By Seth J. Frantzman
It always strikes me when someone mentions the Jewish history of a place while traveling or in books or discussions of their family history. It almost always begins with ‘did you know there used to be many Jews here.” For instance, Dej, Romania, where once the population was 22% Jewish, now less than 10 Jews remain. In Urfa in Turkey there were 200 Jewish families not so long ago, now very few live openly. The last surviving Jews in places like Afghanistan or Cairo are covered by the media almost mockingly, with extreme concentration on the exotic. But the reality of the disappearance of Jewish life from most of the world, is one of the true legacies of the 20th century. When the century began there were Jewish communities all over the world, and not just communities but the beating hearts of nations, major players in the life of cities, in intellectual and political life.
The passing of Elie Wiesel particularly reminds us of this mass cleansing, destruction, deracination of Jewish life.
There were around 10 million Jews worldwide in 1900. By 2000 there were around 13 million Jews. But these numbers don’t tell us the real story of the total removal of Jewish life from most of the world.
In Western and central Europe at the turn of the 20th century there were millions of Jews. In the Austro-Hungarian empire there were 1.2 million with 150,000 in Vienna (9%). In Germany around 586,000 lived, with 4% of Berlin, Breslau and Cologne and 9% of Dresden. Ten percent of those in Prague were Jewish. In Holland there were 103,000 and they were 11 percent of Amsterdam (60,000). Italy had only 10,000 Jews. In Belgium only 12,000 with half of them in Antwerp (1.5%), in England 235,000. They were 4% of Leeds, 2.5% of London, and 5% of Manchester. In Ireland and Scotland only 3,000 and 10,000 respectively. In Denmark just several thousand. In France 88,000. Luxembourg, Portugal, Norway and Sweden, very few thousands or less as in Spain (5,000). Switzerland had only 12,000. Gibraltar was 10% Jewish, although that was just a handful of people.
In Eastern Europe there were 33,000 Jews in Bulgaria where they were 14% of Sofia and 10% of Rustchuk. In Lemberg, now Lvov, they were 25% of the city, in Czernowitz (32%), Krakow (29%), in Brody now in Ukraine they were 75% of the town. In Salonica there were 60,000 Jews or 57% of the city. Budapest was 23% Jewish with 168,000 members, and towns like Grosswardein and Mikolez in Hungary were 23 and 31% Jewish. Temesvar was 22%. In Poland there were 1.3 million Jews, constituting a quarter or more of the cities of Lodz Lomza, Lublin, Warsaw (41%), and Czenstochow. Rumania had 269,000 Jews with 60% of Bakau being Jewish and other cities with up to 30% including Baila, Bucharest, Galatz, Jassy, Botoshani and even in Monastir there were 6,000 Jews. In Russia there were 3.8 million with the following cities have over 40%: Biela Zerkow, Bobrinsk, Brest-Litovsk, Byelostock, Dvinsk, Grodno, Homel, Jitomir, Kherson and Kiev with only 6%. In Kishinev, where there had been pogroms, 49% with 50,000 Jews, and in Minsk (50%), Odessa (37% with 150,000). Pinsk was 80% Jewish. Vilna was 40% with 63,000 Jews.
As we move East into Turkey in the year 1900 we find 282,000 Jews with Istanbul being 4% Jewish and they were 20% of Adrianople (now Edirne). In Baghdad there were 35,000 Jews and still 24% of the city. In Aden, Yemen, they were 8% of the city (3,000) and in Syria there were 10,000 in Aleppo (9%) and 10,000 in Damascus (5%). In Smyrna they were 12% and in Baku 11% of the city (11,000). In Jerusalem they were 68% of the city and 65% of Tiberias already in this time. In North Africa there were 50,000 Jews in Algeria and they were 14% of Algiers, 15% of Constantine, and 14% of Oran and Tlemcen. In Egypt there were 30,000 Jews and they were 4% of Alexandria and 3% of Cairo. In Morocco there were 109,000 Jews where they made up 7% of Fez and 45% of Mogador, 40% of Tangier and 29% of Tetuan. In Tripoli there were onl 18,000 Jews but in Tunis they were 4% of the population with 62,000 people.
