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A People at Risk

Just as ethnic Russians and Poles were finding their way to American shores, one of the most dramatic chapters in world history was underway—the mass migration of Eastern European Jews to the United States. In a few short decades, from 1880 to 1920, a vast number of the Jewish people living in the lands ruled by Russia—including Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, as well as neighboring regions—moved en masse to the U.S. In so doing, they left a centuries-old legacy behind, and changed the culture of the United States profoundly.

Jewish communities had played a vital role in the culture of Eastern Europe for centuries, but in the 19th century they were in danger of annihilation. Of all the ethnic and national groups that lived under the rule of the Russian czars, the Eastern European Jews had long been the most isolated and endured the harshest treatment. Separated from other residents of the Empire by barriers of language and of faith, as well as by an array of brutally oppressive laws, most never considered themselves Russians. Eastern European Jews were socially and physically segregated, locked into urban ghettoes or restricted to small villages called shtetls, barred from almost all means of making a living, and subject to random attacks by non-Jewish neighbors or imperial officials.

In the 1880s, however, the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were overwhelmed by a wave of state-sponsored murder and destruction. When the czar was assassinated in 1881, the crime was blamed, falsely, on a Jewish conspiracy, and the government launched a wave of state-sponsored massacres known as pogroms. Hundreds of Jewish villages and neighborhoods were burned by rampaging mobs, and thousands of Jews were slaughtered by Russian soldiers and peasants. The pogroms caused an international outcry, but they would continue to break out for decades to come.

For tens of thousands of the Empire’s Jewish residents, who were already struggling to survive famines and land shortages, this represented the breaking point. In an article for The Atlantic, the journalist Abraham Cahan described a meeting of the Jewish community of Kiev, during which one speaker proclaimed:

There is no hope for Israel in Russia. The salvation of the downtrodden people lies in other parts, in a land beyond the seas, which knows no distinction of race or faith, which is a mother to Jew and Gentile alike. In the great republic is our redemption from the brutalities and ignominies to which we are subjected in this our birthplace. In America we shall find rest; the stars and stripes will wave over the true home of our people. To America, brethren! To America!

The cry “To America!” spread across Eastern Europe and launched a massive human migration. Jewish immigrants came to the United States by any possible means, defying the czar’s laws against emigration. Many fled by night, eluding Russian border guards and murderous highway gangs and bribing officials to allow them passage to Western Europe. From there, they endured a weeklong ocean voyage, generally crammed into stifling steerage compartments with little access to kosher food.

In the 1880s, more than 200,000 Eastern European Jews arrived in the U.S. In the next decade, the number was over 300,000, and between 1900 and 1914 it topped 1.5 million, most passing through the new immigrant processing center at Ellis Island. All in all, between 1880 and 1924, when the U.S. Congress cut immigration back severely, it is estimated that as many as 3 million Eastern European Jews came to the U.S.

On their arrival, they found themselves in the midst of a tremendous wave of new immigrants from all over Europe and Asia. The Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, however, were different in two crucial ways. First, they fled the old country at an astonishing rate; by 1920 more than one-third of the Jewish population of the Russian Empire had emigrated. Perhaps more important, their rate of return migration was close to zero—lower than any other major immigrant group. Many of the other immigrants of the turn of the 20th century came to the U.S. as sojourners, planning to stay for a while, earn a nest egg, and return to their ancestral homeland. The Jews of Eastern Europe had no such intentions; they had abandoned the Old World once and for all. The United States was to become their new homeland.

Jewish immigration had been a part of U.S. history since its earliest years. The first Jewish congregation in North America was formed in 1654, and Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal arrived throughout the colonial period. Since the early 19th century, Jewish immigrants from Germany had built a substantial presence up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

Still, no one was prepared for the tremendous influx of Jewish immigrants that arrived from Eastern Europe. The social welfare institutions of the German Jewish community, accustomed to dealing with much smaller numbers, struggled to cope with the thousands of needy cases that stepped ashore from Ellis Island each year. Many established Jewish Americans were several generations away from their own immigrant roots and were sometimes shocked by the threadbare, provincial figures who appeared on their doorsteps. The Eastern European immigrants quickly established many of their own support structures, coming together to form aid societies based on the burial societies and congregations of their home villages. Soon, new arrivals had somewhere to turn for advice, modest financial assistance, and aid in finding someplace to settle down.

Unlike every other immigrant group, however, the Jewish immigrants of Eastern Europe overwhelmingly chose to remain in New York City. The close ties of shtetl life led many immigrants to stay close to neighbors from their old villages. For many others, the strict religious practices of Orthodox Judaism required that they live near an existing Jewish community. Around the turn of the century, nearly one-half of the Jewish population of the United States lived in New York City. There, they would create a world unlike any other in the annals of American immigration.



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