Eastern European Jews & German Jews

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk



World of Our Fathers


is  the name of a magnificent book written by Irving Howe. The book describes the migration of two million eastern European Jews from the Russian Empire to America between 1891 and 1914. The author  then continues by showing how in three generations the now American Jews lifted themselves up from the hideous slums of the New York City lower east side to wealth and prominence in America.

     World of Our Fathers was published in 1976 and is over seven hundred pages long. It ends with a chapter called “At Ease in America.”

     This book stands in sharp contrast to a book by two Harvard professors, Gerhard Sonnert and Gerald Holton, called What Happened to the Children Who Fled Nazi Persecution. This book was published in 2006 and describes the lives of some 28 thousand children who arrived in the United States from Germany between 1933, when the persecutions began, and 1941, when the Second World War closed the doors of the United States until 1945, when the war was over.

      There are some remarkable differences between these two immigrations. The first is that the eastern European Jews usually came as families. These families included two or more generations who came together and settled in the terrible slums of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By contrast, the majority of the German Jews of the Nazi era came alone because their families had been murdered.           

      It is common to believe that the Holocaust started after the invasion of Poland in 1939. That was not true for the German Jews, who became the targets of persecution in January of 1933 as soon as the Nazis had usurped the government.

     A second difference between these two immigrations was that it took three generations for the eastern European immigrants to succeed. According to immigration historians such as Wittke and others, that is true of every ethnic group who has ever come here, with one exception. The German Jews of the 1930’s and 40's succeeded themselves in one generation. The immigrants themselves became academics, physicians, lawyers, major businessmen, and even members of Congress.

     A third difference between the two immigrant communities was that the eastern European Jews were helped by the then wealthy American Jews descendant from the German Jewish immigrants who had come in the 1840’s. Outstanding among those who helped the most was Lillian Wald, daughter of a wealthy Jewish family from Rochester, N.Y.  She founded the Visiting Nurse Service, which helped innumerable Jewish families who lived under horrible conditions in the New York tenement slums. Meanwhile, the richest man in the American Jewish community, Jacob Schiff, financed innumerable charities for the benefit of the poor Jews.

     The German Jews who came during the Nazi era could not freely enter the United States as had been the case before 1924. After that year, only immigrants having an “affidavit of support” from an American citizen could enter this country. There were of course some American Jews who risked their fortune to bring into this country German Jews who might have become a burden to them. That hardly every happened. There were also large Jewish organizations in this country who collected considerable sums from American Jews with a view of helping the German Jews with travel expenses and the necessary “affidavit.” The Germans had stolen everything belonging to the Jews, so that they could not pay for their own passage or anything else. Unfortunately, the record shows that the majority of the money collected was never used to help the Jewish victims desperate to get out of Germany. Instead the money was used to pay huge salaries to “executive directors” of social service agencies who also needed travel funds to attend endless conferences and who also needed hotel expenses and the help of numerous assistants, etc. etc., until next to nothing was left for the German Jews. Of the 580,000 Jews living in Germany in 1933, the year Hitler became dictator, only a third survived despite the fact that the war did not start until 1939 and the U.S. was not involved until 1941. For all those years, not much was done by the American Jewish community to allow the German Jews to survive.

   Of course, some did survive and some did get here before 1941. These German refugees soon discovered that their American brethren did not want them. Utterly destitute and traumatized by horrible experiences, these refugees were now blamed for the reputed “arrogance” of the German Jews of the nineteenth and early twentieth century. This despite the fact that Albert Ballin, the owner of the “Hamburg-Amerika Paket Aktiengesellschaft” (HAPAG) established a whole colony of houses giving shelter and free food to the eastern European Jews who traveled from Hamburg to New York on his ships. Many other German Jews also helped, but, as Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones” (Julius Caesar Act III, Scene 2). German Jews were also told that they “refused to speak Yiddish” because of their arrogance. The truth is that Yiddish was not spoken in Germany, so that these refugees did not know the language.

     It would be a sacrilege to deny that the eastern European Jews attained enormous success in this country in three generations. Innumerable major scientists, writers, business leaders, and politicians have illuminated the American landscape during the past sixty years. No doubt the American Jewish community has contributed mightily to American life and has earned many rewards for it.

     That then leads to the need to answer the question: “How did the German Jewish children who came alone or with abbreviated families succeed in one generation?”  Immigration historians have recorded that every ethnic group who ever came here took three generations to ascend to the “American Dream.” Except the German Jewish children. We emphasize children. These children had no money, usually no parents or other relatives, and were largely rejected by the American Jewish community.

     Well, Sonnert and Holton have  answered that question best understood in the words of one of their respondents, who said, “I still work at 74 because of my fear of poverty and rejection.”  It appears that almost all the German Jewish immigrants who came as children, i.e. when less than 18 years of age, share that same fear. Rejected at home by their fellow countrymen, again rejected in America by the fellow Jews, they cannot rid themselves of the belief that unless they perform on and on and on, they will be again treated “like a skunk at a picnic.” To this day, in 2010, these erstwhile refugees feel compelled to work and work and work lest their fears come true. Indeed, the facts do not support the emotions. Yet the emotions rule.

     Now, in 2010, the fifth generation of the eastern European Jews has arrived and is going strong in America. Yet, this generation, utterly ignorant of Jewish history, is destroying all that which their elders died for in Europe. Now, over 53 percent of Jews marry non-Jews, with the result that there are no Jewish grandchildren for them .  A recent survey by Gallup revealed that 52% of former Jews are now atheists and that only about 40% of Americans labeled Jews by the media support synagogues or other Jewish institutions. Two years ago some New York ex-Jews founded an organization called Jstreet, which is devoted to the destruction of Israel. This organization seeks to influence Congress and the president not to support Israel in any manner. At their convention they allowed the most radical Arab haters to speak and propagandize the Arab cause, as does a magazine called “Tikkun,” whose editor and whose contributors hold the same views.

     Indeed, it would once more seem that the Jewish people cannot survive all our enemies. The United Nations, the direct successor of the old Nazi party, is today the agent of all the hate and bigotry once supplied by the German propaganda machine. Meanwhile, American Jews are quickly promoting the disappearance of Jews and Judaism from America.

     Yet, we do not despair. We have been there before and survived all the Torquemadas and Hitlers despite our terrible losses. Even our ex-Jewish enemies like Norman Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky and many others will not destroy us. Indeed, these former Jews, now allied with our worst enemies, believe, in he words of Winston Churchill, that “ the crocodile will eat them last.” Yet, we believe that we will never be destroyed because we have that Jewish courage that never gives in bimhayro v’ymenoo.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including The American Criminal Justice System (2010).

Home ] Up ]