In Sub-Saharan Africa there were 50,000 Jews in Ethiopia, 50,000 in South Africa, a few in Rhodesia and Portuguese colonies.
In India there were only 1,800 Jews in Calcutta and 5,000 in Bombay. In Shiraz, Persia, they were 16% of the city (5,000) and in Tehran only 3%. There were 18,000 Jews in Afghanistan and its neighboring areas such as Turkestan which likely includes Bokhara.
In the Americas Jews were a dominant group in Winnipeg, with 59% of the population. Other than that they were 8% of Baltimore, 8% of Boston and 20% of New York (672,000). In South America there were thousands of Jews in Argentina (20,000) and Brazil, with less in Dutch Guiana, Ecuador and other states.
In the Pacific there were 15,000 Jews in Australia and 1,600 in New Zealand.
The world at the end of the century
In only a few states has the percentage of Jews increased since 1900. In what is now Israel, France and Canada. In Australia where the Jewish population increased from 15,000 to 112,000, the population of the country increased similarly. In many ways the re-creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East is a tremendous revolution, and some of the decline in Jewish communities in the world has been due to their own decision to move to the new state after 1948. But in many cases it was not, it was due to discrimination, ethnic-cleansing, and genocide. When Jews fled or left on their own accord, those countries erased too often the Jewish heritage often, turned synagogues into stables, and bulldozed graveyards, cities built by Jews, today pretend the vibrant minority never existed.
So what we see is that throughout the entire world, Jews have disappeared. In some places this is due to migration of their own accord, as noted above. For instance the Jews of Barbados, once around ten percent of some localities, declined in the 20th century to a tiny population as most sought work elsewhere.
But the real story has been a massive assault by regimes on the rights of Jews. It is interesting that in many cases the 19th century paved the way for Jewish emancipation throughout Europe and also in parts of the Middle East. Jews in the late 19th century played an unprecedented role in the political and economic life of states throughout the world. Whether in Hong Kong or the Ottoman Empire, Jews acquired positions of influence. But this was a short flowering. Within one generation they were gone.
Consider cities like Lemberg, once with a vibrant Jewish population, now today you can go there and visit a mock-Jewish restaurant and see the old courtyard of a great synagogue. But it is all just talk about their being Jews there. Their community was destroyed. Perhaps the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev should have been a foreboding of what would come. Then in 1905 the attacks on 660 Jewish communities in Ukraine. Worse would come in 1919-1920 during the chaos of the Russian Civil War. This was just a prelude to the Nazi Holocaust. When one considers the forces arrayed against the Jews, in retrospect, it is extraordinary how the whole of the world turned against this community, which had lived in these areas for more than 1,000 years, which predated the modern nationalism and communities that claimed these areas.
Consider Ukraine and how Jews were victimized by almost everyone. They were attacked in Kishinev on Orthodox Christian easter, they were attacked during riots against the Russian Tsar. In other places they were attacked by Ukrainian nationalists. They were attacked by Red Army soldiers, in Lvov in 1918 they were attacked by Poles while the Polish army looked on. Whether Cossacks or those loyal to the white Russian army, this community stood little chance against such forces. But the events of 1900-1920 was only a prelude of the mass cleansing of the century. Collectivism in Ukraine by the Soviets led to famine, and when the Nazis arrived, total extermination began.
How is it that all the major movements of the first half of the 20th century turned on the Jews? The Nazis obsessed over exterminating them, but the Communists targeted them as well. After the Holocaust, with 3 million Polish Jews murdered, it wasn’t enough for the local anti-semites. Neither Communist nor Nazi, the people of Kielce slaughtered 42 Jews in 1946. In Poland Jews were blamed for “importing communism” after the Soviet victory in 1945. But the Communist party in 1968 launched an anti-Jewish program blaming Polish Jews for being “Zionists” and arrested Jews and removed thousands of Jews from official and academic positions. 13,000 fled Poland due to the “anti-Zionist” anti-semitic attacks by the Communist government.
