An elderly Russian Jew stands on the corner of Vor Frue Plads in Copenhagen, around 1915. With their clothes and dark eyes and hair many of the Russian Jews were very different from other Copenhageners at the streets.
Photo: Holger Damgaard / The Royal Library, the National Picture Data Base.
From around 1900 to 1914, approximately 3,000 Russian Jews settled in Copenhagen. They were different from most people on the street with their dark hair and eyes, foreign language and culture.
At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 10,000 Russian Jews arrived in Copenhagen. The vast majority were in transit and lived in Denmark for some years before they travelled to other countries but about 3,000 of the immigrated Jews settled in Copenhagen.
The immigrant Jews were a mixed group but the Russian Jews who came to Denmark were typically quite young. Approximately 45% were below the age of 15 and only 2% were over 60 years old. They came from small towns and were often more consolidated in the Jewish traditions than the Danish Jews, were very poor and many of them were artisans. Some were heavily Orthodox, while others were not particularly religious. However, most of them cultivated “the Yiddish culture”, which centred on the Yiddish language but a special cuisine and folk music also played an important role.
FLEEING PERSECUTION AND DISCRIMINATION
The Russian Jews fled from persecution, discrimination and poverty in Tsarist Russia. Discrimination and persecution of Jews in Russia was not a new phenomenon. Jews had for some years migrated from Russia but 1903 was a year of particularly violent persecution against Jews. In particular, a massacre in the town of Kischinew at Easter 1903, resulted in Russian Jews travelling to new countries with a hope of gaining a better life.
Opportunities as a Jew in Russia were very limited: the Jews had 25 years of compulsory military service and limited access to education. Only 2% of school pupils were allowed to be Jews. Moreover, they had to reside in the special “settlement zone” that stretched from the present Latvia, through Poland and Ukraine to the Black Sea. Finally they were only allowed to work within specific industries and not in public service.
DENMARK – “AMERICA – FOR THE POOR”
Most of the Jews who left the resettlement area had a dream about going abroad to “the land of opportunities”, or the Free States as the United States of America was also called at that time. But most of the Russian Jews were very poor and could therefore only afford a ticket to countries such as Denmark, which were closer to Russia – “America – for the poor.”
Approximately fifty years later, in 1960, the Yiddish speaking culture in Copenhagen was about to disappear and the two Jewish groups, who for many years had lived very different lives, gradually merged together.