Monday, May 27, 2019

We Were Them

I’ve been doing talks around the country on immigration history, weaving in video clips from my interviews with Jewish elders. The interviews and history combined with artwork are part of my book We Spoke Jewish:A Legacy in Stories. This article explores that history with a few genealogy tips.

The United States is a nation built on immigration, yet the reality is our history has often been decidedly unfriendly to the immigrant. As immigration has once again become a topic of much debate, it is useful to revisit our nation’s history to better understand the past and inform the present.

For the early part of our history we really didn’t have much in the way of immigration requirements. If you’ve ever looked at a manifest from the 1800s, you will find few details. In 1812 the ship captain was required to keep a manifest with the name, age, sex, occupation and country of those entering the US. 

After the Civil War the Supreme Court found that immigration was a responsibility of the federal government. The government obliged in 1882 with the first immigration law, The Chinese Exclusion Act. This law banned those of Chinese ethnicity, trapping many young Chinese men in bachelor communities in the United States. They were unable to return to China for a temporary visit to family and unable to bring a wife to the United States. Most had come here during the Gold Rush and had moved from mining to building the railroad. 

As fate would have it, an "act of God" offered them a respite with the 1906 earthquake which destroyed San Francisco birth records. This allowed them to claim US birth as no one could prove otherwise. A thriving business in paper sons began where sons were claimed by these new citizens and the papers sold to others who wished to come to the US. They assumed the new name and identity to do so.

Having cut their teeth on this law, the government issued a spate of laws to restrain immigrants from entering our shores. In 1882 we blocked idiots, lunatics and convicts. Still greater impact came from restrictions on those deemed to be a likely public charge. This was frequently applied to women and children traveling alone. If a male didn’t show up to take responsibility they could be sent back. 

If they were detained, you will see an X to the left of the name. At the end of the manifest, you will find a listing of detained aliens and who, if anyone, picked them up. You can gauge the number of days they were held by the number of meals they were fed.

In 1892 Ellis Island opened and the Immigration Service took over management of manifests. By 1906, the manifests were expanded to two pages and now identified the town of origin rather than the country. They also tell you who the nearest relative was in Europe and who they were going to in the United States, useful information to work back to family in Europe. 

Restrictions continued in 1907 with a ban on persons with physical or mental defects, tuberculosis and children traveling without a parent. They would however let children remain if a parent picked them up. In my family there is a mystery child who came with my grandmother’s sibling, claimed my great-grandfather as her father and promptly disappeared. No doubt she was a cousin or friend aware that under this law she ran the risk of being sent back if not claimed. 

In 1917 virtually all Asians were banned, and we expanded physical and mental defects to include homosexuality, not to be removed until 1990. 

The naturalization documents paralleled that of the immigration manifest, sketchy at first, more extensive after 1906. The naturalization document offers an important source for name changes, noting the current name and the name under which they entered the country if different. It also provides the names, ages and place of birth of the applicant and his family. Citizenship for a wife followed the husband with her naturalization accompanying his. Similarly, her loss of citizenship also followed. If a natural-born female citizen married a non-naturalized male, she lost her citizenship. It was not until 1922 that citizenship was dealt with on an individual basis.

Despite the laws cited, immigrants continued to flood the US. Between 1900 and 1920, 14 million immigrants entered the country, 13% of the population. In the first quarter of the century, over 1.75 million Jews came to America. This number was dwarfed however by the 3 million Italians who came between 1900 and 1915. This was a time of racial prejudice, a belief in eugenics and high unemployment (“They’re taking our jobs!”). The Russian revolution had ignited the first Red Scare and nativism and xenophobia were at a peak.  All of these were factors behind the Immigration Act of 1924, an effort to turn back the clock. In fact, the law sought to make time stand still by putting a quota system in place based on the percent of each group in the 1890 census. This advantaged the British, Germans and Irish who made up 70% of the early population and severely limited the number of Jews and Italians at whom it was aimed. The national origins system remained in place until 1965.

A visa was now required to enter the United States, and this included an extensive packet of information: a photo, birth certificate, certificate that they were free of trachoma and character certificate. In a bow to eugenics one must have never been in a prison or hospital for the insane and one's parents must never have been treated for insanity.  This information can now be ordered from the US Citizenship and Immigration Service.

The Jews that entered the country during this period frequently lived and worked in an insular geographic area. Antisemitism often played a role in this, limiting where they could live and work. Virtually everyone in their community spoke Yiddish and old-world customs were common.

The next wave of Jewish immigrants came after WWII, survivors of the Holocaust. Antisemitism in the State Department and Congress restricted the response of the United States to save Jews during the war. A 1939 proposal to admit 20,000 Jewish children, similar to the Kindertransport, was defeated in Congress with opposition from 60% from the public.  The ship, the Saint Louis, with over 900 German Jews, was turned away with many sent to their death. The US had visa capacity for German Jews but dispersed only 30% of the German quota during the war. 

For three years after the war there was no legislation to allow refugees entrance and by the time it occurred, most had gone to Israel. Truman was frustrated by this inaction and took an executive action in 1945 to apply any remaining visa capacity to these refugees. This brought in 15,000 Jewish refugees, most who had family in the US.

The larger question of legislation was finally addressed in 1948 allowing 200,000 refugees of which 80,000 were Jewish. Jewish leaders purposely sought to widen the scope to all refugees, certain that something directed at Jews would not pass. In fact, in 1948, 53% of the public favored admitting displaced persons, but 60% favored placing restrictions if most of them were Jews. Legislation favored agricultural workers, a slant that Truman called flagrantly discriminatory against Jews.

