Settle
It was not until Cromwell's time, in 1656, that Jews were able once again to practise Judaism openly, with their own synagogues and burial grounds. This opened the door to a slow but steady stream of migration - initially Sephardi Jews of Spanish and Portuguese origin, mostly from Holland, but then predominantly Ashkenazi Jews of central European origin, from Germany and Poland.
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?
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.
Kossoff was born in 1893 in Pavolich in the Ukraine and emigrated to England in 1908, where he became a baker, though in 1918 he was returned to Russia under the Anglo-Russian Convention. He returned to Britain in 1920, and this time stayed.
In his childhood in the Ukraine, there were six to seven people living in a one-storey house, consisting of two rooms and a tiny kitchen, with goats and hens outside. He spoke Yiddish and not Russian. Every day he learned Hebrew in classes at a cheder. About 1,200 Jews lived in the town, served by at least five synagogues. Life revolved around the home and the shul, or synagogue.
Read more about Life in the Stetl in an account of life in Novogrodek, a stetl about mid-way between Vilnius and Minsk.
Kossoff's father was a shoemaker who barely scraped a living. Meals were very meagre. For breakfast they might have a piece of bread, some herring, and some hot water with perhaps a little sugar in it. Lunch would as likely as not consist of soup with beans in it, and occasionally cheap off-cuts of meat. Supper would be bread and herring again, with some goose-fat. On shabbat, or Sabbath, they would have lokshen - or noodle - soup, meat and crushed beans.
Woolf's uncle was better off, with a mill and a cow. At his house Woolf enjoyed occasional luxuries such as butter or a dish of sugar. On his bar-mitzvah (the family celebration for his coming of age at 13), Woolf stayed with his uncle and had honey cake and vodka!
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.
20th Century - The Rise of Nazism
The circumstances of the next major wave of Jewish migrants to leave Europe for England in the 1930s were very different. The Jews of Germany and Austria were educated, integrated members of society. They mixed freely with their neighbours, many had fought as soldiers in World War 1, and they were generally successful and well respected.
The Nazi party's rise to power, and Adolf Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor in 1933, had catastrophic effects for Jews in Germany. Their rights were restricted, they were subjected to humiliation and brutality, and were increasingly isolated from normal community life.
The passing of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 excluded Jews from many jobs, made it illegal for them to marry 'Aryans', and established them as second-class citizens.
Many Jews recognised the danger they were in and tried to leave Germany. But very few countries, including Britain, were willing to accept refugees, concerned as they were about unemployment and the need to avoid giving any excuses to anti-Semites at home. In Germany, the battle for a visa became increasingly tortuous.
To obtain a British visa you needed a job or a sponsor in Britain. Desperate advertisements appeared in the Jewish Chronicle and other newspapers in Britain appealing for work. Many women were admitted to Britain on domestic visas and employed by British families as cooks or housekeepers, although they were often highly educated and from professional or artistic backgrounds.
In November 1938 the Nazis launched a night of terror against Jews. Synagogues were burnt, Jewish shops and businesses attacked, and thousands of Jews arrested and sent to prison or concentration camps. Following Kristallnacht, the desire to leave Germany became even more frantic.
In all, about 50,000 adults were admitted to Britain as refugees between 1933 and 1939. The British Jewish community got together to offer financial and practical support. There were keenly aware that the public at large could become hostile if the refugees were seen to be costing the taxpayer money and a threat to other people's jobs.
A number of organisations in England tried hard to help Jews suffering at the hands of the Nazis.
As the situation became increasingly desperate in Germany, and after the Anschluss in Austria, a scheme was launched to bring Jewish children to safety in England. The British government agreed to issue visas to children brought under the protection of the Central British Fund (CBF). The Kindertransport brought 9,354 unaccompanied children to Britain in 1938 and 1939, from babies to teenagers. Many of these children were never to see their families again. Read some of these children's stories in the Harris House Diaries.
Following the Second World War, some of the few survivors of the Nazis' extermination policies settled in Britain.
The British government had agreed to admit 1,000 young camp survivors, but only 732 could be found. These teenage boys and girls, originally from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, had suffered appalling treatment in ghettos, slave labour and concentration camps. Most had lost all their families, and many had seen family members killed in front of them.
In Britain they came to terms with their grief together, sharing past experiences and events in their new lives. One particular group was 'The Boys', young survivors of the Holocaust brought to Britain in late 1945. Many of these survivors became a part of the 45 Aid Society, which still remains an exceptionally close knit and devoted group today.
In post-war Britain there has continued a small-scale inwards migration of Jews from different countries. The ultra-orthodox and tightly knit Hassidic community was established in Britain in the 1930s, a number of them settling in north London. The community was enlarged by the arrival of survivors from the Second World War and by others fleeing Hungary and other Eastern European communist régimes in the 1950s.
Other immigrants from middle-eastern countries including Iraq, Egypt, Aden and Iran (following the revolution), as well as migrants from India, brought with them distinctive customs and traditions. Jews in Arab countries found their lives increasingly restricted, but had difficulty in getting out.
More recently there has been a small influx of Israeli immigrants, the majority settling in Britain as a result of commercial relocation.
Cesarani, D (ed), The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry (Oxford, 1990)
Endelman, Todd M, The Jews of Britain 1656-2000 (University of California Press, 2002)
Gartner, L, The Jewish Immigrant in England, 1870-1914 (2nd edition, 1973)
Lipman, V D, A History of the Jews in Britain since 1858 (Leicester, 1990)
Romain, Jonathon, The Jews of England (Michael Goulston Educational Foundation, 1985)
Grenville, A, Continental Britons: Jewish Refugees from Nazi Europe (Jewish Museum, 2002)
Hoffman, E, Shtetl: The History of a Small Town and an Extinguished World (Vintage, 1999)
Jewish Museum, The Jews of Aden (1991)
Roden, C, The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day (London, 1999)
Snowman, D, The Hitler Émigrés: The Cultural Impact on Britain of Refugees from Nazism (Chatto & Windus, 2002)
Creators: Carol Seigel
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