Jewish Immigration

Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Jewish Immigration


   At the end of the 1870’s there were about 40,000 Jews in the United States. Most had come from Germany together with other Germans who settled in the main in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Cincinnati as well as the East Coast cities. There were also some Russian Jews among them because Czar Nicholas I had issued over six hundred anti-Jewish decrees during his reign between 1825 and 1855.

   The Jews of Russia were of course stigmatized outsiders in that Christian land as they had been in all Christian countries for all the centuries since Constantine declared Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire in 313.  Because the Christian religion had the force of public law, Jews became second class citizens in all Christian countries thereafter. To insure that they remain so, the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 had ruled, among other indignities, that Jews were henceforth to wear only black clothes as a stigma distinguishing the “Christ Killers”, a label which NBC continued to broadcast on its “Saturday Night Live” show on December 4, 1999 and subsequently.

   For the Jews of Europe second class citizenship meant contempt, persecution and in the Russian Empire so called “pogroms”, a word meaning “like thunder” and referring to sudden violent attacks on the Jewish community resulting in death and destruction. These sporadic “pogroms” had been part of Jewish life in Eastern Europe since King Boleslav of Poland invited the German Jews to settle in that country in 1264. The Jews who came to Poland from the west spoke German. Differing in language and religion from their Polish speaking neighbors, they settled in small towns and villages which were entirely Jewish or in segments of larger towns in which they lived in separate enclaves. As the centuries passed their 13th century German remained as antiquated as it had been on their arrival, because the language became calcified like Pennsylvania Dutch. The German spoken by the Eastern European Jews became known as Yiddish or Jewish and distinguished Jews from the Slavic speaking peoples around them.

   When Russia, together with Austria and Prussia, partitioned Poland in 1772 the vast majority of Eastern European Jews came under Russian rule and were therefore subject to the anti-Jewish policies of its governments and emperors.

   It was 1881 when these policies became most unbearable for the Jews of the vast Russian Empire. In that year Emperor Alexander II was assassinated. His son Alexander III was a malicious anti-Jewish bigot who organized persecutions of Jews in all of his empire, leading to a mass immigration of the Yiddish speaking Jews to America.  It is estimated that 1,600,000 Jews came to the United States between 1881 and 1918. Unlike the Italians and others who came from an independent nation, these Jews came as a whole people who had no nation. While individual Italians or Poles might be in flight, the entire Jewish people were in flight. Italians, Poles, Germans and others also arrived. However, their nations remained intact. Jews, however, had no nation from which to emigrate. They came as stigmatized people from the old country to which they could hardly return.

    As the number of Yiddish speaking Jews increased in the United States, the Jews, like other immigrants, formed distinct neighborhoods in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and almost all of the larger American cities. Already the poorest of Europeans, the Jews in America constituted a “proletariat” equal to that of any other immigrant group of the time. Working mostly in the needle trades, the Jews gave native Americans the impression that they were utterly foreign to anything American and probably incapable of ever becoming Americans. Not only were the Jews not Christians, they even used the Hebrew alphabet to write their language. They observed Saturday, not Sunday, as their Sabbath. Housed in the worst tenements, they were so crowded that the space allotted to each person was only 428 cubic feet when the legal limit was 600. The death rate among the Jews of the early twentieth century was 42.4 when the average American death rate was 25.7. The New York Times repeatedly sent reporters to the Jewish neighborhoods who “recoiled from the clamor and stench of its half-starved inhabitants.”

   Prior to the mass immigration of the Yiddish-speaking Jews, anti-Jewish conduct was almost unknown in the United States. This was true in part because there were so few Jews in this country. It was also true, however, because the few Jews who were here were almost entirely of German birth. These Jews had already discarded the culture still common to the Yiddish-speaking Jews, a language which the German Jews never used. The German Jews were well educated, were easily capable of Anglo-conformity and frequently married into non-Jewish families. In short, the German Jews were not very different from other Americans of western European origin.