This was the time of the Red Scare and the Rosenberg trial when 21% of Americans believed most Jews were Communists. Two thirds of those questioned by McCarthy’s Senate committee in 1952 were Jewish. Upon immigrating, survivors were queried about Communist involvement. 

After the war, legislation focused upon subversive acts and security. Quotas were updated from 1890 levels to 1920 levels and that 1924 law was finally eliminated in 1965 as we refocused on skills and family reunification. 

Most of the Jews from the former Soviet Union, came in under the Refugee Act of 1980, a law we see in action still today. This law deals with overseas refugees and asylum seekers. Many went via a circuitous route with Israel as the purported destination, then sought political refugee status in transit to come to the US.  There in accordance with a 1952 law, they were interviewed by consular staff and it was determined if they were refugees. 

They came to the US in hopes of leaving the virulent antisemitism of the Soviet Union behind. One of my interviewees described her US experience in contrast to that of Russia:

            We’re Russian but we’re not.  We’re from Russia, but we’ve never been Russian. We’ve always been Jews. Jews here and Jews there. But here we’re Americans, American Jew. Over there we were just Jew. Period. 

Although Jews are well integrated into the America experience, our immigrant past is not distant.  For many of us it influences values and encourages empathy, reminding us that we were once “them.” 

Sunday, May 12, 2019

The Whispering Past

One of the things that intrigues me about genealogy are the little glimpses of history. There are so many things we take for granted, never considering that at one time they were discoveries or innovations that affected the future, our present. Even past kindnesses create future impacts. The past and our present frequently rub shoulders and because I do genealogy research for others, I stumble across these encounters with greater frequency. 

 I’ve had two recent encounters that arose from my genealogy research for clients. In one I was recently contacted by a gentleman with a complicated family history, but not a Jewish one. While I do some research outside of Jewish heritage, I was surprised that he contacted me. I soon learned that there was a connection to a Jewish family for which his grandfather worked. We weren’t sure if the relationship went deeper, but there seemed to be a suggestion that it did. 

Part of my research for them was to trace the path of the Jewish family as we followed the connections between them. All we knew of them was that the husband was in card manufacture. We weren’t quite sure what that meant when we started. I was picturing those old greeting cards that one often finds in antique shops.  As I worked my way back through the 1800s, I discovered that this was a family business that he inherited from his father who also had inherited it from his father. It began with his grandfather Lewis Cohen who was born in Pennsylvania in 1800. Lewis was an inventor. And those cards were playing cards. Lewis Cohen ran a stationary business based in NY and that business seemed to drive his inventions and improvements. 

In 1833, a fair was held for new inventions. It was discussed in a mechanics journal which lauded a New York company for their "beautiful specimens of ornamental borders for cards and other purposes." They noted that it was an art that was popular in England, but just recently introduced to the US. They then proceeded to diss Cohen by stating, "Mr. Cohen, of William street, also exhibited some, but we think much inferior to Wright & Co." 

That must have irked Cohen who had printed his first deck only a year before. It is interesting to see how the tides shifted. In 1835 he invented a four-color press which allowed him to print in four colors with one pass. That enabled him to take over the market for playing cards and build a business which lasted for many generations until it was dissolved in a merger in 1962.

In addition to the four-color press, he is credited with bringing the lead pencil to America as well as the steel point pen. So, what did that steel point pen replace? Why the quill of course. A sense of history settled around me with that realization. Why it was just a short time before that quills were used to sign our founding documents. 

Sometimes the past has nothing to do with building the family fortune, at least in terms of monetary measures. Kindnesses too can reverberate through history. One such discovery arose out of our travels to Lithuania last year. It was my first visit back in almost ten years since I had attended the Vilnius Yiddish Institute. This time I was bringing my husband along to introduce him to this town filled with memories of deep friendships and intense study. 

I had been wandering around the airport and upon my return was surprised to find my husband, a rather reserved man, in conversation with some other passengers, two brothers who were waiting for the same flight. I learned they were on a bit of a roots trip. We enjoyed our conversation, proceeded to catch an Uber together and later met for dinner. As we moved on in our travels, we kept in contact by text. Upon our return, I checked in with them and they asked me to research their family. They had discovered they lacked the information to do a meaningful roots trip and learned of my work as a genealogy consultant. My efforts proved successful and I was able to tie them back several generations into Lithuania. They were interested in history, but also connections with living relatives, so I began to work forward and across their tree to cousins. Through those efforts, I connected with a family of like name in New Orleans and learned the following story.

Louis Armstrong was born in 1901 and lived in New Orleans. He became close to a Jewish family named Karnofsky which had five boys, some close in age. As a child he was hired to ride on a rag truck belonging to Mr Karnofsky. His job was to blow a whistle to let people know they were in the area. Louis found a horn in a pawn shop for sale and the story is that Mr. Karnofsky either bought it for him or advanced him the money.  That was his first horn and it launched a legend. 

Armstrong was very close to the family and frequently shared meals with them. They encouraged him to sing as well as to play. Armstrong talked of how the Karnofskys instilled in him "singing from the heart." He developed a taste for Jewish food and later in life wore a Star of David around his neck and had a mezuzah on his door. Who wouldn't want that story in their family history?

I'm a fan of time travel literature in which a common theme is that if you go back in time and take even the slightest action, you can make changes that reverberate through history. If that is indeed true, it also means that actions taken today may affect the future just as Mr Cohen and Mr Karnofsky once did. The past whispers around us, but we need to listen carefully.