more than a century, U.S. immigration policy had been subject
to the whims of political influence and public opinion. In
1924, due to an increasing anti-immigration sentiment in the
United States, Congress passed a law that established quotas
that, in effect, limited the number of aliens who would be
allowed per annum into the United States. This would bode
poorly for the Eastern European Jew, who wished to emigrate
from an oppressive homeland, in search of greater
opportunities to live their lives in a way they saw fit.
With implementation of this new law,
only 150,000 Eastern Europeans would be allowed into the U.S.
Many Jews who had previously sent family members to the U.S. expecting to send
others and perhaps themselves at a later date, began to fear that this would be
denied to them, separating them permanently from their loved ones. Many had seen
the signs of this turning of public opinion years before and had already made a
mad dash to other destinations. Others had to find other means. Some traveled to
England, where the new immigrant did not have to concern themselves with quotas.
From there, they could board another ship and complete the second leg of their
journey by to a strange new world that promised opportunity and success with
hard work. The United States awaited their energy and their spirit. Though the
vast majority of emigrants traveled to the United States, others went to
countries like Cuba, where, until 1924, immigrants were given citizenship to
anyone who lived in their country for one year. Some stayed, but many waited
there until a more favorable U.S. immigration law was passed, so that they may
then make a legal entry and eventually become proper citizens.
The mass migration of Jews to the United States occurred in two
major time periods. The first wave was, for the most part, due to the pogroms in
1881-2, and culminated in 1892. Many left during that time to escape the massacres,
pillaging and other atrocities that befell the Jews. Also, in
1887, the Czar chose to place educational restrictions on Jews and had his
forces expel many Jews from their villages. The second period of migration began
for various reasons. There was the Kishinoff pogrom and massacres of 1903 and
1905, the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, and the outbreak of even
more devastating pogroms in 1906, when more Jews were killed by roving bands of
Cossacks. In 1906, the year that the number who emigrated had reached its apex,
my grandfather Harry Ness came to the U.S.; his wife Flora Burak came a year
Most Jews wanted to leave Eastern Europe then to escape the many
hardships that they had to face on a daily basis. Many young men and women
desired to pull themselves out of poverty. Others wanted desperately to avoid the draft and conscription
(remember the Russo-Japanese War) into the Russian or Polish Armies. Many wished
simply to fulfill whatever dreams they had for a better life. Unfortunately,
their emigration often caused a lifelong separation from their family,
especially their aging parents, many of whom grew habituated to where they were
living and their traditional way of life, and would not
leave. My great grandmother Sheina Gittel Burack would not leave Poland in the
1930s, even though all but one of her children had already done so, and were living in the United
After 1888, the czarist government unofficially permitted
millions of Jews to leave. However, it was very hard to them to obtain passports
legally. Many regional boundaries that an emigrant would have to cross to reach
port where they would need a passport had their own rules and regulations, and
every official wanted to get as much money as they could. If you wanted a
passport in less than three months, it could very easily cost a lot more.
THE JOURNEY ACROSS EUROPE
Emigrants most often would have to cross over German borders in
order to get to one of the major ports in northern Europe. Trying to get to the
port was risky business. Often border guards would have to be bribed so they
would look the other way. Agents might have had to be hired to sneak the
emigrant across the various borders.
Once at the port, they would have to bide their time until it
was time to board their ship, most likely destined for some port in the United
States. Some decided to board whatever ship they could, regardless of their
preferred destination, just to be know that they were on their way to leading a
new life somewhere else.
In 1913, a ticket on a steamship could be bought for thirty-
four dollars. Most often the port of departure would be Hamburg or Bremen, but many also left from Rotterdam, Amsterdam or Antwerp. Before boarding the ship for the long sea voyage, they would have to
pack a shoulder bag filled with food and water-- perhaps a few loaves of bread
and some cheese. They could not count on being able to obtain any food during
photo: Aboard the S. S. George Washington, Port of Departure: Bremen, Germany, Date
of Arrival at Ellis Island: Jun 1913
HELP FROM OTHERS
Many Jews were aided in their journey by agencies that were set
up in Western Europe. These organizations were eager the help out their fellow
Jews, but at the same time they had mixed feelings. They might have been afraid that
a massive influx of Jews would negatively impact their countries. Most Jewish
immigrants from Eastern Europe flocked to the larger cities in America, e.g. New
York, Philadelphia, Boston and Baltimore.
Often it was the Jews of Germany who would help the emigrant
with their trip west, away from continental Europe. There was an organization called "The London
Manor House Committee" that would get the traveler to America, where American Jews would take over and get the new immigrant settled in a place to
stay and perhaps find them a job.