  Beginning, however, in 1877, anti-Jewish behavior and discrimination against Jews became evident in the United States. This kind of conduct was in part fueled by the same “anti-Semitism” so widespread in Europe.  In the main, however, anti-Jewish sentiment was rooted in anti-foreign attitudes which affected the Irish, the Poles and the Italians as much, if not more, than the Jews. Nevertheless, Jews became the objects of stigma derived from both sources. As Jews rose educationally and economically they were shut out of the “best” colleges such as Columbia University and Harvard College. Those Jews who did become college students were shut out of fraternities and certainly were not appointed to any faculty except City College of New York. In urban areas “restrictive covenants” were instituted. These “covenants” were agreements among homeowners not to sell to Jews, so that Jews were unable to live in most suburban neighborhoods.  Most important, however, was economic discrimination. Yet none of these forms of bigotry were translated into government action but remained private. This was the great difference between the Jewish experience in America and the Jewish experience in Europe. In America Jews used the commitment of the U.S. to legal equality as their most powerful weapon in gaining eventual acceptance as Americans. In Europe, private and government sponsored bigotry finally led to the gas ovens of World War II.

   Beginning in 1913 Thomas E. Watson, a successful Georgia lawyer, began a campaign against Jews which, in its vitriol and its eventual outcome, resembled the type of hate Jews had fled in the old country. Watson had already attacked Catholics with the same vehemence in his several publications. Now he used his influence and speaking ability to label Jews as physically filthy and interested only in money and in cheating Christians.  Like Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice, Watson repeated every canard ever used against Jews, including the accusation that Jews “lusted” for “pure” Christian women. Therefore, when on April 27, 1913 a shop girl, Mary Phelan, was found murdered in the cellar of a pencil factory in Marietta, Georgia., Watson and his followers at once accused the Jewish manager of the factory, Leo Frank, of killing her. It is now known that the murder was committed by Jim Conley, an Afro-American. This appeared to be the case at that time also; however, no effort was made to discover the killer of Mary Phelan. Instead, Leo Frank was arrested, tried and convicted of this murder on the instigation of Watson and his followers. The jury which convicted Frank was threatened by a mob of Watson’s followers outside the courthouse who shouted, “Hang the Jew or we will hang you.”  Watson exulted in his victory and wrote that Frank was “...a typical young Jewish man of business who lives for pleasure and runs after Gentile girls. Every student of sociology knows that the black man’s lust after the white woman is not much fiercer than the lust of the licentious Jew for the Gentile.” Watson also accused all Jews of “ritual murder”, a charge which had been the mainstay of Christian bigotry over the centuries and which claimed that Jews bake their unleavened bread or Matzah (from Hebrew= Mozo to exit, hence the bread of the Exodus from Egypt.) with the blood of murdered Christian children.  Hating Catholics with the same venom, Watson also claimed to know that “rich Jews” were supporting the Pope and vice versa.

   In 1920, Henry Ford, then one of the most prominent Americans, published an English translation of a Russian book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Ford owned a newspaper called The Dearborn Independent in which he published excerpts from this French forgery, first accusing the Jews in 1806. “The Protocols” was then later adopted by Russian monks in order to discredit the Russian Jews.  Ford claimed to “expose” an international Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world and to undermine “all that Anglo-Saxons mean by civilization.” Widely disseminated, many Christian priests and ministers repeated these stories in their Sunday sermons. This kind of calumny was of course not new to the European Jews. However, in America this propaganda could be countered in the press, in the court of public opinion and in the law. Jews therefore formed the Anti-Defamation League to resist these canards and were helped in their efforts by numerous Christians and others who were able to invoke the American tradition of equal rights and freedoms for all. It was in the 1920’s when Americans succeeded in rejecting Old World hatreds by calling upon these traditions as Jews and others who were under attack used such phrases as the inalienable rights proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence to insure their place in America. The immigrants from Eastern Europe fought only to ensure their right to life in America. Their children then secured for themselves political liberty and social equality including the right to work at anything their competence allowed.  Finally, the third and fourth generation attained the pursuit of happiness, so that at the end of 2000 the Jews of America have indeed overcome the stigma of immigration as have others whose forebears came a century ago.

   There are in the U.S. today about 170,000 immigrants who are generally called “Holocaust Survivors”. Unlike any other immigrants to this country, these few survivors of the mass murder of European Jews by Europe’s Christian population cannot return to their native lands, cannot visit their relatives, cannot hear the language of their youth again, cannot call anyone who knew them in their earlier life nor can they visit their erstwhile homes. They are indeed outsiders in the most extreme meaning of that word, for they carry with them a life long stigma inscribed upon their minds and their bodies by a most incredible experience. We have already seen that the Russian Jews who came here in such great numbers in the early years of the 20th century had little desire to return to the miseries of their erstwhile existence. Nevertheless, they, as well as all other ethnic groups who came here could write, visit or be visited by their families in the Old Country. They could also rejoin those of their families who came here after them. Many, in fact, came with their entire families and settled together in ethnic enclaves where their language was spoken and where they could count on the support of others to help them adjust to their new environs.

