Kansas Collection Books:  This book was contributed by Gertrude HarrisGo to Contents


America was in everybody's mouth ... all talked of it, but scarcly anyone knew one true fact about this magic land.
-- Mary Antim, From Plotzk to Boston, 1899 [1]
They overwhelmed New York City. At least 100,000 Jews emigrated from Russia to America during 1881-86, and a good 40,000 of those came during the first two years. [2] Pale, exhausted, anxious, they came down the gangplanks at 1,000, 2,000, even 5,000 a month, some with nothing but the worn, torn clothes they wore. Others clutched what little else they had -- a feather bed, a precious pot or pan, a frayed velvet drawstring bag containing tallis and tefillin, prayer shawls and phylacteries. Suitcases were battered little wicker affairs held together with rope. Just as often clothes and possessions were carried or wrapped in a schmatte -- a rag. Leben zol Columbus! they cried, "Long live Columbus!" [3] Their reception was less than enthusiastic. While sympathetic to the sufferings of their Russian brethren, many Jews in the Eastern cities were reluctant to welcome them to America. Abject, ragged, they were perceived as an embarrassment. They had not been assimilated. They wore strange clothes. They clung to Yiddish. Especially vexing was the fact that they congregated in the large cities. They were penniless, bewildered, weary from Russian persecution, but convinced that America was the land of liberty, the promised land for them.

But American Jewish leaders were equally convinced the Russian Jews' promised land would not be in Eastern American cities. These cities were bad enough, already filled with poverty and unemployment. Instead, the promised land for Russian Jews would have to be farmland throughout rural America -- in Louisiana, Arkansas, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, California, Michigan, Colorado, Nebraska, the Dakotas -- and, without a doubt, Kansas.

"Ho, for Kansas!" the American Israelite, July 28, 1882, editorialized. [4]

Never mind that Kansas, particularly Western Kansas, had been called the "Great American Desert." Never mind that thousands of returning homesteaders had signs on their wagons saying, "In God We Trusted, In Kansas We Busted!" Never mind that Western Kansas ground was tough and dry with a preponderance of sod-forming grasses like bluestem, buffalo and blue grama, the likes of which had never been seen in Russia. There were wandering, recalcitrant Indians and rambunctious cowboys. There was debilitating heat in the summer, numbing cold in the winter, tornadoes, floods and thousands, no -- millions, of grasshoppers that periodically devastated promising crops.

Yet there was land in Kansas, free for the asking under the Homestead Act, or at least it could be purchased for a pittance. There was room to grow. It could be -- it was, the promised land. The word got back to Russia. People were saying that in America, in Kansas, gold rolled in the city streets, and wheat, oats, and barley overflowed the rural barns. Corn grew 10, 12 feet high in Kansas, they said. But regardless, the most important thing the Russians heard was that America, and that included Kansas, was free -- and Russia was not. [5]

There was terror in Russia. On March 1, 1881, Czar Alexander II of Russia was assassinated, and his son, Alexander III, became the new ruler. Life for the Jews under Alexander II had been relatively relaxed. There had been less anti-Semitism and persecution than during the years of his predecessors. In 1791, Catherine I had herded the Jews into a Pale of Settlement comprised of areas in Southern and Eastern Russia and Poland. [6] After her, Alexander I did his best to convert the Jews, resorting most commonly, to bribery and harrassment. He was followed by Nicholas I, grandson of Catherine and grandfather of Alexander III, and Nicholas was the worst of the lot. He forced conversions through torture and harrassment. He denied Jews traveling privileges outside the Pale of Settlement and forced military conscription on them, converting their sons, barely out of adolescence, to Christianity when they were put into schools to prepare them for military service.

And although Alexander II disliked Jews, he was not as much a tyrant as were his relatives before him and Jews benefited from fewer restrictions during his tenure. More Jews attended public high schools and universities. Some traveled outside the Pale of Settlement, and, in special instances, owned property. Most important, Alexander II reversed compulsory military service, releasing the "soldier" children. "Get up, children!" came the call to a group of 12-year-olds sleeping in military barracks. "A deliverance! You are free! A ukaz from the tsar to release you!" And with that, Alexander II came to be known as "Czar Liberator." For Jews, it was a golden age. [7]

But with the assassination of Alexander II, the reforms came to a halt. Hunger and unemployment plagued everyone, not only Jews. Alexander III, seeking to divert the attention of the masses from their general despair, incited them against the Jews. "The Jews are the problem," he told the people, issuing a resolution "to eradicate the hideous sedition and to establish faith and morality." [8] Then came the pogroms -- brutal times of anti-Semitism.

Pogrom is a Russian word, literally meaning destruction and devastation. There had been pogroms before, three prior to 1881 in the 19th centurv. There would be two more between 1891 and 1906. But the 1881 pogrom found thousands of frustrated non-Jewish peasants rampaging through the Jewish neighborhoods of Kiev and Odessa and throughout the Pale of Settlement. Known as the "Barefoot Brigades," they killed, raped, looted, pillaged and wrought havoc in at least 160 Jewish communities. The result was at least 20,000 Jews were homeless, $80 million in Jewish property was destroyed and 100,000 Jews were reduced to complete poverty.

To further his cause, Alexander III, on may 3, 1882, issued his infamous Temporary Edicts, also known as the May Laws, that were designated to make life intolerable for Russian Jews. The laws prohibited Jewish people from living outside their designated communities or conducting business on Jewish or Christian holidays. Jews were refused admittance into their homes after a few days' absence. The laws virtually eliminated Jewish students in high schools and universities, and prohibited Jews from holding public offices. The government encouraged Jewish emigration, and for those who chose to stay, there was talk of reinstituting compulsory military service for Jewish children.

