Friday, August 14, 2009

Ask JewishGen: Why JewishGen does not have a "Russian Database"

Posted By Phyllis Kramer

I often get this question:
JewishGen has Databases for most of the current Eastern and Western European nations, but not Russia. So many of us have heard our family was from Russia, or the Census tells us our family birthplace is Russia. Why isn't there a special database for Russia on JewishGen?
The answer requires a bit of history.

Jews have moved frequently since medieval times. While there were many reasons for this, it was partly the result of governmental policy changes that alternated between establishing favorable living conditions for Jewish inhabitants to outright incitement and promotion of pogroms against the Jews.

Indeed, the good times were often described as the absence of bad times. Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews is one of the best books I have ever read on this topic.

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Poland and Lithuania had become the center of learning and prosperity for Eastern European Jewry; the Council of Four Lands even provided self government for the Jews. But by the end of the eighteenth century, Poland was ruled by very weak nobles, who lost control, and the country was divided up between Russia (to become known as Russian Poland), Prussia and Austria (to become the Austrian province of Galicia). As you can see from the map below, the country of Poland disappeared completely.

Russia did not want the Jews it inherited in the heart of its empire, and therefore created the “Pale of Settlement” in 1790, and forced all the Jews to move there (see map below). For example, after the designation of the “Pale,” twenty thousand Jewish craftsmen were expelled from Moscow. The “Pale” lasted until 1919, when Poland was recreated by the allies at the Treaty of Versailles.

Thus if your Eastern European ancestors emigrated during the mass migration period (1880’s – 1920s), many would claim Russia or RussianPoland as their origin, others Austria. But since our databases are delineated by present day borders, there are few Jewish records available for current day Russia.
Best of luck with your research!

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