Jews have been living in Europe since the period of the Roman Empire. After the Bar Kochba revolt the Roman Empire exiled Jews from the Land of Israel and eventually they were scattered throughout Europe and elsewhere. Prior to World War II the Jewish population of Europe was close to nine million, of which approximately two thirds were murdered during the holocaust (1940-1945).
In Europe, the largest population of Jews was concentrated in the Russian Empire and the rest were dispersed throughout other European countries, especially in Eastern Europe. Those areas where Jews lived were collectively called the Diaspora. In those countries Jews flourished and were able to practice their religion even in the face of periods of anti-Semitic policies. At times they suffered from pogroms and persecutions. In the late 1980s, Jews from Russia were permitted to emigrate from the Soviet Union and many left for the United States or Israel. In spite of this mass emigration, the Soviet Union still has the largest population of Jews in Europe.
In the early part of the 14th century, in the light of growing signs of anti-Jewish sentiment and anti-Semitic pogroms, large numbers of Jews from Western European countries fled to Eastern European countries, which were more tolerant. Great masses of Jews were expelled from Spain, France, England and Germany at various times and they gratefully accepted the invitation from Poland's Casimir III the Great to come to live and settle in any area that was controlled by Poland. They were offered the opportunity of engaging in business on behalf of the Polish nobility in the form of performing middleman services in commerce and agriculture. In the mid-1300s nearly 85 percent of the Jews in Poland were involved in the service of the government, whether estate management, trade or tax collecting. Later on the Jews began to spread out of Poland and Hungary and began expanding into areas of Ukraine and Lithuania.
Most Jews in Eastern Europe lived in what was called a "shtetl," the Yiddish word for small town. They lived in harmony with each other and were able to observe their traditions, build synagogues and schools and engage in all that was necessary for their Jewish way of living. They hardly got any services from the local rulers. They did not assimilate with the non-Jewish population and remained a separate ethnic group.
During the reign of Catherine II of Russia, the situation of the Jews changed drastically. The Russian Empire conquered vast areas of Polish territory which had a large Jewish population. The rights of the Jews became severely limited and they needed special permission to emigrate.
In the early 1800s, the situation in Russia began to change when Jews began to move to new towns and villages where agricultural communities began to spring up. A change occurred for the Jews of Russia with the coming of the Decembrist Revolt of 1825, quickly followed by the founding of a new Russian intelligentsia along with the birth and the escalation of socialism, nihilism, liberalism and eventually Marxism.
Up until 1827 Jews were not permitted to serve in the Russian army and instead were forced to pay double taxation. All that changed when Nicholas I decreed that Jews must be conscripted to the Russian army. The isolation of Jews in Russia slowly began to erode and the Russian language and customs were slowly adopted by more and more Jews.
The situation for the Jews began once again to deteriorate when pogroms surfaced again after the Jews were blamed for the murder of Tsar Alexander II. In 1881, pogroms were carried out in 166 towns in the Ukraine and in towns throughout Eastern Europe. Men, women and children were killed or injured and many families were reduced to poverty. This forced the government to turn its attention to the Jewish problem. In May 1882, regulations, which became known as the May Laws, were introduced which contained many repressive laws against the Jews.
The situation for Jews living in Russia and other Eastern European countries slowly grew worse with the birth of communism, when they were deprive of all religious freedoms. Many countries where Jews still enjoyed freedom of religion suddenly found themselves under communist rule. This situation did not change until near the end of the 20th century with the fall of communism, when religious freedom was reinstated and Jews were granted the right to emigrate.