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Odysseus's avatar

How is it that so many Jews ended up in the forests of central Europe?

Asked by Odysseus (2746 points ) February 28th, 2011

What is the history of this? How did the apparent majority of Jews end up in the ancient forests of central Euroupe (which Germany is) why were so many Jewish people so far from their promised land before world war 2 (and pre-medieval)? Then all of a sudden after the war they insisted that was their home.

I understand asking such questions carries the risk of being classed ‘anti semite’ but I really want to know , why didn’t the Jews try to claim ‘home’ before ww2?

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9 Answers

JLeslie's avatar

I am not sure how the Jews wound up in Europe, I think probably we travelled to where the work was or where we were not being killed or enslaved, but that is a guess, my history knowledge isn’t great. As far as Jews moving back to Israel; Jews were buying up property and returning to “Israel” before WWII. I believe many returned to the land of Israel in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, Many considered themselves Zionists.

I don’t find your question antisemitic or offensive by the way.

Odysseus's avatar

Thank you @JLeslie.
I would love to know how the Jews were originally dispersed from their homeland and details of how and when they decided to return to their alleged homeland.
There seems to be some history missing to me, I know of the crusades and medieval Europe then there is a huge void in my education and understanding, until we get to the eighteenth-nineteenth century.
I have no education of the plight of the Jews up until the nineteenth century.

markferg's avatar

I have no actual insight on this and I haven’t even bothered to look at Wikipedia first, so I’m just going to go with my random train of thought on this!

When the Romans were finished with Judea (is that the right place? My source would have to be Life of Brian and maybe a couple of programs on the History Channel) and you’re wondering where to go, I think following the Romans back towards Europe would have seemed like the only option at the time. South or West wouldn’t look good, so it’s North(ish) or East. I think there was a migration to the East too, but the thrust of history really hasn’t examined that. Unfortunately there always seems to come a time when someone thinks its a good idea to win political power by blaming all current problems on the local Jewish population. Thus, having started out moving North (towards Rome and across to the Iberian peninsula) I suspect there would have been a tendency to keep going in that direction.Of course there was a large emigration to the ‘New World’ as it opened up so it’s not really the case that “Jews ended up in the forests”. That puts a really strange picture in my head! As for returning to Judea or Palestine or Israel or Zion or Narnia or whatever you want to call it (I’m trying really hard to be inclusive here!) I think the Balfour declaration of 1917 lit the fuse and the holocaust of WW2 made the aspiration an inevitable act.

Anyway, it seems hard not be seen as a crypo-Zionist or anti-semitic if you venture into this territory. I was in Tel-Aviv for a two week training course many years ago and I went down for breakfast on Saturday. When I pressed the lift (elevator) to go down, one of the doors opened to reveal an elderly couple, who thanked me for releasing them from the lift. They had thought it was a Sabbath lift and had got into it by mistake. Later in the day I met a colleague next coming our of their room on the same floor and I related the story of the elderly couple as we walked towards the lift. He pressed the button and another lift door opened revealing another, different, elderly couple who thanked my colleague for letting them out. He then turned to me and said, “You mean bastard, why didn’t you let them out earlier!” Sometimes people will just jump to the wrong conclusions.

optimisticpessimist's avatar

The Roman Empire destroyed Jerusalem and contributed to the dispersion of the Jewish population around Europe. I am not sure if the destruction was political or religious (or a combination of both.) Although it appears to be more political in nature as the Jews were revolting against Roman rule and the temple was destroyed. “Forced expulsions and persecution resulted in substantial shifts in the international centers of Jewish life to which far-flung communities often looked; although not always unified due to the Jewish people’s dispersion itself.” (from the linked article.) Wikipedia has a good article concerning this and where they went, in general.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_diaspora

The creation of Israel as a Jewish state began before WWII, actually pre-WWI; however, the British occupied Palestine post WWI and began allowing (perhaps even encouraging) the rebuilding of the Jewish population. The beginning of WWII and the persecution of Jews in Europe led to more and more Jews trying to immigrate to Palestine. There is a lot more to it than that, but that is a synopsis. Another article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Israel

I used Wikipedia because the entries are clear and concise.

BarnacleBill's avatar

Are you asking how the Ashkenazi Jews ended up settling in medieval communities in the Rhine River Valley area? The short explanation is that in the 4th century, Jews were prohibited from living in Jerusalem, and migrated to other parts of Europe. The first recorded Jewish settlements in Germany date back to the 4th century.

mattbrowne's avatar

I’m not sure what you mean by “ancient forests of central Europe (which Germany is)”, perhaps you could clarify this. Many Jews lived in urban areas during the diaspora. And even in rural areas most people lived outside of forests. Robin Hood and his followers were the exception so to speak.

Trying to understand the history of Judaism and the Jewish diaspora has nothing to do with antisemitism at all. No worries.

bolwerk's avatar

Jews were resettled across the west and near east in multiple “disaporas” really. Most notably, the Roman one took place after ~70 CE, scattering Jews around what was then the Roman Empire – sometimes because they were prohibited from staying in what is today Palestine/Israel, and sometimes because they were explicitly sold into slavery. Before that, though, robust and learned Jewish populations existed around the Greco-Roman world – perhaps partly because of Alexander the Great.

As the Western Empire fell, various Germanic tribes pushed into the former imperial territories, some leaving large marks on the map to this day; see places like Lombardy in Italy or Saxony in Germany; or even some national names, such as France referring to the Germanic tribe known as the Franks (this is reflected in the German name for the country: Frankreich, or “Empire of the Franks”). No doubt these early migrations themselves also pushed other relatively dispossessed people, such as Jews, around.

In the Middle Ages, Jews were often not welcome to settle as farmers and were, ironically perhaps, unwanted as vassals to feudal lords. (There are some exceptions to this, of course. I believe by the time of the plague, Jews played a large part in growing wine in the Loire river valley, for instance.) This pushed them into cities, where they were usually still heavily restricted, segregated into ghettos, and unable to perform many gentile trades. Because of corny medieval usury laws, one area they were allowed to be quite successful was in money lending. And in the nascent capitalist economies of the 12th century, finance was already becoming a critical economic function.

All that just made more expulsions inevitable. Of course, the tough side of the money lending business even today is you need to be paid back, and the bread and butter of the business is lending to people with resources to make good on their debts. Unfortunately, this often meant making money loaning money to powerful princes or bourgeois merchants who could conveniently expel you on trumped up charges after you loaned out some money at a ridiculous, but perhaps necessarily high under the circumstances, interest rate.

So, all in all, how they ended up where they did is rather unsurprising. They were automatically attracted to places where they could work, and the merchant economies of northern Europe that developed in the late medieval period made for sensible places to settle (or be forced to by hostile lords elsewhere) .

zensky's avatar

Jews have a terrible sense of direction. It took Moses 40 years of wandering in the desert until he found the promised land 5000 years ago – and nothing has changed. Every morning, Jews face the east in prayer (well, they hope it’s east) and thank the Lord for GPS.

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