Jewish Genealogical Society of British Columbia member Danny Gelmon, left, speaks with Hal Bookbinder. (photo Stephen Falk)
Why Did Our Ancestors Leave a Nice Place Like the Pale? That was the title of Hal Bookbinder’s March 14 talk at Temple Sholom.
Bookbinder was hosted in Vancouver by the Jewish Genealogical Society of British Columbia (JGenBC). He is involved with JewishGen, JewishGen Ukraine and the Jewish Genealogical Society of Los Angeles. He has published numerous articles on research techniques, Jewish history, and border changes; the latter a matter of particular import to Ashkenazi Jews researching their families’ histories in Eastern Europe. A former president of the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies, Bookbinder was honoured in 2010 with the association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
On March 14, Bookbinder gave a detailed and insightful presentation, all without using notes. “Pale comes from the Latin palus for a stake, the stakes which were used to mark off an area.” he explained. “It was also used for the English Pale, a territory within Ireland controlled by the English. The Pale of Jewish Settlement in western Russia was a territory within the borders of Czarist Russia where Jews were allowed to live.”
Bookbinder said, “Limits on the area in which Jews could live came into being when Russia attempted to integrate Jews into the expanding country, from which Jews had been excluded since the end of the 15th century.” From 1791 until 1915, he said, the majority of Jews living in Eastern Europe were confined by the czars of Russia within the “Pale of Settlement.”
Bookbinder broke up the history of the Pale into six periods, each approximately 25 years long: creation, confinement, oppression, enlightenment, pogroms and chaos. The first era, that of creation, arose from Russia’s westward march to seize new territories in Belarus, Poland and Ukraine, he explained. Russia didn’t want Jews within its borders, but, as it expanded its empire westward, it came to be responsible for millions of them, creating a “Jewish question” for itself.
Catherine the Great (who reigned 1762-1796) responded by ruling that Jews should stay in the Pale. The confinement era intensified efforts to keep the Jews in the Pale, so as not to “infect our good Eastern Orthodox brethren,” explained Bookbinder. During this era, Catherine the Great’s son, Paul I, initiated a new program aimed at assimilating Jews into Christian culture by making their lives so miserable they would rather convert than remain as they were.
This led to the period of the cantonists, during which Jewish boys were drafted into the Russian army. Some did convert, though most did not. Large numbers died from mistreatment, neglect and malnourishment. The military schools provided army training as well as a rudimentary education. Discipline was maintained by the threat of starvation and corporal punishment. At the age of 18, pupils were drafted to regular army units, where they served for 25 years. Enlistment for the cantonist institutions, which originated in the 17th century, was most rigorously enforced during the reigns of Paul I’s son Alexander I (reigned 1801–1825) and Nicholas I (reigned 1825–1855), said Bookbinder. It is estimated that around 40,000 Jewish children were stolen from their families during this period. The practice was abolished in 1856 under Alexander II (reigned 1855-1881).
Czar Alexander II took a more “enlightened” approach, continuing to seek the conversion and assimilation of Jews through gentler methods. Czar Alexander III, a rabid antisemite like his grandfather, initiated the era of pogroms after he came to power in 1881.
Starting in 1905, with the ascension of Nicholas II, the chaos period began. “Russia was in ferment,” said Bookbinder, “and it was the era of assassination attempts, the Bolsheviks, fighting between the Red Army and the White Army, the Cossacks – creating a situation that was so unpleasant that it prompted many of our ancestors to leave.”
But, Bookbinder asked, “Why did they leave then? They had lived through so many horrors, and this was far from the worst they had seen. I think it is because, during the more enlightened era of Czar Alexander II, our ancestors got a taste of a more dignified, more secure existence and took courage. When things descended again into chaos, they had had enough, and many escaped Russia.”
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.