Pogroms and Russian Jewish Immigrants

By Zhaoyang Liu

Caricature Depicting the Białystok Pogrom by Henryk Nowodworski, 1906 – Note that the assailant is wearing a Tsarist army hat.

It is an unfortunate truth that many immigrants flee their homelands due to oppression and violence. Between 1880 and 1920, more than two million Russian Jewish immigrants came to the United States. In order to uncover the reasons behind this mass exodus of Eastern European Jews, the U.S. Government sent Philip Cowen, an immigration inspector, to Russia in 1906. What he found was a land in which Jews were relentlessly persecuted.

In Russia, the May Laws of 1882 forced Jews from their homes and ordered them to live in the Pale of Settlement. Along with this displacement, which put Russian Jews into a confined place where they struggled to survive, were the pogroms. While by broad definition pogroms are organized massacres of a certain ethnic group, the term is most particularly applied to Jews in Russia or Eastern Europe. In a comprehensive report, which he compiled from 1906 to 1907, Cowen detailed 637 pogroms.

In his description of the Kalarash pogrom of 1905, Cowen writes:

“550 homes representing 2,300 persons, were burned or plundered and the loss was over a million roubles. As the immediate result of the pogrom 100 families went of themselves to the United States, and 31 to Argentine and Canada, 150 houses were burnt, representing the best in the place, 75 were directly killed, 200 wounded, of whom 25 died subsequently, and 70 were rendered incapable of self-support. The only non-Jew hurt was a German who had sought to defend the Jews. For his pains his home, one of the finest in the place, was burnt to the ground. He was given a little financial relief by the Jewish committee, but is ruined and cannot rebuild.”

He additionally states:

“[There was] a group of houses where 17 were burned to death. Not seeing a single store of any ambitious appearance I questioned if there had been any large businesses places there, when some of the above facts were given me and I was told that there were many fine ones. They had all been on one side of the street. These were plundered and burned. The other side was simply wrecked, even the stock of an iron merchant being destroyed, for the men came armed with powerful crowbars and other instruments. The only decent store in sight was the apothecary shop.”

If you wish to read Cowen’s report on the Kalarash pogrom in its entirety, it can be found at the following link: https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/kalarash-pogrom

Many Eastern European Jews viewed America in an optimistic light. They believed that emigration, particularly to the U.S., was their best hope for finding safety for their families. In another one of his reports, Cowen describes how some Russian Jews, who journeyed to the U.S. and wrote back to their families, were enthusiastic about the new country.

“The receipt of a letter from one of the family in America is a day of great rejoicing in the home in Russia. The family hand breathlessly on every word that appears therein. The young hopeful that has gone abroad, or the head of the family, emphasizes all the good qualities of his new home and minimizes the things unpleasant. If the family at home cannot read, the local scrivener who serves as the epistolary go-between in the family, is inclined to give emphasis in his reading to those parts he thinks will most please his auditors, and those who listen and the others to whom the contents are conveyed, acquire a desire to go from home.”

The entirety of this report can be found here: https://www.docsteach.org/documents/document/bound-for-america

However, another part Cowen’s Kalarash report reveals that stories of antisemitism in the U.S. had made their way to Russia:

“Many people however were sent for by friends and one family had received tickets from a son in Philadelphia, and was to proceed the next week. But she got a letter from her son saying that there had been a pogrom in Philadelphia, so she mustn’t go, for he was going to return, as if there were pogroms in America they might as well stay in Russia. I understand that during last fall there was a clash between workmen in a Philadelphia factory which gave this newcomer a twisted idea of American life.”

Reflection Questions:

1. Based on what you have read, what insight did Cowen’s report offer into the reasons why Jews were fleeing Russia for the United States?

2. How can understanding the “push” factors of why a particular immigrant group fled their country help us in the process of better accepting and integrating them? How can we make sure that immigrants do not face new or worse maltreatment?

3. In 1903, Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” was added to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. The poem’s most famous lines are imaged to be coming from the lips of the statue itself. She exclaims:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

After reading about pogroms in Eastern Europe, to what extent do those lines describe the Jews who fled Russia for the U.S.?

4. When Eastern European Jews arrived at Ellis Island, or Castle Garden in the years before Ellis Island opened, there were very few restrictions on immigration to the U.S. Based on what you have read, what dangers would they have faced if they had not been able to find a home in the U.S.? Does the U.S. have an ethical responsibility to provide a home for those seeking refuge from violence? 

5. To what extent should an understanding of history shape our immigration laws today? In particular, should the history of Eastern European Jews immigrate to the U.S. influence the way we respond to asylum seekers in the present day?

6. How might the current day descendants of the Russian Jewish immigrants who fled the pogroms incorporate that part of their history into their identity? How important is the concept of lineage in forming an identity? How might all Americans incorporate the story Russian Jewish immigration to the U.S. into American identity? What aspects of the story seem most important for all Americans?