The Emperor of America

Martin Pollack

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

Jewish refugees in Brody

The great Jewish exodus starts not in Galicia but in Russia. Following the assassination of the Russian Tsar Alexander II on March 1, 1881, by members of the terrorist wing of the narodniki, vicious riots break out in cities and villages with a large Jewish population. Dozens are killed, women and young girls are raped, and businesses and inns looted. Local authorities make no effort to stop the pogroms; sometimes they even encourage the mobs. This is not the first time that Jews serve as convenient scapegoats. Peasants, workers, and the impoverished petty bourgeoisie may use them to vent their rage and frustration about their own plight. It’s the Jews who are to blame for your poverty, beat the hell out of the bloodsuckers!

The pogroms unleash an enormous tide of refugees, even from areas initially not affected by the riots. Jews sell off their houses and land dirt cheap, lock up their shops and workshops—let’s get out of Russia! Entire families set out overnight, driven by fear of further massacres. Their life in Russia has never been anything but a vale of tears, plagued as it was by constant bureaucratic bullying and discriminatory laws. The pogroms are the straw that broke the camel’s back. The stream of refugees heads west following various routes. One of them leads to Brody, a small district town in eastern Galicia on the border with Russia, situated on a wide, marshy plain.

News from neighbouring Russia strikes horror and fear in the hearts of Galician Jews, especially since voices sympathetic to the Russian pogroms begin to be raised in local villages. The Russians know how to deal with the Jews! The bloodsuckers should be given short shrift! Mutterings of this kind, though still rare and muffled, can also be heard in the bars, in the marketplace, and in the church in the town of Lisko.

Mendel Beck will later recall the gloomy mood of the Jewish community in Lisko, the dismay people felt at the bloody excesses and their sympathy for the innocent victims, but also creeping anxiety and fear. What if it happens here too? What if our peasants also reach for their clubs and scythes? The older men try to reassure the community: the Austrian Emperor will never allow such a thing to happen, he will send in the army, the Emperor loves the Jews, he knows that they are loyal to him. But the Emperor is in Vienna, and Vienna is far away. This is when people first start to contemplate emigration. The papers say that the Russian Jews are being sent overseas, that refugees are welcomed in America with open arms. In America there are no tsars and no pogrom gangs, no slobbering Orthodox priests or drunken peasants, Jews have nothing to fear there, they can start a new life there in security. Is this when Mendel Beck first decides to leave Lisko for America?

The small border station of Radziwiłłów, a few kilometres east of Brody, is literally overrun by refugees. Trundling wheels and treading feet churn the unpaved road into ankle-deep mud through which exhausted people and carriages piled high with children and household goods and drawn by gaunt, ragged nags struggle to make headway. Soldiers and the customs officials urge the exiles on: Move! Faster! The town is not ready for such a mass onslaught, and many of those who arrive are abandoned to their fate, hungry, down-and-out, with no roof over their heads. The authorities wash their hands of responsibility and hope that the Russian Jews will soon return to their homeland of their own accord. The Jewish community of Brody, comprising about two-thirds of the population, is desperately overextended; it has enough of its own poor in need of support. These days Brody, like Lisko, is experiencing an economic downturn. Since 1880, commerce has declined after the city lost its “free trading” privileges; there is no industry worth mentioning except for a distillery, three breweries, and a steam mill.

Aid from rich Western European communities is slow to materialise, for they have no experience with disasters of this kind. Eventually Jewish aid organisations, with the support of the railway magnate and philanthropist Baron Moritz Hirsch and the Alliance Israélite Universelle, set up an office in Brody to receive the new arrivals, many of whom were fortunate to escape with their lives, and provide them with the bare necessities and help with onward travel. Most of them want to go to America, as far away as possible from Russia, where they fear for their lives.

In late autumn of 1881 the Hungarian-born religious philosopher Moritz Friedländer—who has been chairman of the Viennese branch of the Alliance Israélite Universelle since 1875—sets out for Brody with a few helpers at the behest of the organisation to take over from the previous contingent of volunteers and help “deal with a world of misery and despair.” The liberal thinker is appalled by what he sees in Brody. Large numbers of refugees are crammed into enormous makeshift barracks, wretched, scruffy figures anxiously clustering around their meagre possessions, as if fearing some fresh onslaught. There are many women with children and infants, some shabbily dressed in whatever they were able to salvage, the husbands having been killed or separated from their families. Many stare blankly ahead as if still unable to take in what has happened to them, what it was that has destroyed and crushed their wretched little world. Wounded people in makeshift bandages, victims of pogrom gangs, with faces creased by fear. Many had to watch their nearest and dearest being murdered, raped, horribly mutilated—their mothers, fathers, wives, children, siblings.

