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Jewish Life in Europe before World War IIShare

During the Middle Ages, Jews resided in tightly knit communities throughout Eastern and Western Europe, generally living separately from their non-Jewish neighbors. Although many Jews had lived in their towns and villages for generations, they were frequently subjected to anti-Jewish measures and even periodic expulsions. Because they were generally banned from craft guilds and other desirable professions, many Jews earned their living as merchants and moneylenders.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Jews increasingly moved out of their insulated communities in an effort to become more integrated into the broader European culture. While many Jews guarded their traditional customs and lifestyles closely, others looked for ways to blend their Jewish and secular identities.

Although Jews in many parts of Central and Western Europe had been granted emancipation (full civil rights) by the end of the nineteenth century, age-old anti-Jewish attitudes remained. The increasingly active participation of Jews in secular society made them even more vulnerable to attack. Economically and racially based antisemitism replaced traditional, religious anti-Judaism. Jews came to be viewed as a distinct race --one that could not be absorbed into European society. In parts of Russia and Poland, anti-Jewish riots, or pogroms, raged during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Many European Jews searched for political solutions to the challenges they faced. Zionism was a political movement that aimed to obtain long-term security for the Jews by establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The aim of socialism was to create a new European society based on social and economic equality. Some Jews opted to give up Judaism altogether through assimilation into European society, while others immigrated to America in the hopes of finding a better life.

Map courtesy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.