Unexpected Allies: Imperial Russian Support of Jewish Emigration at the Time of Its Legal Ban, 1881-1914
This article analyses the Russian government’s involvement in Jewish emigration from the late Tsarist Empire by exploring bureaucratic archival records. Despite the official emigration ban, between 1881 and 1914 about two million Jews managed to cross the Russian border and leave primarily for the United States, Argentina, and Palestine. The understudied yet official documents and police reports from imperial provinces such as Podolia, Volhynia, and New Russia reveal the practical aspects of the Jewish exodus. Some Jewish emigrants left illegally on their own, some used the help of illegal emigration agents, while others were able to leave with the assistance of charitable emigration organizations. In most of these scenarios, this article argues, the Russian government supported Jewish emigration in implicit or explicit ways: it was willing to tolerate Jewish resettlement to the extent that it could regulate the process.
The peculiarity of the Jewish community of the city of Posen (Poznań) has been acknowledged in several studies. This pertains on the one hand to its sheer size, as until the end of the nineteenth century Jews accounted almost constantly for between 15 and 20 percent of the overall population—by far above the average of any other German district; on the other hand, it pertains to its composition, since so-called Ostjuden constituted a considerable share of the minority. These were mainly unassimilated orthodox Polish Jews, a unique feature for any German State and later for the German Reich, which forced the new authorities (Posen was assigned to Prussia in the late eighteenth century) to enforce specific integration measures.
This article shows how, as a consequence, the Jewish inhabitants of the area were drawn into a conflict of nationalisms and had to keep the balance between two conflicting cultures, that of the new ruling power, Germany, which sought to “germanize” them, and the traditional Polish culture. Against this background, and for fear of losing their financial independence as well as their cultural and religious identity, more than 30,000 Jews left the region from 1848 up to the end of the nineteenth century and emigrated to the United States or elsewhere.