“Over there a broken old man wheezes heavily, leaning on his two grandsons who have lost their father. Here a woman pushes her way through the crowds gesturing desperately, looking for her lost child; over there an entire family is whimpering, tormented by hunger and cold . . . Wherever you look there is misery, poverty, and confusion.” This is how Friedländer describes the conditions in the border town in his report, under the sober heading “Five Weeks in Brody among Jewish Russian Emigrants.”

In the midst of all this chaos, representatives of the Alliance Israélite have to decide which of the refugees should be sent back to Russia, and which can continue their journey. They try to ensure that those people earmarked for further travel, often entire families, are moved away from Brody as rapidly as possible. The town is bursting at the seams. They are sent first to Oświęcim, the last Austrian stop before the Prussian border, and from there onto Hamburg to board ships for North America and Argentina.

As far as possible the Jewish organisations try to route their protégés via Hamburg rather than Bremen. And not without reason. Whereas Bremen had been closed to the Jews for a long time—until 1848 Jews were not allowed to settle in the city and as late as 1860 only twenty Jewish families lived in Bremen—Hamburg has been much more open and generous. By 1850, the city has a ten thousand-strong Jewish community and Jewish émigrés can thus expect more support from their moneyed co-religionists. In addition, the transit port in Hamburg shows greater consideration for the special needs of practising Jews.

In 1881, the year of the pogroms, the “German Central Committee for Russian Jewry” is established. The purpose of the organisation is to look after the refugees from the moment they reach Germany right until their departure, and to keep them off the streets as far as possible. The idea is to prevent them from wandering around begging and antagonising the authorities and the local population.

Paul Lasker is a representative of the Central Committee in Hamburg. His job is to meet the refugees arriving from Brody at the railway station, to distribute them among the lodgings rented by the Committee, and also to make sure they receive a hot meal and some milk for the children. He is also responsible for handing out the necessities for the voyage, “such as mattresses, blankets, tin ware etc. and provide them with clothes. We also supervise the emigrants as they board the ships,” Lasker writes in a report.

In 1882, a second round of pogroms sweeps through Russia, sending fresh waves of refugees across the border near Brody. At times up to twenty thousand people are camped in the city of fifteen thousand inhabitants. The emergency shelters are overcrowded and people are forced to spend their nights in the street or in parks. Aid organisations do all they can to swiftly steer the refugees to Germany. However, fear of growing anti-Semitism in Germany makes many German Jews wary of openly showing their solidarity with their co-religionists who have found themselves in this predicament through no fault of their own. The acclaimed German historian Heinrich Graetz, representative of the Breslau committee of the Alliance Israélite, expresses this sentiment quite openly in his letter to the board, dated July 4, 1881:

Esteemed members of the Central Committee,
I feel obliged to explain why no collection for the victims of the atrocities in southern Russia has yet been organized by the Alliance. The reason is that we would have been ill-advised to solicit contributions under the banner of the Alliance as the excessive antipathy of the Germans to our co-religionists is specifically directed against the Alliance, which is being quite openly denounced as an international conspiracy, and thus a considerable number of members of our community are wary of being seen as being a part of it. We have therefore tried to set up a mixed committee comprising both Jews and Christians, as in Berlin, which will then seek contributions. However, this plan has so far had no success due to the illiberal attitudes that prevail here.


Oświęcim, Auschwitz, Oschpitzin

Most of the Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms via Brody end up on the Prussian border in Oświęcim (another northern route passes through the East Prussian border town of Eydtkuhnen where the Hamburg–America Line also has an office).

Packed into railway carriages in Brody, they are dispatched to Oświęcim via Lemberg and Przemyśl. Upon arrival they are again made to wait while the Prussians check their documents and passenger lists. The younger children, orphans whose parents were murdered, can provide only scant information about themselves, often simply their first name—Chaskel, Berl, Meilech—driving to the verge of despair representatives of the German Central Committee for Russian Jewry, an aid organisation in Oświęcim that aims to take charge of the fleeing Russian Jews and help them reach Germany. German bureaucracy is unrelenting, heaping obstacles in the refugees’ way.

