German Jewish Immigrants, Part 4

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


German Jewish Bankers & Peddlers in 19th Century America


     Every ethnic group which has ever entered this country has contributed its particular abilities to the American culture. This was also true of the German Jews who came between 1848 and 1880. Because these people had been deprived in their native land of the right to own land, serve in the military, or hold government appointments, they earned their livelihoods in those occupations allowed them.

     Christian prejudice had for centuries relegated the European Jewish population to a few occupations, and particularly that of money lender. Until the end of the 19th century, European Jews were forced to accept money lent them by the land owning nobility at 20% to 40% interest. Jews who did not pay on time were killed. Therefore, the Jews lent the money forced upon them to the peasants, who in turn hated the Jewish money lender for seeking to collect what was owed him.

     This is best portrayed by the character of “Shylock” in Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” Here the author depicts a most despicable character, conforming to all the stereotyping of Jews that ended in the slaughter of nearly the entire European Jewish population between 1933 and 1945. In fact, these hate filled myths can be found in all of European literature no matter which language was employed. From there these legends about Jews have entered Muslim literature and public opinion, so that the Arab press and other Muslim publications repeat these stories every day.

     After Napoleon Bonaparte removed some of the restrictions on Jewish existence during his brief rule of Europe, some Jewish money lenders became bankers in the modern sense. Among these were some who later moved to the United States, where they entered the field of finance, either because they had already gained some experience in European banking, or because they had become acquainted and in some cases married into a banking family.

    When the history of the German Jewish immigration to the United States was written, the names of some Jewish financiers of German birth or origin became prominent. Included were the Seligman family, the Warburgs, Kuhn, Loeb, Hallgarten, Goldman, Sachs, Ickelheimer, the Wertheims, and Jacob Schiff, who at age 18 had already some banking experience in his native Frankfurt.

     Although the Straus family adopted the Episcopal religion in the 20th century, the family was known as Jews because those who came here from Germany in the 19th century were Jews. Lazar Straus, born in Bavaria, Germany came to the United States together with his family, including Oscar Straus, who was born in 1850. He had two brothers, Nathan and Isidor.  Nathan Straus became a partner of Macy’s Department Store in 1874 after working for Macy’s for several years. That store became a chain of 93 department stores located all over the country.

    Although the possession of large amounts of money is hardly an achievement, the Straus family has benefited for years from the tabloid fame such wealth engenders. Nathan Straus II’s son, Jack Isidor (1900-1985), inherited the management of Macy’s as he rose from director to vice president and then president in 1940. The Straus family became active in Democrat politics despite the aversion of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Jews.

     This is by no means an exhaustive list of German Jews who became very wealthy in the United States, although the most wealthy of these immigrants constituted only about twenty families. These people attended the same synagogues, were members of the same clubs and exhibited the same interest in maintaining the German culture.

     It is of course evident that not all German Jewish immigrants became wealthy or dealt in finance. In fact, the majority of these immigrants became peddlers who sold dry goods and household supplies from door to door all over the country. This was quite evident in the 1860’s and led to an order by General Ulysses Grant expelling all Jews from the war zone under his command. The order number 11 was issued on December 17, 1862 and affected about 116,000 Jews living in Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi. Grant blamed Jews for the black market in southern cotton, which was used to feed northern textile mills who had no other source. In fact, the Union army used southern cotton in its tents and uniforms. For that reason, President Lincoln allowed limited trade in southern cotton. This trade was controlled by issuing licenses to those engaging in that trade. These licenses were under the supervision of General Grant. Now unlicensed traders bribed Union officers to allow them to buy cotton without a license. When merchants kept besieging his office for licenses, Grant became exasperated, as he needed to concentrate on military matters. In view of the ancient canards about Jews, traders, exploiters, and other epithets, Grant expelled the Jews, although the vast majority of those who traded there were not Jewish. As a result, even Jewish Union veterans were expelled from their homes in Mississippi and elsewhere, as were Jews who had nothing to do with trading of any kind.

     The Jews fought back. They sent telegrams to President Lincoln denouncing this brutal order and demanding their constitutional rights. Rallies were held in New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and Louisville. Then a group of Jews under the leadership of Caesar Kaskel visited the White House and showed Abraham Lincoln the order of expulsion. Lincoln revoked that order, commanding Grant to do so. It was revoked three days later.

Shalom u’vracha.

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

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