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From the Land of the Czars: 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 Barons.

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, 1991).