Oświęcim. Auschwitz. Over half of the population here is Jewish, their name for the city is Oschpitzin. Thanks to its location, this former capital of the Duchy of Oświęcim-Zator—until 1918, the Austrian Emperor’s long list of titles included that of “Duke of Auschwitz and Zator”—soon develops into an important collection centre and trans-shipment hub for the great East-West migration.

Polish and Ukrainian labourers as well as emigrants headed for the New World pass through this city with a population of around ten-thousand, situated at the confluence of the rivers Sola and Wistula. Twice a year, in spring and autumn, seasonal workers, reapers, and other harvest hands, generally known as “Prussians” and “Saxons” since in the past most of them found work on the large estates in Saxony (hence the Polish expression to “iść na saksy,” “go to Saxony,” still used to denote labour migration), descend upon Oświęcim and roam the town in search of cheap lodgings and bars. The German government has imposed restrictions on Polish itinerant labourers, such as compulsory home leave during the “freeze” period (so called because there is no demand for agricultural workers in the winter months). Anyone who contravenes the regulation is expelled to prevent them from settling down in the area permanently; Ruthenians are the only ones exempted from this rule. The coal mines and newly emerging industrial plants in the Ruhr region also attract cheap labour from Galicia, primarily Poles. The itinerant workers’ paths cross and overlap with those of would-be emigrants. In Oświęcim the latter can change to the Prussian state railway and from the border station of Myslowitz/Mysłowice continue to Hamburg or Bremen.

The population of Oświęcim has by now become accustomed to the flow of emigrants and seasonal labourers who pour into the small town in spring and winter as if following a irresistible law of nature, like lemmings or migrating birds. The emigrants congregate at Oświęcim station, situated two kilometres outside the town, in the parish of Brzezinka, Birkenau in German: Ukrainian and Polish peasants and cottagers, farmhands from large estates and day labourers, Slovak villagers and shepherds, Galician and Russian Jews, small craftsmen and merchants, dubious individuals without an obvious trade. Deserters, crooks, people wanted by the police—in America they will be beyond the reach of the law. The stream abates somewhat in summer and winter but never dries up completely.

Oświęcim is a typical small Galician town with a broad market square, a town hall, numerous shops, a hotel called “Herz,” after its owner who heads the local branch of the Hamburg emigration agency, a fairly run-down castle of the Piast dynasty, of which the locals are very proud, a few insignificant offices (all the important district offices are located in the predominantly German-populated city of Biała), a few churches, and a dozen Jewish prayer houses. The Great Synagogue is situated near Market Square, on the bank of the river Sola. Oświęcim is more prosperous than many other Galician cities of comparable size.

Under Austrian rule, the Galician economy suffers a dramatic decline: most local businesses are driven off the market by competition from the economically more developed parts of Austria. A fateful role in this decline is played by the Vienna–Cracow railway line, which passes through Oświęcim, and brings in better wares at cheaper prices. Galician products cannot compete. Only the agriculture-based companies, such as the spirits distilleries and beer breweries, can hold their ground. The inhabitants of Oświęcim are quick to exploit this opportunity, and the town develops into a centre of the spirits and liqueur trade. Well-known firms, such as Jakob Haberfeld and Henoch Henenberg, distribute their products across the monarchy and further afield. Jakob Haberfeld, Steam Manufacturer of Finest Liqueurs, produces choice brands of vodka, sour-cherry- and orange-flavoured wiśniówka and pomarańczówka, and also rum and brandy, as well as beer.

Emigrants provide the town’s second economic pillar. Although many of them, like the Russian Jews, are destitute, it is possible to make good money from emigrants, even the poorest ones. Merchants, restaurant and hotel owners and, above all, shipping company agents, exploit the boom. In the late 1880s, two major German transatlantic lines set up branches in Oświęcim: the first, the Hamburg–America Line or Hapag (short for Hamburg–Amerikanische Paketfahrt–Aktien–Gesellschaft) is soon joined by the Bremen-based North German Lloyd. Alfred Ballin, the energetic, shrewd young director of Hapag, is the first to recognize the possibilities offered by the small town: they must make sure that all the emigrants are channelled through Oświęcim and sold tickets for the Hamburg–America line so that they don’t even think of availing themselves of the services of North German Lloyd, Hapag’s rival in Bremen. The competition between the two agencies is fierce. Both want to lure as many emigrants as possible to Oświęcim and then convey them to the international ports. The Prussian authorities, on the other hand, try to stem the influx of emigrants as much as possible.

