The 19th century and the first decades of the next century brought increased migrations Europe, including Jews. Hundreds of thousands of people left for the United States, Great Britain, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Palestine, Egypt or South African countries in search of a better life.
About 1.12 million Jews left the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1910. Another great wave of migrations took place after World War I broke out.
The primary reason for emigrating was a difficult economic situation. Families had many children – parents were often unable to provide for all of them, and not always was it possible to find work in one's place of living. So people would go to big cities, which offered better job prospects.
Jews would also flee from the increasing anti-Semitism. The attempt on the life of tsar Alexander II in 1881 was followed by numerous massacres in Russia, not infrequently incited by the authorities. Only in 1905, they affected 690 towns or villages.
Large migration waves were also caused by the 1904 Russian-Japanese war, the 1905 Russian revolution, World War I, the later geopolitical division of Europe, and in the interwar period – by the economic crisis and growth of nationalism.
Zionism, a political movement initiated in the second half of the 19th century which had as its goal the recreation of a Jewish national state, brought emigration to Palestine.
Emigration affected the majority of towns and villages in Eastern Europe. In the case of the Russian Empire, the inhabitants of today’s Lithuania and Belarus dominated in terms of number.
In search for livelihood and safety, people would emigrate both from big cities such as Kiev and Odessa, and from small shtetls like Augustów, Raczki or Rajgród.
Emigration brought unfavourable changes in the continent’s economy and demography. Outflow of craftsmen and qualified workers led to economic stagnation. Population growth also dropped.
About 2 million Jews left only the Russian Empire between 1881 and 1914. The majority of the emigrants were people in their prime, able to work, and 75% of them were craftsmen.
At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, long journeys were difficult and costly. Emigrants would borrow money or sell everything they had. They needed to obtain the right documents and cover the costs of transport. Some decided to cross borders illegally.
The railway network was not well developed in the Russian Empire. Emigrants would reach railway stations on foot or by horse carts, and then went by trains to ports, such as Hamburg, Bremen or Antwerp, where they embarked on ships, which travelled from several days to 2 weeks, depending on destination.
Emigrants would at times fall prey to numerous con men and fraudsters, who took advantage of their lack of knowledge about the world and inability to speak foreign languages or write. Formation of communities of people of the same nationality, usually coming from the same region, town or village, was common.