Ashkenazi history
October 8, 2019 11:15 AM   Subscribe

Why did so many Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews migrate from Central Europe to Eastern Europe in the 16th to 18th-ish centuries?

Everything I’ve found is very handwavey, like boom! one day everybody in the Pale of Settlement just looked up and there were suddenly a whole bunch of shtetls! One unsourced wikipedia section states that in the early 16th century, there were 10-30,000 non-Yiddish-speaking Jews in Eastern Europe, yet by the middle of the 18th century, migration had brought the Jewish population to around 750,000. That’s a huge change!

Obviously Central Europe was not a hospitable place for Jews during this time, but neither was Eastern Europe, particularly. What social or political developments drove this migration of such a massive number of people without an explicit expulsion? Why to Eastern Europe? And why during this period and not, say, in the preceding centuries?
posted by dusty potato to Society & Culture (10 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Pogroms, although not as organized as they would be later (in the 19th century). And the draw of wider opportunity.
posted by snuffleupagus at 11:33 AM on October 8, 2019

Just in the interest of clarifying-- antisemitic violence was endemic to both Central and Eastern Europe during this and other time periods, so I guess I'm looking for a bit more historical specificity than simply the general concept.
posted by dusty potato at 11:42 AM on October 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

From 1492–1789: Expulsion from Spain and the rise of the Eastern European Diaspora, from a page on Jewish Migration

"Growing persecution and economic hardship explain why the Ashkenazi centre gradually shifted from Central Europe to Poland-Lithuania and to territories under Ottoman rule in Southeastern Europe. In Poland-Lithuania, Jews were protected by the Crown and found comparatively favourable conditions for life and work. ... Small groups of Ashkenazi Jews also migrated to Southeastern Europe in regions of modern Romania and Bulgaria, which were incorporated into the Ottoman Empire during the fifteenth century. Muslim rulers usually granted Jews (and Christians) a special status (dhimmi). This entailed an increased tax burden but, in turn, they also had the right to exercise their religion and were granted legal security and commercial privileges."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:50 AM on October 8, 2019 [8 favorites]

And way more detail from the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Some examples from Population and Migration before World War I: "In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries both Poland and Lithuania conducted policies aimed specifically at developing urban settlement, granting various privileges to attract migrants, including Jews, from Central and Western Europe. ... From the last third of the sixteenth to the first half of the seventeenth century Jews also came to Poland from the West (most signficantly during the Thirty Years’ War).."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:57 AM on October 8, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth granted more religious freedom than most of Europe.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 12:13 PM on October 8, 2019 [4 favorites]

That jump in population includes natural population growth, not just migration from Central to Eastern Europe. But, you're right that that growth itself is unusual, and, AFAIK, kind of unexplained beyond "Well, there was a high birth rate? ". Max Weinreich I believe has a chart comparing the Ashkenazi and Sephardi world wide populations in his History of the Yiddish Language, and starting in the 1700s, the Ashkenazi population starts to grow at a much faster rate.
posted by damayanti at 1:43 PM on October 8, 2019 [1 favorite]

Henry Abramson, a history professor at Touro College, made a great video on the origins of Polish Jews (as well as lots of other videos on Jewish history). That may be of interest as well.
posted by huskerdont at 2:12 PM on October 8, 2019 [5 favorites]

This article seems to give a good overview of this migration.

As for why folks wanted to leave Central Europe, there were for sure some expulsions. I'm guessing the Counter Reformation wasn't much fun either, and would have been worse in the aggressively Catholic Holy Roman Empire. Here's an article about the Reformation and Counter Reformation and their effects, positive and negative, on Jews.

That said, it seems like people generally moved around a lot in medieval and early modern Central Europe. Lots of war, death, chaos, and financial opportunity. For instance, Poland had plenty of German immigrants as well.
posted by toastedcheese at 3:38 PM on October 8, 2019

Polin Polish Jewish museum has a lot of material on this. Central Europe wasn't a fun place to be because of religious conflicts among others and Poland basically needed all the colonists they could get to settle sparsely populated land. Plus a people under the direct protection of the crown was useful to kings dealing with high handed magnates. Said magnates in turn found uses for people set apart from the village population - a common literature trope is the Jewish innkeeper, renting the inn from the landlord. And maybe it was a little easier to escape when your Protestant neighbours wouldn't talk to the Catholics, or the Orthodox, or the Muslims to find out where you went...

(The actual Polin exhibition on these issues is amazing and very extensive, if you ever have the opportunity to swing by Warsaw.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 12:22 PM on October 9, 2019

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