There is concern in Germany that large numbers of emigrants from the East, especially Galician and Russian Jews, might not be headed for America but rather wish to settle in large German cities such as Berlin or Hamburg, where they will make ends meet as street sellers, peddlers, or rag-and-bone men; there is widespread fear that the Eastern Jews might bring in contagious diseases like typhoid or cholera. As for the German shipping companies, their appetite for emigrants from Eastern Europe is insatiable.

In America, too, there is growing resistance to the unchecked influx of immigrants. Penniless or sick emigrants are increasingly being sent back on the same ship that brought them over. The returnees are stranded in departure ports, causing problems and incurring costs for the German authorities since they are unable (and certainly unwilling) to return home. To prevent this from happening, the Prussian authorities tighten up their border crossing policy. Poor foreigners are not welcome anywhere. No one will let them in. No one wants to be burdened with them. Often their only option is to cross the German border illegally and go underground. The 1881–82 wave of Jewish Russian emigrants can count themselves lucky to have some aid organisations on their side.

In December 1886 the Governor of Galicia advises all district police authorities in the country that the Prussian authorities are to demand a payment from emigrants crossing the border:

Lately it has often happened that the Prussian border authorities have sent back emigrants who didn’t possess the requisite 800 deutschmarks per adult and 400 deutschmarks per child below ten years of age, while in other cases they only required 200 guilders.

This applies to both Russian and Galician emigrants. According to the governor, many of the Russian emigrants are staying on in Galicia, imposing a burden on the local authorities and population. That is why the officials are instructed to send back all Russian emigrants who cannot prove they possess sufficient means to continue their journey.

However, the measures taken by the authorities against the dżuma amerykanska, the American plague, as the emigrants to America are soon known, remain half-hearted. Central authorities issue decrees that are being implemented at the local level only reluctantly, if at all. Corruption, which is widespread and endemic in Galicia, plays an important part.

To avoid checks at major railway stations and borders, emigrants rely on people smugglers, who help them cross the border on well-hidden paths, and put them back on the train two or three stations further from the border. Once on the train, they are advised not to buy a ticket all the way to Hamburg or Bremen and instead travel only as far as a nearby industrial town, pretending they seek work there, in case of an inspection. How is a simple Prussian policeman to tell a “ Saxon” from a would-be “American”? Only once they have reached this town should they buy a ticket all the way to Hamburg. Sometimes the people smugglers accompany the emigrants for a few stations and pay the relevant fee if the border guards catch them.

Very often gullible emigrants fall prey to dishonest smuggler gangs before they even leave Cracow. Most notorious are the coachmen from Podgórze, a village near Cracow, where many of those bound for America leave the train to evade the strict checks at the city’s railway station. In Podgórze, the emigrants are offered a ride across the Prussian border in a carriage at ten guilders per person. Between eight and ten people are squeezed into a single carriage and driven overnight only as far as Bierzanów, which is still on the Austrian side. There the people are told they are already in Prussia and abandoned to their fate in an open field. Ten guilders represents a small fortune. The passage all the way from Hamburg to New York costs a little over sixty guilders, which is around a hundred deutschmarks. A coachman gets this much or more for one carriage of human cargo from Podgórze to Bierzanów or to another village near the border.

Many of the cheated emigrants are picked up by police patrols and immediately sent back home. Deserters from the army face harsh punishment. Even if the victims later manage to get to Prussia on their own, they don’t usually complain to the police that they have been cheated. They are scared of the authorities, and in addition, the people smugglers have convinced them that as illegal emigrants they can be arrested in Prussia or, even worse, deported. The rural Galician population is wary and scared of all the representatives of the state, and avoids them for good reason. The authorities usually treat smallholders and farmhands with extreme brutality, not much better than cattle.

The resourceful locals of Oświęcim also capitalise on the boom. They go around landlocked villages and offer their services as guides to would-be emigrants. Naturally, they demand a princely sum for their specialist local knowledge.

Oświęcim is teeming with shady characters who make their living by deals of this kind. Alongside official emigration a shadow emigration economy has created a broad, lawless grey zone. The boundaries are fluid: official agents act simultaneously as people smugglers, and illegal sub-agents drive customers to official agencies by illicit means, frequently using force.

translated from the German by Julia and Peter Sherwood

From: Martin Pollack, Kaiser von Amerika. Die große Flucht aus Galizien © Paul Zsolnay Verlag Wien 2010