Escape from the Pogroms
No event had greater influence on the course of American
Jewish history than the assassination of Alexander II, "Czar of
all the Russias," in St. Petersburg, in March 1881. Seeking a scapegoat,
the government and people turned upon the Jews in pogroms in over a
hundred towns and villages, wild excesses of violence, pillage, and
plunder which continued well into the twentieth century. To "shield
the Russian population against harmful Jewish activity," "Temporary
Laws" were enacted on May 31, 1882, which limited Jewish residence
to the Pale of Settlement,
the eastern provinces of the czarist empire; expelled Jews from such
cities as St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Kiev, and permitted all villages
to expel theirs; limited the number of Jews in secondary schools and
universities; and prohibited Jews from entering the legal profession
and participating in local government.
The three-pronged solution to the "Jewish problem"
proposed by the eminence grise of Russian politics, Konstantin Pobedonostsev,
if not official government policy, seems to have become its goal: for
one-third of the Jews, conversion; for another third, economic strangulation;
for the rest, emigration. The Jews of Russia acted upon the third. Emigration,
begun in the 1870s, brought two and one-half million Jews to America
during the next half-century, doubling the Jewish population of the
United States in each of the last two decades of the nineteenth century
and the first of the twentieth.
Every division of the Library offers rich documentation
of this extraordinary Exodus departure, journey, and resettlement.
We limit ourselves to a sampling of the graphic arts and to some literary
creations that describe this great drama.
Among the immigrants was the thirteen-year-old Mary
Antin who, with her mother, two sisters, and brother, joined her father
in America in 1894. In her classic memoir, The Promised Land (Boston, 1912), she recalled:
Hundreds of fugitives, preceded by a wail of distress, flocked into
the open district [the Pale] bringing their trouble where trouble
was never absent, mingling their tears with tears that never dried.
Passover was celebrated in tears that year. In the story of the Exodus we would
have read a chapter of current history, only for us there was no deliverer
and no promised land. But what said some of us at the end of the long
service? Not "May we be next year in Jerusalem," but, "Next
year in America!" So there was our promised land, and many
faces turned toward the West. And if the waters of the Atlantic did
not part for them, the wanderers rode its bitter flood by a miracle
as great as any the rod of Moses ever wrought.
This same historical metaphor was used in 1881 in a
two-page cartoon in color in the magazine of humor and satire Puck.
Its German edition captions the cartoon "Der Moderne Auszug aus
Egypten" (The Modern Exodus from Egypt); in the English language
edition it is called "The Modern Moses." Moses is Uncle Sam,
his trousers the red and white stripes of the American flag, beams of
light radiating from his white top hat. He stands on a Rock of Salvation
and with his wand marked "Liberty" he cleaves the waters of
the Atlantic. On the far horizon looms death in military helmet. A setting
sun on the near shore emits its rays inscribed "Western Homes."
Through the parted waters marked "Oppression" and "Intolerance"
marches a long line of immigrants. Their depiction aroused an angry
attack on the Austrian immigrant publisher and artist, Joseph Keppler.
He was accused of perpetuating the German and Austrian antiSemitic caricatures
of the Jews: top-hatted men, bearded or whiskered, obese women and obstreperous
children, all hook-nosed and kinky haired. The cartoon is signed "O
& K," for Frederick Burr Opper son of an Austrian Jewish
immigrant and a New England (apparently not Jewish) mother and
Keppler, who neither apologized for nor changed his stereotype. Jews
similarly depicted continued to appear in Puck, but these were
no different in kind from equally coarse and offensive caricatures of
Irish and Italian immigrants, venal politicians, or avaricious Robber
The modern Moses is Uncle Sam cleaving the waters of the Atlantic to permit the Children of Israel to reach the shores not of the Promised Land but of the land of promise. The artists are "O&K," i.e., Frederick Burr Opper and Joseph Keppler. Their depiction of the Jews-hooked nosed, kinky haired-aroused vigorous criticism.
Frederick Burr Opper and Joseph Keppler, "The Modem Moses," in Puck, 1881. General Collection.
A benign portrayal of the same theme was on the cover
page of the periodical, The Jewish Immigrant, published by the
Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society beginning in 1908. The Atlantic, a welcoming
America, and the long line of immigrants are also here, but in a center
panel Lady Columbia, five-point star decorating her cap whose visor
reads "America" in Yiddish, is opening her gates to a bearded
Jew who has just stepped on her shores. On either side of the open gates
are biblical verses. "Open for me the gates of' righteousness"
(Psalm 118:19), the immigrant asks; "Open ye gates, that the righteous
nation may enter," America responds, The line of immigrants are
Old World Jews in their customary dress; one, a whitebearded patriarch
wrapped in a prayer shawl, carries a Scroll of the Law. The masthead
bears American and Jewish flags intertwined, and above them the American
eagle holds a banner, inscribed "shelter us in the shadow of thy
wings" (Psalm 17:8).
The front page of the Hebrew
Immigrant Aid Society's journal, The Jewish lmmigrant, shows
a graphic presentation, lady "America" opening tier gate
to the wandering Jew seeking haven.
The Jewish Immigrant, New York, January 1909 Hebraic Section.
The shipboard experience is enshrined in a remarkable
photograph, "The Steerage" (1907), by Hoboken-born Jewish
photographer Alfred Stieglitz, the first of his craft to have his work
accepted as art by American museums.
Immigrants in steerage wait as the first and second class passengers embark from New York harbor in
Alfred Stieglitz's famed photograph taken in 1907, "The Steerage."
Alfred Stieglitz, "The Steerage," New York, 1907. Prints and Photographs Division.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress,