Hoping for a Better Life


For 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. each year.

photo: The port at Bremen, Germany.

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 later.

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.

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.


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 their journey.


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.


Port: Bremen, Germany



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