Diaspora: Catching up with the Galveston Movement

A century ago, thousands of Jews from Eastern Europe made their way to the American West.

rabbi cohen 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy of Rabbi Henry Cohen II)
rabbi cohen 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy of Rabbi Henry Cohen II)
On July 1, 1907, the SS Cassel entered the port of Galveston, Texas with 87 Russian Jews aboard, heralding the Galveston Movement - an organized attempt to bring Jews to less populated parts of the US. Now marking its centennial, the Galveston Movement is an often overlooked chapter in the history of American Jews due to the fact that only 10,000 Jews passed through this city between 1907 and 1914. Yet for many of them, Galveston was the gateway to other towns in Texas, the Southwest and the Midwest, where they found their place in "middle America," fortifying small Jewish communities or on occasion being the lone Jew in town. Between 1881 and 1923, about two million Jews headed for America from Russia and Eastern Europe due to pogroms and harsh economic conditions. For them, America meant New York or East Coast cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and Boston where they would be welcomed by family and landsmanschaft. Like millions of non-Jews, most Jews passed through Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Their destination was usually Manhattan's Lower East Side. "The immigration to New York was not organized in any way, while the Galveston Movement was based on an ideology to disperse Jews in the United States," says Dr. Bernard Marinbach of Jerusalem. His book Galveston: Ellis Island of the West (SUNY Press, 1983), based on his doctoral dissertation, is a comprehensive record of the movement. "The word 'movement' indicates a journey as well as an organized group. Yet the immigrants themselves were not always ideologically motivated and chose Galveston because they were convinced of better job opportunities than in New York." Marinbach conducted research in archives in the US and at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. Resentment increased as the well-established, "Americanized" German Jews who had immigrated between 1836 and 1880 were dismayed by their Russian cousins. German-Jewish leaders in America as well as recent arrivals from Eastern Europe felt that the newcomers should move to less populated parts of the US. They feared anti-Semitic repercussions as the immigrants would be unemployed or enter the labor force for cheap wages, thus causing others to be unemployed. "Due to the increase in immigration, the US Congress became more restrictionist, especially toward immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, including non-Jews," says Marinbach. "Restrictionists were against their forming ghettos, thus preventing Americanization. Jewish leaders reasoned that if they would disperse Jews, they would not form ghettos. This would negate the main argument for restricting immigration." The restrictionist policy of the Congress was a cause of concern for banker Jacob Schiff, the leading American Jewish philanthropist, and other Jewish leaders. Schiff teamed up with former Zionist leader Israel Zangwill of England, who founded the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO) with the purpose of establishing a Jewish homeland in whatever territory could be found as a haven for Eastern European Jews. While Zangwill admired the pioneering efforts of the practical Zionists in Palestine, he considered them irresponsible adventurers who were sowing the seeds of yet another expulsion of Jews. As a proponent of territorialism, he believed in directing masses of Russian Jews to "ITOland" where autonomy would be established. Ultimately, the search for "ITOland" failed. Schiff's plan was to encourage Jews to migrate via Galveston as a facilitator to disperse them in the American Southwest and Midwest. His proposal of $500,000 (a very large sum then) would be sufficient to direct 25,000 Jews to Galveston. "Although Schiff's plan to disperse Jews did not satisfy Zangwill's ideological commitment, it did satisfy his need to get Jews out of Europe as soon as possible," claims Marinbach. ITO's Jewish Emigration Society managed the recruitment from Kiev. As part of the campaign, literature promising favorable conditions for immigrants was widely distributed and reduced rates were offered. Guidelines targeted young men with skills needed in the Southwest and Midwest, like ironworkers, carpenters, butchers, painters, shoemakers, tailors, plumbers and machinists. Some Jews lied about their skills. The timing of the Second Aliya paralleled that of the Galveston Movement. The Zionist movement also vied for skilled Jews to establish a broad economic structure in Eretz Yisrael. "The immigration policy as established by such Zionist leaders as Arthur Ruppin and Menahem Sheinkin was to bring young unmarried men, skilled and with capital," says historian Dr. Gur Alroey of the Land of Israel Studies Department at the