In comparison, the Jews in western Europe -- Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium – were a much smaller proportion of the whole population and tended to adopt the culture of their non-Jewish neighbours. They dressed and talked like them, and traditional religious practices and Yiddish culture played a less important part in their lives. In general, they tended to have had more formal education than eastern European Jews and to live in towns or cities. Across eastern and western Europe, Jews could be found in all walks of life, in both rural and urban communities. Some families were wealthy; many more were poor. Many children finished their education early to work in a craft or trade; some looked forward to continuing their learning at university. During this time, Jewish culture thrived. There were some Jews who excelled in the secular worlds of literature, theatre, music, and art. Also some culture that was specifically Jewish developed during these years in the very same arts, mainly in Eastern Europe.
In eastern Europe, many of the Jews lived in small towns or villages called shtetls. Eastern European Jews tended to live a separate life as a minority within the culture of the rest of the population. They spoke Yiddish, a Germanic language written in the Hebrew alphabet that also includes elements of Slavic and other languages.. They read Yiddish books and attended Yiddish theatre and films. Although many younger Jews in larger towns were beginning to adopt modern ways and dress, older people often dressed traditionally, the men wearing hats, and the women modestly covering their hair with scarves.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, Jews were living in almost every country of Europe. A total of about nine million Jews lived in the twenty-one countries that would be occupied by Germany during World War II.