THE TRANSATLANTIC VOYAGE
The trip across the Atlantic Ocean to the east coast of the
United States could take between ten and twenty days, depending on weather
conditions and the number of stops the ship would make. The immigrant would
generally be traveling the least expensive way possible, which meant a space in
the steerage section of the ship, each compartment holding up to three hundred
people. When they boarded the ship, they would have little idea what kind of
weather to expect, and many times they would have to suffer through rough seas
and overall terrible conditions. Yet between 1905 and 1914, 700,000 Eastern
Europeans passed through German ports on their way to their destination. Most
often their destination was the United States, and seventy percent of the time
these immigrants entered through the port of New York.
At the port of embarkation all who wished to undertake such a
journey had to be examined by a physician. This was not done as much at the
beginning of the period of immigration, but the rules had changed. If a
steamship company brought a person with a contagious disease to a U.S. port, the
company would have to return this person to their country of origin at their own
Often the ships would make more money on the volume of emigrants
they took on board than on the regular paying passengers. Many German ships had
been carrying raw materials from the U.S. to Europe, but often returned back to
the U.S. with a much emptier hold. So the steamship companies decided to offer
transport to those wanting to immigrate, and they built very simple beds in dark
and cramped quarters to hold them.
There was very little room for luggage or personal effects in
steerage. The beds were in berths that were barely six foot long, with pillows,
if supplied, that were filled with straw. Whatever blankets were given to them
were so flimsy as to do little to keep them warm. The food that was served on
ship was often moldy and in such poor condition as to make it undesirable. And
often when a person would be seasick, he or she would not even be able to eat.
Imagine the predicament for the observant Jew that wished to remain "kashrut."
Even when the shipping company would say the food was kosher, this was often
brought into question.
The ship’s crew never cleaned the compartments. There were no
garbage cans for leftover food and the floor would often be littered with all
kinds of items. There were no cans for those who got sick on the ship, and
seasickness was a common occurrence. How difficult it must have been at night
trying to sleep when the seas were rough, lying in bed, rocking back and forth,
one’s mattress sliding from side to side. There were not even enough toilets or
washbasins for the number of people living in those quarters. The place must
have smelled horribly!
At least during the day, many would go onto the deck when they
could, and sing old Russian folk songs, or dance. It would be good and give one
joy to be out in the fresh air, especially when the weather was pleasant and the
sea was calm. Most often, immigrants would choose to travel by sea in
springtime, and second most often by autumn, and of course, the least preferable
season was wintertime. They would talk among themselves about what they were
hoping for when they live in America. Perhaps they would talk about owning or
working on the land, or about the schools and synagogues they would build.
THE PAIN OF PARTING
Can any of us imagine what it must have felt like for our
immigrant ancestors to leave their homes and traditional way of life, find their
way across Europe to a ship, take a sea voyage for two weeks or so, never before
having left their villages? Many believed that they would never see their loved
ones again, especially the elderly members of their family. Most had little
experience traveling, had to sell many of their valuable possessions to raise
whatever money they could for the trip, and were forced to share a compartment
with too many strangers for too long a time.
By 1913, the year that Max Burack emigrated, the duration of the
average voyage from Western Europe to the U.S. was reduced for many to nine days
(though it still took Max twelve days to reach New York). This of course was
good for the emigrant, not just because the number of days that they would have
to suffer in steerage was decreased, but this also cut down on the potential for
infectious disease to spread. This had been the main cause of death aboard
sailing ships, which had been the main means of crossing the ocean to America
before the steamship came along. The use of steamships to bring immigrants over
to the U.S. reduced the mortality rate by ninety percent.
An important piece of legislation that affected those who wished to immigrate
was the Immigration Law of 1924. This law put
restrictions on the number of aliens (permanent quotas) allowed into the U.S.,
especially from Europe. There was also a quota based on each nationality’s
contributions to the overall U.S. population. Only 150,000 people were allowed
to emigrate to the U.S. from Europe per year. Originally an Emergency Quota Act
was passed that was supposed to be a temporary measure, and it was supposed to
expire on June 30, 1922. There was a lot of anti-immigrant, anti-cultural
pluralism feeling in the States at the time (not just Jews), and this Act would
give our government enough time to debate the issue of immigration. But the
debate did not end by this date, and the Act was extended another two years.
Also, rumors had made their ways throughout the shtetls and cities in Eastern
Europe that the U.S. wasn’t going to allow any more immigrants in, or at least
the men might be permitted to immigrate, but not the women, so then, in effect,
women wouldn’t be able to join their husbands who had already immigrated ahead
of them. So many made a mad dash to the Northern European ports to sail out on
Northern European vessels before it was too late.
On May 21, 1924 Calvin Coolidge signed
into law this Immigration Act, requiring for the first time that potential
immigrants obtain "visas" from U.S. embassies overseas before leaving their
native lands. This way the U.S. wouldn’t have to turn away immigrants on their
own shore. Because of this requirement, Ellis Island was no longer needed to
inspect those wanting to enter the U.S. through New York, and it closed down as
an immigration receiving station in 1924.