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Storms, Sickness, Suspicions: The Darker Side of Migration

In Points of Passage: Jewish Migrants from Eastern Europe in Scandinavia, Germany, and Britain 1880-1914, published last October, contributors reveal some of the less-savory aspects of immigration (of which there were many). Following, in an excerpt from the newly published volume, editor Tobias Brinkmann gives two examples of passengers enduring misery before arriving on the supposed paradise of North American soil. This is the second entry about the book; read the former here.

The essay collection “Points of Passage” seeks to shift attention from the well-known success story of Jewish immigration in the United States to the journey. On which paths did Jewish (and other) migrants travel from Eastern Europe to the ports on the North Sea and across the Atlantic between the 1880s and the 1920s, and which obstacles did they face? Researching the paths of migration can be much more challenging than studying immigration.


Remaining sources are widely dispersed along the lengthy travel routes and not always easily accessible. A better understanding of the actual journey and the business of migration is highly relevant. Today, thousands of migrants are facing almost insurmountable hurdles on the outer borders of the European Union, the United States, and Australia, frequently after lengthy and dangerous journeys across different borders.


While the journey from Eastern Europe across Central Europe to the Americas was exciting and stressful, it was also relatively safe and swift after 1880. Only a few years earlier, the Atlantic crossing was still a formidable challenge. Until the late 1860s migrants had to walk long distances to reach train stations, and head from there to the port cities on the North Sea or the Baltic. They made the Atlantic crossing with primitive sailing vessels. In a diary, Bernhard Felsenthal, a young Jewish teacher from a village near Kaiserslautern in the German Palatinate, described a typical crossing on a sailing ship in the summer of 1854. The journey from Le Havre to New York took more than five weeks. All passengers suffered from intense thirst and seasickness, and a severe storm caused many to fear for their lives. Felsenthal became so sick that his fellow passengers believed him dead. Some fared much worse. In the early 1850s thousands of Irish emigrants perished during or shortly after the Atlantic crossing.


Storms claimed dozens of ramshackle ships and thousands of half-starved Irish fell victim to typhus and dysentery. In the late 1840s at least 5,000, who had died during or shortly after the journey, were buried at Grosse Île, an island in the St. Lawrence River, which served as a quarantine station for migrants traveling to Canada and the Great Lakes region. By 1880 steamships had replaced sailing vessels, and migrants enjoyed much more comfort and safety. Fatal accidents became rare. Governments in different countries began to regulate the mass transport more strictly, imposing minimum requirements for accommodation, food provisions, and hygiene on the steamships and general safety regulations regarding the railroads. By 1900, the distance from an Eastern European shtetl or a city to New York could be covered in little more than three weeks.


If the journey became relatively unspectacular and safe after 1880, why devote a volume of essays to a seemingly ephemeral aspect of the Jewish mass migration? The travel account of a young Jewish migrant from Russia published only a few years after her immigration in 1899 throws an interesting light on what was seemingly a routine journey. Mashke Antin’s 1894 journey from Polotzk in northern Russia through Germany to Boston provides several clues about obstacles (trans-)migrants encountered far from America’s borders soon after 1880. Her report is usually read as the testimony of a Jewish migrant passing from Russian oppression and German harassment to the American “Promised Land.” But her detailed descriptions, which are backed by other sources, reveal a story that transcends the history of the Jewish mass migration in a narrow sense. Mary Antin’s journey illustrates the impact of government regulations on the movement of millions of people around the globe decades before the implementation of more extensive migration restrictions following the First World War.


Antin’s father had moved to Boston in 1893 and sent tickets to his wife and daughters in the following year – conforming to a widespread pattern among Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe. At the Russian border with Germany the small family faced the first unexpected hurdle. Prussian officials refused them entry for no apparent reason, leaving the distraught mother and her daughters on the platform of the small Russian border station. “We were homeless, houseless, and friendless in a strange place,” Antin recalls. They were only allowed to cross the border after her mother pleaded with the representative of a Jewish aid organization who intervened on their behalf behind the scenes. The aid organization very likely promised Prussian officials to cover the cost for a potential return journey, should the Antins be refused admission to the United States. In the East Prussian border town of Eydtkuhnen, the Antins boarded a train with other transmigrants, en route to Hamburg. The train passed through Berlin without a stop, only to come to a halt in a deserted area, a few miles outside of the city. Germans in white overalls rushed the migrants off the train, separated men from women and children; and threw the luggage on a big pile. The completely bewildered migrants were driven into a small building and forced to undress. Antin’s recollection betray the existential angst which befell the travelers:


Here we had been taken to a lonely place. … Our things were taken away, our friends separated from us; a man came to inspect us, as if to ascertain our full value; strange-looking people driving us like dumb animals, helpless and unresisting; children we could not see crying in a way that suggested terrible things; ourselves driven into a little room.


As it turned out, the purpose of the stop was the thorough examination and disinfection of migrants (and their luggage). After paying each two marks for the procedure, they were rushed back on the train. After arriving in Hamburg, Mashke and her fellow migrants were accommodated for several days in a quarantine facility in the port before finally boarding the ship bound for Boston. In hindsight, Antin associated the German transit with hostile officials and railway staff, who treated the bewildered migrants like military conscripts. Bernhard Felsenthal who went to America in the 1850s does not mention being searched or supervised by state officials on his journey from the Palatinate via Paris, Le Havre and New York to Louisville. Antin, on the other hand, encountered officials on almost every step of her journey from Polotzk via East Prussia, Berlin and Hamburg to Boston. Upon arrival in Hamburg the Antins, her fellow passengers, and their belongings were thoroughly searched: “That was a nice treatment … Always a call for money, always suspicion of our presence and always rough orders and scowls of disapproval, even at the quickest obedience.”


Antin’s experiences highlight the gradual rise of regulations and restrictions, not just in the United States but also in the major transit countries. Immigration regulations were in part a response to the large number of people on the move. But already before 1914 the United States and other countries began to exclude “undesirables,” primarily people who were suspected as “paupers” (unable to support themselves), suffering from certain diseases or mental illness, and political radicals. The disinfection procedure outside of Berlin that Antin experienced in 1894 can be traced to American demands for hygienic and health controls of all persons traveling to the United States before embarkation at a European (or Asian) port. At Ellis Island and other immigration stations almost all immigrants were closely inspected and screened for contagious diseases.




Tobias Brinkmann is the Malvin and Lea Bank Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and History at Penn State University. His recent publications include Sundays at Sinai: A Jewish Congregation in Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2012); Migration und Transnationalität: Perspektiven deutsch-jüdischer Geschichte (Schöningh, 2012); and “Why Paul Nathan Attacked Albert Ballin: The Transatlantic Mass Migration and the Privatization of Prussia’s Eastern Border Inspection, 1886–1914,” Central European History (2010).