Even in countries like Turkey Jews suffered numerous recurring discriminations. In 1934 there were attacks on Jews in Thrace. In 1941 Jews aged 27-40 were forced into “labor battalions”. Soon after forcibly drafting Turkish men the government passed a special Capital Tax Law that taxed Jewish professionals and merchants at a rate four times that of Muslims. After the creation of Israel the Jewish community declined from 76,965 in 1945 to 45,995 in 1952. Jewish representation in politics virtually disappeared mostly after 1961. With the rise of Islamism, Jews became the targets of terror. In 2003 fifty-seven people were murdered in bombings of Istanbul’s two main synagogues. Once again the combination of religious extremism and nationalism, as well as state policies all combined against a tiny minority, to make that minority even smaller.
The model for the destruction of Jewish communities worldwide is that they were victims of every regime and scapegoated by every group. They were called “Jews” when everyone was Christian or Muslim, they were “capitalists” when people were communists and “communists” when people were capitalists, “semites” when being white was good and then “white” and “European” when being non-white was good, they became “Zionists” and “colonialists” when Zionism and nationalism was wrong. It’s convenient that a tiny group of people, who often pre-dated many of the local people, were always perceived as the other and a threat. Anti-Semitic colonial authorities in North Africa disliked Jews and excused pogroms like the one in Constantine in 1934. Nazis persecuted them during the occupation of 1940-1943, and then there were widespread pogroms in Gabes, Tunisia in 1941 and in Tripoli in 1945 and in Cairo in 1945. The combination of nationalism, religious hatred of Jews and “anti-Zionism” all were “reasons”, but the end result was the total cleansing of Jews from the entire Middle East.
Always there is an excuse why countries have to genocide Jews, cleanse Jews, make anti-Jewish laws, burn synagogues, have special anti-Jewish taxes or bulldoze graveyards. And in many of these countries in the Middle East especially even when Jews are gone, the hatred of Jews remains. During the anti-Mubarak Arab Spring in Egypt in 2011 there were signs accusing him of being a Jew and a Zionist. Mohammed Morsi made anti-semitic comments. Later Mohammed Morsi would also be accused of collaborating with Israel. Then Al-Sisi would be accused of being Jewish and Zionist, by anti-semites both in the West and Arab world. Throughout the Middle East even when there are no Jews, “the Jews” are always to blame. When there was a film festival in Morocco, once home to 300,000 Jews, Islamic and left wing groups protested it. Of course they did, because there is not one issue that can unite Nazis, leftists and Islamist extremists, like hatred of Jews. You cannot even have a movie about Jewish life without it being “Zionist” today. You cannot discuss the Holocaust without it being a “Zionist” conspiracy. In the Syrian civil war both Bashar al-Assad and those fighting him blame eachother for conspiring with Jews and Israel. Iran and Saudi also trade accusations that each one is part of a Jewish and Zionist conspiracy. Iran, the “lest anti-semitic” country in the Middle East according to polls, hosts Holocaust denial contests, but the media interprets them merely as a “strategy.”
The West, ostensibly more tolerant today of Jews, is little better than the Middle East. A professor at Oberlin College claimed Jews were behind 9/11 and ISIS attacks and posted articles claiming the Rothschilds control the world and caused AIDs, but she wasn’t censured for her views. Whenever there is terrorism by Islamists in most European countries, Jews are targeted, in France or Denmark or other places. Combined with that the radical left in Europe continues the anti-semitic tropes of the Christian past, with stories of blood libels directed at Jews for such practices as circumcision. Sometimes the blood libels are more nuanced, such as the Swedish newspaper in 2009 claiming that Israelis steal organs of Palestinians.
Throughout Europe Jewish community life has become a virtual prison with synagogues having around the clock protection and army units deployed to “protect” them. Kosher delis are targets and need police protection. Jewish schools need high walls and security. This continent that did the Holocaust was not finished in 1945, after the Holocaust the concept is to make Jewish life never normal, never equal to that of a white European, or even a migrant from abroad. Jews who lived in these places for 1,000 years, are made to feel like foreigners, their life circumscribed. They cannot wear religious symbols without fear of attack.
