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The Life They Left Behind

June 2024
1min read

The majority of American Jews today are descended from the more than a million immigrants who fled from Eastern Europe between 1880 and World War I. Their ancestors, in turn, had been driven from Western Europe during the Middle Ages: large numbers of them had settled in Poland, where they were made welcome because of their skill in crafts and commerce. More than a thousand years earlier, their forefather had been dispersed from Palestine to various parts of the Roman Empire after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The toleration enjoyed by the Jews of Poland was rare, for after the Chrislianizing of Europe only the Jews remained as a distinctly unconverted part of the population. They were steadfastly loyal to Judaism, and this, plus the belief that they had been responsible for the Crucifixion, made them the butt of much Christian spite. Marc Chagall’s painting, above, dramatizes the legend of the Wandering Jew, whose penalty for having been rude to Jesus was to travel without rest until Judgment Day. In effect the legend became true: for centuries the Jews were herded about Europe, heavily discriminated against, and forced into segregated ghettos when they were allowed to live at all. Even in Poland their years of peace were numbered—for the eastern part of the country, where most of them lived, was destined to fall into the hands of the Russian czars. On the following pages will be found a portfolio of paintings illustrating the life in Eastern Europe which Jewish emigrants left behind.

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