   None of this was true of those who came here as a result of the Holocaust. Those who survived that experience came alone. They had no families nor friends nor acquaintances because those whom they knew and cherished in Europe had all been murdered by gas, by starvation and by mass executions.

   The Greek phrase Holocaust or whole fire refers to the extermination of the European Jews between 1933 and 1945. That extermination was preceded by stigmatizing the Jewish population of Europe in a manner which even the medieval world never attained. Indeed, Martin Luther had called for the expulsion of all Jews from German lands as early as 1542.  Nevertheless, this was not carried out until 1939, when the Germans began the systematic transportation of its 503,000 Jews into concentration camps in the conquered lands of Poland, the Baltic countries and the Balkans. Since the Jewish population of Germany in 1933 constituted only 0.77 percent of all Germans it is evident that many Christians in Germany had never seen a Jew. However, stigma made up for experience.  Beginning with the ascension of the Nazi party to power in that year and ending with the defeat of the German armies in 1945 a total of 431 anti-Jewish decrees were enforced on the European Jewish population from France to Russia and from Norway to Italy as most of Europe had come under Nazi domination.  Included in these many decrees was the law of September 1, 1941 which decreed that all Jews had to wear a six cornered black star on a yellow background including the word JUDE, or Jew, at all times. On March 4, 1942 an additional decree ordered that a Jewish star had to be affixed next to the name of the Jew at all rooms, apartments or houses in which a Jew lived. Jews were issued special internal identification cards which carried a large J. On the first of January 1939 all male Jews were forced to use the name Israel and all female Jews were called Sara by German decree.  In addition the German government issued a list of about 50 male and 50 female names which Jews were obliged to use because these names were regarded as Jewish and hence stigmatized their users. In addition, in every park there were some yellow benches bearing the logo “for Jews only.” Jews were not permitted to sit on any other park benches nor use public transportation or drive a car. These measures made it easy to identify the stigmatized Jews so that they could then be transported to ghettos in the East and finally carted to their deaths in concentration camps such as Sobibor, Auschwitz, Neuengamme, Buchenwald etc.

    Dawidowicz and others have presented statistics to show the extent of the mass murders carried out in Europe during the years 1933-1945. Accordingly, 5,933,900 Jews out of a total of 8,861,800 Jews were slaughtered in those years. The 33% who survived consisted mostly of Russian Jews sent to the inner Soviet Union during the Nazi invasion of that country in 1941 so as to escape the killings. Others succeeded in coming to the U.S. and other countries by a variety of means. In any case, those who survived differed from all other immigrants who had come here in that they had undergone a level of cruelty which they could not forget and which no one else could understand.

   Holocaust survivors have internalized the stigma attached to them in their early years. This means that these survivors, like all people, exhibit a personality which reflects their experiences. Therefore many of these survivors display anxieties in situations which do not create problems for native Americans. Holocaust survivors display suspicions of others’ motives, express the belief that they will be ostracized when that is not intended, feel rejected when no such motive exists, see insults and demeaning situations which others don’t see and generally give the impression that they are defensive and mistrusting.  All of these characteristics create additional problems for the survivors, whether inside or outside the Jewish community.  American Jews are now generally third and fourth generation Americans. The immigration of the grandparents or even great-grandparents has become family legend for them. Holocaust survivors, however, carry with them a baggage unknown to anyone else. This produces conduct and psychological projections for survivors frequently leading to their rejection by Americans, whether Jewish or not, so that Holocaust survivors generally are outsiders in American culture. In short, Holocaust survivors do not fit in anywhere and lack the support which ethnic enclaves, relatives and erstwhile countrymen furnished other immigrants over the years. There is no Holocaust survivor community. There are no Holocaust survivor enclaves.  Instead these survivors live amidst a large and diverse American community which largely rejects the survivors and finds them peculiar, different and uncomfortable, as indeed they are.

   Thus, there exists a range of immigrant experiences from the Canadian who may never feel a stigma of any kind associated with his immigration to the Holocaust survivor who carries that stigma about within him and whose experiences affect even the next generation. Holocaust survivors typically exhibit a number tattooed on their inner forearm by their Christian torturers.  Like the ancient Greek slaves whose Stigma was also etched into their skin, these latter day slaves of Krupp, Volkswagen and I.G. Farben remain outsiders for their lifetime. They cannot forget. They can only live with their horrific memories.

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