Everywhere in the world Jewish places of worship are targets of terror, unlike any other group of people, massively disproportionate to their numbers. A synagogue was burned in Crete in 2010, a place the Nazis had done the utmost to destroy the Jewish community, but history was not finished, even a tiny synagogue must be burned. 87 were murdered in 1994 in Argentina at the AMIA building bombing targeting Jews.
It’s truly extraordinary what was done to the Jewish community in the 20th century and continues to be done to this day. How did people with such deep roots in so many countries in Europe and the Middle East end up almost completely cleansed from those lands. How did 300,000 become 3,000, or 18,000 just 1 person. How did hundreds of synagogues become a few? The only places where Jewish life has either increased, or remained the same in the last hundred years are almost all countries in the new world often with a British background, such as Canada, Australia, Argentina, the United States. Everywhere else in the world their life is often a bare minimum. Except for Israel, where Jews have reconstituted a Jewish polity, the world has resulted in almost totally destroying their community and its history.
There is almost no parallel to this phenomenon in the world. A community spread out over fifty countries, reduced to a mere few in many of them, or a bare remnant of the past. Of course other communities suffered mass persecution and genocide, such as Armenians, Tutsis, and Yazidis. In many places that Jews suffered, others suffered as well. Poles were cleansed from Lvov, in Poland the Nazis slaughtered local people and Stalin genocided Ukrainians. Jews in Turkey suffered perhaps less than local Christians. In Algeria Jews were expelled along with the European community.
But in many places while Jews were the victims and disappeared, other communities have prospered. Algerian Jews left Algeria and their history was cleansed almost entirely but now many Algerians live in other countries with equal rights. It seems often that almost alone among the world’s peoples, it is Jews whose history has been expunged and whose houses of worship and even graveyards are targets. Except for some indigenous peoples, driven to extinction, this has happened to Jews particularly. The hatred directed at Jewish cemeteries is particularly extraordinary. Even when there are no Jews, the non-Jews must destroy marks of their burial. Even that is a threat.
In many ways it is a judgement not on Jews but on the world. There is a shame and a debt owed by these countries. There is a sickness that thrives in them. They think they can just remove and expunge people from their history, but the long-term affects of this intolerance spreads to others. Fallujah in Iraq had an important and vibrant Jewish history. But that history was erased. When its residents were cheering ISIS and selling Yazidi women into slavery and rape, one has to note the fact that this city’s extremist hatred of Jews did not end with the Jews. Once the Jews were gone from Mosul, other communities had to be exterminated. Extermination of Jews only wets the mouth of murderers to kill others. And so when Fallujah was reduced to rubble by the Iraqi army and its Shia militias and we are asked to have sympathy for the civilians, it’s important to ask how many of those civilians had sympathy for their former Jewish neighbors. When cities like Dresden cheered the Jews being removed and then demand recollection of Dresden’s destroyed past during the Allied air raids, one has to ask, “but you didn’t care when you erased Jewish history, now you care that your churches are burning?”
The destruction of Jews, which was one of the main acts of the 20th century, is part and parcel of the 20th century’s pattern of extreme genocide, perpetrated by extreme movements such as Communism and Nazism, and excused by many academics and “scientists” as having a logic to it. To “purify” the nation, to make the workers “efficient” and make the “human material” have more potential. And what hath all that wrought, that destruction of multi-ethnic cities, like Odessa or Istanbul or Vienna? What have you replaced that with? Cities that maintained a Jewish presence, such as London, New York, or Paris, also maintain some sort of unique dynamic. But homogenous cities, devoid of diversity, built on ethnic-cleansing, Nazism, and mass murder and cleansing, what do those cities have today? The “great cities” like Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, one cannot but remark that their contribution has declined precisely as they have cleansed minorities. You cannot have brutish ethnoc-religious-nationalism and cleansing of minorities and produce contributions to the world. The long term affects of cleansing are apparent in the brutish end result. The 20th century cleansed many countries of Jews, but in so doing also cleansed itself.