Jews of Europe

The Holocaust concerns the murder and destruction of the European Jews.  Who were the European Jews? 

The Torah or Jewish Bible is perhaps the oldest written chronicle of a history of a people.  That history has been archaeologically verified as far back as the time of King David around 1000 BCE, when the Jewish people lived in and around Jerusalem, Israel, in the hills several miles from the Eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

Several times over the next thousand years, the Jewish kingdom was conquered and often Jews were forced for a time to live in exile, outside of Israel.  But when it was safe, the Jews returned to Israel and re-established their religious community and statehood.  What initially set the Jews apart was their monotheism, their belief in only one all-powerful God.

Around the time of Jesus, who was born into a Jewish home at the beginning of the Common Era, Israel (or Judea, as it was then called) was under Roman rule.  The Roman empire extended over a vast territory that included much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.  As Roman subjects, Jews were able to practice their religion and could settle in the far reaches of the empire.  As many as five million of the Roman empire’s fifty million people may have been Jews.

But when Jewish rebellions against the Romans were defeated in 66-70 CE and 132 CE, many Jews were again driven into exile, away from the main cities of Israel.  Some settled in the north of Israel and in Babylonia (present-day Iraq), where they continued to practice their religion and later codified their practices in the books of the Talmud to preserve their culture.  Others settled in Roman cities in Europe and North Africa.  Although they no longer lived in Israel, Jews continued to practice their religion, to study the Torah, to observe the Sabbath, the dietary laws (kashrut), circumcision and various religious holidays such as Passover, commemorating the liberation of the Jews from Egypt.

By 313 CE, when the Roman emperor Constantine adopted the Christian religion, Jews were perhaps the most visible religious minority group in Europe.  But with Christianity now an official state religion, many Jews converted and abandoned their Jewish practices to avoid discriminatory laws.  By 400 CE, the Jewish population had declined to under two million people.

During the Early Middle Ages, from 400 –1100 CE, Jews lived wherever they were given the most religious freedom.  After the collapse of the Roman empire in the fifth century, Jews sometimes prospered in Western Europe.  But when Christian persecution created great difficulties for them, Jews found refuge in Eastern Europe or in more tolerant Muslim areas in Southern Europe and the Middle East.  Jews also lived peacefully in Muslim Spain until Christian fundamentalism led to persecution in the eleventh century.

By 1930, Jews were living as they had for 2,000 years as a religious and cultural minority throughout Europe.  In countries where Jews had been given freedom and economic conditions were favorable, Jews had prospered with the rest of the population.  However, in places where freedom was restricted and economic conditions were poor, Jews suffered.  They experienced periodic persecution such as: expulsion from France in 1180 and again in 1394, massacre in Bavaria in 1298, the Spanish Inquisition in 1481, destruction of 300 communities in Poland in 1648, and pogroms in Russia and Poland from the 1880s up until the rise of Nazism.  Jewish religious practices, social and political life varied from country to country.  In religious practice Jews were everything from orthodox and conservative to liberal and atheist – some had even converted to Christianity.  They were rich and poor; capitalist and communist; assimilated and ethnic.  Basically, Jews were as varied as the non-Jewish Europeans with whom they had lived for centuries.


Additional Links:

Moses & Monotheism

Jewish Artists & Intellectuals