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A Very Simplified History of Eastern Europe, the Slavs and the Jews: Part Two

After the collapse of Kievan Rus

 Large-scale migration of Jews out of the Holy Roman Empire and into Kievan Rus (later Ukraine) began in 1096 in the wake of the First Crusade. In 1348-49, accused of being agents of the devil and responsible for the outbreak of the bubonic plague, Jews were persecuted, murdered, and expelled from Mainz, Bavaria, France, Italy, England, Naples, Switzerland, and Hungary. They continued coming eastward where they were welcomed because of their expertise in trade and finance, and because dispersal throughout Europe gave them an economic advantage, one that could benefit their new homeland.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

 After the dissolution of Kievan Rus in 1370, Jews found themselves living in two different states: Poland and Lithuania. Considered property of the monarch, they were allowed to practice Judaism but were excluded from artisan guilds, were forbidden to own or farm land, to study and practice law, enter the civil service, teach or occupy any position of authority over Christians. They could, however, be physicians and engage in money lending and currency exchange, activities forbidden by the Church to Christians, although many (including ecclesiastics) did practice usury using Jews as fronts. The important role Jews played in finance guaranteed them a measure of protection from both kings and nobles, who borrowed money from them and employed them as tax collectors. This Polish model spread into Ukrainian lands within the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Barred from associating with Christians in local government, Jews developed an internal system of self-government, the kahal, an elected council of elders headed by a rabbi. The kahal allocated and collected the taxes that municipal authorities imposed upon them, and handled internal, Jewish community affairs.

Almost exclusively town dwellers, Jews resided close together in areas called the Jews’ Street where there was safety in numbers: until the 15th century, there were no ghettoes with surrounding walls reducing contact between Christians and Jews. But by the 16th and 17th centuries, Jewish financial and commercial success incurred jealousy, and several Polish towns were granted royal decrees forbidding Jews to settle, and they were forced to live outside town walls.

After the Union of Lublin in 1569, the former Kievan Rus (Ukrainian) lands were annexed from Lithuania, and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was formed. It became the largest state in Central Europe. As payment for services to the Commonwealth, particularly in warfare, the Szlachta, the Polish nobility, were granted vast territories, largely in Ukraine. They invited Jews to take up managerial posts on these landed estates and to reside in the newly-created towns and lease the right to run estate mills, fishponds, forests, and taverns; to administer estate finances; to negotiate agricultural produce; to transport salt and timber. Living alongside and in constant contact with their peasant neighbours, Jews were aware of prices, needs, and quantities and were thus, as negotiators, at a great advantage. With the profits they made, they were able to extend loans.

The most successful negotiators were an elite, living in fine houses on main crossroads, and keeping the nobles wealthy enough to maintain exorbitant, often ruinous, lifestyles, yet they were viewed with all the contempt the aristocracy reserved for those able to make money. Even the most brilliant negotiator was little more than a serf, for all he acquired became the lord’s property.

Most village Jews were rabbis, wheelwrights, water carriers, smiths, shoemakers, tailors, bookbinders, musicians, and butchers. A great many were peddlers, wandering the roads, their long pipes sending a stream of smoke into the air. They carried weather-resistant tarred bundles on their backs, wicker baskets for glass and ceramics, or cabinets filled with sewing articles, dice, drapes, remedies, matches, salt, ribbons, embroidered purses, watches, handkerchiefs, belts, scarves—precious items to women who might never venture as far as the next village, only a few kilometers away.


Jewish Musicians

Going from farm to farm, one village to the next, a peddler, blew a whistle to announce his presence, called out his wares, and made every local dog howl. Alerted by the din, crowds would gather. Sometimes no money was exchanged: eggs were traded for bristles, bristles for woollens, woollens for tatters. Some peddlers snatched up minuscule amounts of fruits, mushrooms, cabbages, fowls, and honey—peasants rarely had a surplus of anything—or bought horsetails, manes, and the hair of indebted women. Others collected rags, bones, hides, flax, wax, wormwood, and wool. Haggling, reducing profits to a pittance, most dreamt of amassing enough money to buy a nag and wagon under which to sleep at night—a modicum of comfort in the rainy season. Others hoped to leave the road behind and set up in a shop.

Both Polish Catholics and Orthodox Ukrainians saw Jews as people of a different creed, economic status, and social entity, with their own unfamiliar language—Yiddish. The difference created tension and hatred and often resulted in murderous violence. Yet, for over 400 years, the relationship between peasants and Jews was symbiotic. Even during Khmelnytskyi’s violent peasant uprising, although many Jews defended the Poles, others were sympathetic to the Cossacks. And alongside the Rus boyars (nobles) who were denied noble status in the Commonwealth, they joined the Cossack army.

 Although Jews played an important role in Polish-Lithuanian-ruled lands, they were exploited by the nobles through a particularly burdensome and exorbitant taxation system. But by the end of the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth itself was in crisis. Poland’s last king, Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski, did introduce numerous reforms, but these were not enough to turn the tide. Poland fell under foreign influence; Russia, Prussia, and Austria invaded and partitioned the Commonwealth’s territory. In 1791, like Ukraine, Poland had also officially ceased to exist.


Poland after partition

 Ukraine had been under foreign rule for centuries. Polish, Lithuanian, and Kievan princely families had intermarried. After WWI, when borders were being restored, Poland believed it had the legal and historical right to Ukrainian lands. This was equally true after WWII when it was expected that Eastern Galicia and Western Volhynia would be returned to Poland, and that the Commonwealth’s ancient border, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea, would be restored. These expectations—and their failure—resulted in deportations and massacre over much of the first half of the 20th century.

Only Putin’s war has changed the Polish-Ukrainian relationship. Whatever their past history, it is clear that Russia is now the aggressor. Having a common enemy has accelerated both communication and understanding between the two countries.

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