How did Jews end up in Eastern Europe?

When most of us imagine the Jewish world of Eastern Europe that existed before the Holocaust - a world we have encountered mainly through faded photographs, movies, books, and bittersweet stories - we forget that the culture of shtet (cities) and shtetlakh (towns), with their bustling markets, poor but lively neighborhoods, schools, and synagogues, was a very specific Yiddish-speaking one, a Jewish culture that managed to grow and flourish unlike those in most other parts of the world. This Jewish world was the culmination of 1,000 years of dynamic, turbulent, and ever-vulnerable settlement in Eastern Europe. The decades leading up to World War II were a particularly chaotic yet culturally exciting period. These years were the dawning of a modern age of industrialization, political turmoil, and migration. The era was truncated, never fully lived out, and its destruction marked the decline of more than a millennium of Eastern European Jewish civilization.

The Jewish Diaspora from ancient Israel transplanted Jewish exiles to Babylon (present-day Iraq), Spain, and all corners of the Mediterranean and Middle East. It took nearly another 1,000 years for Jews to establish a firm foothold in Europe - and that largely into northern France and the Holy Roman Empire. From here, in roughly 900 AD, we can trace the beginnings of Yiddish or Jewish culture.

Previously, the Jewish presence in Central Europe had mostly been limited to merchants engaged in long-distance trade. But with due to a gradual influx during the Middle Ages, new centers - in French and German cities like Troyes, Mainz, and Worms - grew to become self-sufficient hubs for Jewish economic exchange and study. Slowly, these vital communities became known around the wider Jewish world for their famous yeshivot (religious schools of higher learning) and Talmudic scholars, spawning a lively new era of Jewish learning, which built on the flourishing culture of the Sephardim (Spanish Jews) further south.

As these Central European communities grew, local Jews developed their own unique hybrid of medieval German dialects, combining them with Hebrew and Aramaic. From this sprang Yiddish: a rugged vernacular, destined to bind millions of distinct European Jews - both secular and religious - into a common Jewish culture that would define Ashkenazi life in Eastern Europe until the Holocaust.

Jews in German lands had become resigned to a growing litany of injustices ranging from the murderous Crusades, mob violence, and restrictive laws, to the burning of Talmuds, blood libels, the Plague (for which Jews were often blamed), and, finally, expulsion from many cities. Taken together these forces propelled many Jews to seek out new lands in Eastern Europe. They particularly turned toward the newly forming kingdoms in Poland and Lithuania where at the time, wide-open economic systems and friendlier aristocracies operated. These factors also attracted large numbers of non-Jewish German settlers.

What did Jews bring with them?

The new communities of the East initially resembled those of the West. All Jews, after all, focused their community life around the holy texts - Tanakh (the Torah, and other writings) and Talmud - as well as oral Jewish law, which eventually was codified as Halakha (Halokhe in Yiddish). Jews in the East brought numerous traditional customs with them, from establishing kehalim governing each community, synagogues, yeshivot, burial societies, and khedorim (religious schools) for children. Likewise, Hebrew remained the sacred language of prayer and scripture and of responsa literature (rabbinic dialogues regarding law), while Yiddish was used as the everyday vernacular, assuring that Eastern Jews would continue to maintain ties to Jews in German lands, just as they would remain distinct from their non-Jewish hosts. Within the Polish settlement experience - this is noteworthy as a special case Yiddish was not abandoned for the dominant Polish. It remained a most significant and distinguishing factor of Jewish life and culture well into the 20th century.

By the 15th and 16th centuries, Jewish Poland had grown to such size and prominence that it outstripped German lands as the new cradle of Ashkenazi culture. And, as Poland and Lithuania (and later, Ukraine) increased in importance during the late Middle Ages, Jews from German towns and elsewhere made pilgrimages east to study and conduct business in bustling commercial centers such as Vilna, Brest, Cracow, Lublin, and Lvov, among other towns.

As Jews established roots in Eastern Europe, Jewish culture grew and in news ways, planting roots in a variety of new places. Whereas Jews in German lands had largely worked as moneylenders and merchants in cities, Polish Jews had the broader occupational options in the trades, crafts, and land leasing for nobles. Jews settled in the burgeoning cities and villages that were sprouting throughout Eastern Europe. The Jewish population many times constituted the numerical majority, especially after dramatic population increases in the 18th and 19th centuries. This phenomenal concentration of community allowed for a new and distinct type of Jewish-centered life to develop: the shtetl or small urban settlement.

Jewish life took root in three main forms - the shtot (city), the shtetl (the ubiquitous Eastern European Jewish small urban settlement), and the yishuv (scattered tiny community). These three kinds of communities complimented one another and taken together formed a whole Jewish world.