The czar's tutor and confidante, Konstantin Petrovich Pobydednostezev, who also was the procurator-general of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, was delighted when the pogroms and edicts began to take their toll on the thousands of Jews who for generations had stubbornly refused to convert to Christianity. He was convinced the government-approved atrocities and harrassments were the answer to the problem of unconverted Jews. "One third of them," he crowed, "will die out, one third will emigrate, and one third will disappear without a trace. [9]

Emigration was the answer. Civil liberties were non-existent for Jews in Russia, there seemed to be no future for them. The government had made it clear they were welcome to emigrate, that nothing would be done to stop them. The only question seemed to be where they should go. Attention was given to South Africa and South America, but the United States was favored. [10]

"America was in everybody's mouth," Mary Antim wrote in From Plotzk to Boston. It was discussed in the shops, on the streets, in the homes. Families shared letters they had received from relatives in the United States. Children played games in which they pretended to emigrate. But, she added, although people talked about America,

Scarcely anybody knew one true fact about this magic land. For book knowledge was not for them; and a few persons -- they were the dressmaker's daughter and a merchant with his two sons -- who had returned from America after a long visit, happened to be endowed with extraordinary imagination (a faculty closely related to their countrymen's ignorance), and their descriptions of life across the ocean, given daily for some months, to eager audiences, surpassed anything in the Arabian nights. [11]
The problem, then, was organization -- how to get emigrants to America. Some went ahead on their own. They bribed border guards. On hands and knees, they stealthily made their way through underbrush across border lines. Some plunged into the Dniester River and swam across holding their little drawstring bags containing tallis and tefillin, prayer shawl and phylacteries, above the water. [12]

But there had to be better ways, particularly to help families. Committees and organizations were begun throughout Europe and America. Victor Hugo wrote his personal declaration, "Humanité, regard et vois!" ("The world is watching!"), and helped organize the Committee for the Relief of Russian Jews. But the majority of the work in Europe was assumed by the Alliance Israelite Universelle, a Paris-based organization known for its tireless efforts to achieve civil and religious rights for Jews throughout the world, and particularly in Russia.

The Alliance was created by Adolphe Cremieux, an articulate, able French lawyer, and England's Sir Moses Montefiore, and financed primarily by Baron Maurice de Hirsch, a German Jew who had made fortunes in railroads and banking interests. By 1881, the Alliance had been in existence at least 20 years. Crimieux had died the year before and Sir Moses was 97 years old and certainly not as active as he had once been. The organization's policies, then, reflected the concerns of Baron de Hirsch and its other French financial backers.

After the 1881 pogroms and May Laws, the Alliance sent delegations from Vienna and Paris to Alexander III to plead for moderation. The delegations could have been more demanding, more militant, but such an approach, according to the Alliance's French backers, might have damaged French-Russian trade relations. [13] Regardless, Alexander III ignored their pleas and refused to lift restrictions on Jews in Russia.

The delegation did have an effect on the Russian Jews, however. When they learned the Alliance had shown an interest in their plight, they became even more determined to emigrate and they headed for the borders by the thousands. The Alliance, in turn, took responsibility, deciding the organization would aid as many refugees as possible. After conferences and deliberations with influential Jews throughout the world, including America, it was decided that America would receive most of the emigrants. [14]

In the meantime, Russian refugees were streaming into the Galician town of Brody at the rate of several thousand a day. Brody was an Austrian border town of normally 15,000, but within four months it had added another 24,000 in Russian refugees to its population. The Austrian government declared the Brody overpopulation intolerable, threatening that unless a sizeable number of refugees were immediately moved elsewhere the bulk of the refugees would be sent back to Russia.

The Alliance sent its representative, Charles Netter, to Brody where he first set about taking care of the refugees with food, clothing and shelter, as best he could. Within a few days, the first groups were on their way to the United States. By the end of the year, 1,500 had gone to America. Ahad Halam witnessed the first group to leave Brody:

The city was full of refugees from Russia. Charles Netter and his aides stayed there, directing group after group to America. One of the groups was in the train in which I traveled to Vienna, and I could see Netter, that worthy man, standing in the station and distributing money to the refugees. His face expressed the kindness and compassion he felt for them. The refugees were gay and in high spirits. one could read in their eyes how hopefully they looked into the future. As the train started to move, they called out: "Long live Netter! Long live the Alliance! [15]
The Russian Jews came to America by steamers, cattle boats, anything that could float. They were crowded, often 300 to a small compartment, with no facilities for toilet care. The food was usually spoiled or inedible and when they vomited it up, the decks and floors were left unwashed until just before the ship docked. Since they were Orthodox Jews, and the ships had no kosher food arrangements, most made to do with soggy black bread and pickled herring. Seasickness was the rule, diseases were a possibility, loneliness was everywhere. In most cases, many of their family members were back in Russia, or Brody, and they were worried about them. And they were not alone, there were other emigrants, each nationality noisily trying to keep up its collective spirits. "While children cried, exuberant Italians played accordions, Rumanians danced, Germans sang and Jews davened (prayed). [16]

They arrived in America by the thousands, day after day. An eyewitness, Philip Cowen, reported:

The condition in which they arrived (at New York) baffles description. Terror was written all over their faces, as they knew not whither they were going or what was to become of them. Many of them had been arbitrarily separated from their wives and children and were fearful of what had become of them. Castle Garden -- now the Aquarium -- was then the place of entry. They were permitted to remain in Castle Garden for days, sleeping on the floor or on boards as best they might, with such covering as was at hand or as kindly people in the city provided. [17]
Digitized and composed in HTML for the Kansas Collection by Tod Roberts,
with permission of Gertrude Harris, widow of the author, December 2001.
NOTE: Numbers in brackets refer to footnotes for this text; footnotes
are numbered separately by chapter and published at the end of the work.

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