Wednesday, April 5th, 2017...10:20 am

For such great success you don’t need America

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The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra, Norton trade paperback, 416 pages, $18.95

Reviewed by NEAL GENDLER

American Jewish families have been familiar with emigration — both voluntary and forced — since a boatload of Dutch Jews expelled from Brazil landed in what now is New York in 1655.

The Great Departure is Tara Zahra’s insightful history of emigration from and within Europe, and its relationship to economic distress, persecution and politics.

“One of the greatest migrations in human history” brought 55 million to 58 million Europeans — including most of our grandparents and great-grandparents — to North America and South America between 1846 and 1940.

“The sudden departure of millions … sent shock waves across Europe and the Atlantic,” Zahra says, igniting xenophobia at immigrants’ destinations; fears of insufficient laborers and soldiers in departure nations, and fears of permanent separation among families.

The tide of Jewish emigration to the United State ran from about 1880 to 1924, when the doors were all but slammed shut by Johnson-Reed Act quotas designed to minimize immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, including — maybe especially — Jews.

Jews also were undesirable in many European countries, leaving them mobile when most emigration was restricted; nations wanting to keep “native” populations in usually were happy to let minorities out, particularly Jews. “The vast majority of the 2.7 million Russian subjects” leaving between 1880 and 1910 “were Jews, Polish-speakers or German-speakers,” Zahra says.

In 301 attention-holding pages, Zahra describes waxing and waning emigration tides, giving attention throughout — and one whole chapter — to Jews. She describes efforts to attract immigrants back or to discourage emigration, including the 1887 observation of Hungarian Rabbi Moses Weinberger to peers in Europe: “Stay home. … Nothing will be left for you to do save dressing in black, wrapping yourself in shrouds, and rolling from darkness to abyss: from factory to sweatshop to itinerant peddling. For such great success you don’t need America!”

Zahra, modern European history professor at the University of Chicago and MacArthur Fellowship winner, describes an 1889 Polish trial in which Jewish travel agents were charged with “seducing migrants into abandoning their homeland with false promises of an American El Dorado.”

Such accusations were common, as if agents were causing people’s desire to escape poverty and persecution. The Polish prosecutor claimed agents were “introducing a slave trade into the free land of America.” Hardly, although some immigrants, particularly women working as farm hands or maids, were mistreated.

Such views “reflected a widespread assumption among elites that migrants themselves were ignorant, gullible and deluded about their own interests,” Zahra says. In fact, the opposite was true, as noted unkindly by the Austrian vice counsel in St. Paul.

During World War 1, he proposed banning postwar emigration to America so Austria could “retain its valuable ‘human material’ for its own use and bring the U.S. steel and mining industries to their knees.” He argued that the most productive people emigrated, leaving behind “the crude rubble.”

His angst wasn’t baseless. Between 1876 and 1910, 3,547,000 emigrants had left Austria-Hungary for overseas destinations. Within Europe, France accepted 3 million immigrants – 7 percent of its population — by 1930. European nations eastward began social reforms to try to stem the outflow.

Easily read, The Great Departure is a serious, heavily researched book: 65 pages of source notes, a nine-page bibliography and an index. This edition features a postscript that talks about the migration from Africa, which got just a paragraph in the 2016 hardcover.

Zahar also highlights often-overlooked great postwar migrations: millions of ethnic Germans expelled by Poland and Czechoslovakia; sale of emigrants for cash and goods by East Germany and Romania; loosening of East Bloc restrictions after 1973’s Helsinki accords, and post-Cold War moves of 3.3 million from former satellite nations by 2004.

Her postscript estimates the worldwide number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people at 60 million.

She also notes that President Donald Trump apparently finds no contradiction in his campaign against immigrants, especially Muslims and Latino “illegals,” even though his first and current wives — mothers of four of his five children — were immigrants.


Neal Gendler is a Minneapolis writer and editor

(American Jewish World, 04.07.17)

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