German Jewish Immigrants, Part 3

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


German Jewish Businessmen in the 19th Century


     The Civil War, also known as The War Between the States (1861-1865), marked the era in which the most successful German Jewish businessmen turned to finance. This does not mean that all, or even a majority of German speaking Jewish immigrants entered finance. Many remained in the peddler and retail business and invented the department store.

     The financially most successful German Jews became financiers in part because the Civil War provided opportunities to enter finance and in part because those whose business was in clothing were able to capitalize on the need for uniforms and other clothes. Some of the Jewish textile manufacturers obtained lucrative contracts from the U.S. government, so that some Jewish contractors had accumulated $1 million by 1864. 

     In addition to these circumstances, it was fortuitous that New York had become the financial center of the United States even as the Jewish community grew in that city because it had become the port of arrival for so many immigrants. This can be seen by looking at the population statistics for New York since 1850, when that city had a population of 696,000. In 1900, New York had three million inhabitants and by 1910, shortly before Congress shut down most immigration, New York had nearly five million people. 

     That segment of the German Jewish immigrants who had earned a great amount of money gradually formed a German Jewish elite in New York. This came about because the “leading” citizens of New York would not deal with Jews or allow them to become part of their “inner circle” of friends. The Morgans and the Vanderbilts would not deal with Jews. Therefore, wealthy Jews formed their own country clubs, produced lavish entertainments, organized charities, and supported political candidates, thereby mirroring the conduct of the non-Jewish “elites.” These upper class German Jews married one another and created an entire social network, which, despite changed conditions, continues to this day.

      This elite was attached to their native language, as are immigrants of all backgrounds. This alone did not separate them from other Americans. In addition, these elites were also Jewish, and that did indeed create a barrier towards acceptance by the Gentile upper class. Therefore, the upper class German Jewish men formed their own social clubs, thereby imitating the actions of Gentiles, who would not allow the Jews into their clubs. The German Jews spoke the German language among themselves and founded a social club in 1852 which was called Harmonie Gesellschaft, which continued to use German until 1893.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Assassination, Anarchy, & Terrorism (2012).

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