Packs, not Herds: The Great Exodus of WWI

In WWI, over half a million Jews were sent into exile, not by a Pharoah, but by paranoid Russian generals.

“Hundreds of thousands of wretched people […] were herded like cattle by Cossak troops, abandoned at railway stations, and left exposed to the elements at the edge of towns, dying of hunger, exhaustion and cold. And along the way, to raise their spirits, these pitiful multitudes encountered the same hatred and contempt […] Throughout their sorrowful history, the Jews have not known a more tragic exodus.”

– French Ambassador Maurice Paleologue, in Peter Gatrell, A Whole Empire Walking

Between 1914-1915, perhaps 600,000 Jews marched eastward into the Russian interior. They were part of a much larger refugee movement of perhaps 7 million people who fled into Russia from the Central Powers. Each group had their own reasons for moving east: Armenians were trying to flee the Turkish massacres, Poles, Russians and others were trying to escape a war zone and an uncertain fate under non-Russians.

It was a disorienting experience: many lost most if not all of their belongings, families separated, sometimes permanently, people who had lived comfortably now found themselves destitute and helpless. Most had little idea of where exactly they were headed, and they often ended up in crowded and unsanitary dwellings, fighting a multitude of deadly diseases which killed thousands of their friends and relatives. Jews were little different from others in dealing with these travails, but there was one critical distinction: while others largely “voluntarily” fled from fear, the Jews were almost all expelled by the Russian army.

People focused on the Western Front of WWI tend to forget just how much the war affected civilians on both sides, and how the attitude of armies decided their fate for good or bad. In the case of the Jews, the rampant anti-semitism of the Russian army meant all Jews were considered potential spies and enemies. It didn’t matter if you were a Russian patriot or a genuine German sympathizer, an old man or child or an able-bodied male: you are a Jew, ergo you are guilty. The irony of the mass expulsion was that the Russian army effectively abolished the hated Pale of Settlement, which restricted Jewish residence to the Western borderlands of the Empire and forbade their going into the interior. Now one anti-semitic policy made another anti-semitic policy a dead letter.

To be sure, it wasn’t all tragedy. The refugee crisis galvanized the Jews already outside the Pale to organize nationally to help their brethren. Russian Jewish help organizations did yeoman’s work in helping the hundreds of thousands of Jews spread throughout Russia from St. Petersburg to Ukraine. Furthermore, in spite of the still hostile attitude of Russian officialdom, Russian peasants don’t seem to have been any more or less receptive to Jews than they were other refugees. The influx of refugees even helped democratize Jewish leadership so more and more Jews could have a say in community affairs. But the experience of exile was bitter all the same; there was no promised land waiting for these exiles.

Many of the Jewish refugees returned home after the war to face an uncertain future in the national states that arose from the ashes of the great multi-national empires of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia. The remainder stayed behind, to endure the travails of the Bolshevik coup d’etat and the terrible Civil War that followed.

But those are stories for another time.

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