Stories from the Archives
Jewish Immigration to America

1870s-1920s

Orphans of the Kishinev Pogrom

Orphans of the Kishinev pogrom who were brought to America by HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), 1905.  

Between the 1870s and the 1920s, about 2.5 million Jews, mostly from Eastern Europe, immigrated to the United States.

What motivated them to leave home to take their chances in a strange and faraway land? Most were frustrated by the lack of economic opportunity in the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, which in Russia were exacerbated by anti-Jewish laws. Some fled anti-Jewish violence. Young men emigrated to avoid long and arduous service in the tsarist army. In the early 20th century, there were political refugees, members of anti-tsarist movements, who left Russia to avoid imprisonment and/or exile to Siberia.

Yoysef Grinblat Contemplating Emigration

Studio portrait of Yoysef Grinblat, a member of the Labor Zionist Zeirei Zion, on a bench with a letter and a copy of  The Jewish Emigrant, Dubossary, Russia, 1910.  (Upper left, in Hebrew) "To where?" (Written on back in Yiddish) "Hard to decide to which country to emigrate." 

My future is in America. Whether you like it or not.

—21-year-old Rose Silverman, Berdichev, Ukraine, 1913

Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer. My Future Is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Mother and Children in Kishinev

Mother and children in Kishinev, Romania, ca. 1905. 

Why did I go to America? One can answer the question in just a few words: because things were bad for me and hardship drove me to leave my old home. It’s just that simple.

—21-year-old Rose Silverman, immigrant from Berdichev, Ukraine, 1913

Jocelyn Cohen and Daniel Soyer. My Future Is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants. New York: New York University Press, 2006.
Emigrant Landing at Castle Gardens

Emigrant landing at Castle Gardens, New York City, ca. 1880s. Castle Gardens was America's first immigration station, where more than 8 million people arrived in the United States from 1855 to 1890. In 1892, it was replaced by a new immigration station on Ellis Island. 

My journey on the ship was difficult at the beginning. For close to two entire days, I didn’t eat and was constantly nauseated from the tossing of the ship. On the third day, I was already used to it and the weather was calmer and I finally started to feel better and better. I talked to my ship comrades who I knew from Rotterdam. And every time we made a “le-khayim [toast: to life!],” we cried out, “le-khayim to our passionately devoted families in Russia.

—Zusman Lifshits, a fictional character in a Yiddish letter-writing manual, 1910

Alice Nakhimovsky and Roberta Newman. Dear Mendl, Dear Reyzl: Yiddish Letter Manuals from Russia and America. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2014.