JEWISH HISTORY OF THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION
(ANCIENT TIMES UNTIL THE SECOND WORLD WAR)
Part 5 of 8
Russian Jewry, while regarding World War I with some fear, felt that their participation in the defense of Russia would bring about the abolition of their second-class status. The course of events did not however justify this anticipation. The mobilization affected about 400,000 Jews of whom approximately 80,000 served at the front. The battle lines passed through the Pale of Settlement in which millions of Russian Jews lived. In the region of the Russian front and its nearby hinterland there was a military regime under the control of a group of anti-Semitic generals (Prince Nikolai Nikolayevich; Januszkiewicz). With the first defeats of the Russian army, the supreme command found it expedient to impute responsibility for their reversals to the Jews, who were accused of treason and spying for the Germans. Espionage trials were held and hostages were taken and sent to the interior of Russia. This was followed by mass expulsions of Jews from towns and townlets near the front line. These reached their height with the general expulsion of the Jews from northern Lithuania and Courland in June 1915.
In July 1915 the use of Hebrew characters in printing and writing was prohibited. The Hebrew and Yiddish press and literature were thus silenced. The attacks on the Jews aroused public opinion in Europe and America against the Russian government whose serious military and financial situation compelled it to take Western opinion into account as this was hindering Russia from obtaining loans in the Western countries. In the summer of 1915 most of the restrictions on Jewish residence were abolished de facto, though not de jure, and thousands of Jewish refugees from Poland and Lithuania streamed toward the interior of Russia. From the outset of the war Jewish communal workers established a relief organization for Jewish war victims known as YEKOPO. In conjunction with the existing Jewish societies, it assisted the refugees by providing shelter, food, and employment for them and by the establishment of schools for their children. Communal workers of every class participated in this activity, which awakened the feeling of national unity within the masses. The suffering and persecutions led Jews to attempt to evade military service and desert from the hostile army, and, in the difficult conditions caused by the mass of refugees and defeat, speculation in food and other commodities became rife among Jews. The non-Jewish population and the army reacted by intensified hatred toward them.
The extensive conquests of Germany and Austria in 1915 brought approximately 2,260,000 Jews (40% of Russian Jewry) under the military rule of the advancing armies, thus freeing them from czarist oppression while separating them from the Jews who remained under the czar. In 1917 there were 3,440,000 Jews in the region which remained under Russian control; of these, about 700,000 lived outside the former Pale of Settlement. These upheavals brought about cultural and social changes. The conscription of great numbers of Jewish youths into the Russian army and the suppression of the Jewish press and the literature accelerated the process of Russification among the Jews there. In contrast, the Jewish masses of Poland, Lithuania, the eastern Ukraine, and Belorussia, which formed the most deep-rooted element, as well as the great Jewish cultural centers of Warsaw and Vilna, were torn from Russian Jewry. This also affected the greater part of the Hasidim.