University of Haifa. "Zangwill was more successful in his attempts. The demographic makeup of the Galveston Movement immigrants greatly differed from those arriving at Ellis Island who included older people and families. The migration to Ellis Island resembled those going to Eretz Yisrael during the Second Aliya. These weren't olim in the ideological sense, but migrants." Alroey has built the Mass Jewish Migration Database (http://mjmd.haifa.ac.il) to locate Jews immigrating through the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA) or ITO. "This database covers those who went through Galveston," he says. After ruling out Charleston and New Orleans, Schiff's agent Morris Waldman chose Galveston as port of entry because its transportation network with the Southwest and Midwest would facilitate movement and dispersion of the newcomers. The Hilfsverein der Deutschen Juden worked with ITO from Bremen, Germany, the port of embarkation for Galveston. The Jewish Immigrants' Information Bureau (JIIB) operating from Galveston placed Jews in jobs in different states. "Galveston proved to be a fortunate choice since it was the home of a dynamic spiritual and communal leader, Rabbi Henry Cohen, who assisted many Jews in southeastern Texas," notes Marinbach. Born and raised in London, Cohen was Zangwill's classmate. He served as rabbi in Galveston after working for a short while in Jamaica and Mississippi. As soon as Cohen was approached by Waldman to assist the Jews, he devoted himself wholeheartedly to the new enterprise. He was the spiritual leader of the Reform congregation B'nai Israel, which he served faithfully for more than 60 years. He died in 1952. "He would go to exceptional lengths to help even one person. He was a natural - the same on the outside as he was on the inside," says grandson Rabbi Henry Cohen II, who recently wrote his grandfather's biography - Kindler of Souls (University of Texas Press). "He was not afraid to become deeply involved in politics when a moral issue was involved." Cohen did not confine his aid to Jews. "Evidence shows a close relation between US president William Taft and the rabbi of a small Texas town. The most famous story concerns his going to Washington to persuade Taft to grant political asylum to a stowaway. Taft refused and said: 'But it is wonderful how you Jews stand by each other.' To which my grandfather replied: 'What do you mean Jews? The man's a Greek Catholic.' Whereupon Taft skirted the law and let the man stay in this country under the sponsorship of Rabbi Cohen." Cohen's grandson is rabbi emeritus of the Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, a suburb of Philadelphia. He recalls going with his parents 80 kilometers from Houston to Galveston almost every weekend to visit his grandfather. "Through my teen years I tagged along with him as he visited hospitals, the orphanage, and congregants." Cohen met the immigrants on the dock and occasionally aboard the ship, communicating with them mostly in Yiddish. When the SS Cassel came, he translated the mayor's words into Yiddish: "You have come to a great country. With industry and economy all of you will meet with success. Obey the laws and try to make good citizens." He was concerned with each individual as a human being by finding out his/her skills. He took them to the JIIB where the newcomers were given railroad tickets, supper and enough food to last for their journey to a town that needed their skills. Some left on the night train. Others spent the night in Galveston. His grandson relates: "His understanding of the immigrants' mentality came not from his immigrant experience as much as from sensitivity to his father, David, who had migrated from Rava in Russo-Poland to England. Also his humanitarian work through the Board of Guardians with London's poorest Jews while a student in Jews' College made him more sensitive." "My grandmother, Sarah Bernstein of Russia, remembered vividly arriving in the Galveston harbor for Kol Nidre. She remembered Rabbi Cohen coming aboard the ship to conduct services for the new arrivals," relates David Hoffman of Evant, Texas. "They spent the night on the ship before disembarking the next day [after Yom Kippur]. She went to a large building where they were processed. Rabbi Cohen handed her a letter from her father [in Texas from 1912] with $10 that she needed to legitimately enter the country." The same month Ephraim Zalman Hoffman of Hrubieszow, Poland, arrived in Galveston aboard the SS Wittekind which sailed from Bremen. Remaining in Galveston very briefly, his final destination was Fort Worth. The kitchen staff in the restaurant that employed him had trouble pronouncing Ephraim and called him Charlie, which he formalized to Charles. Born after his grandfather died, David Hoffman heard of his life experiences from his grandmother. He is an architect specializing in restoration because of his interest in history and preservation. "I'm on the board of the Texas Jewish Historical Society due to those interests as well as my personal family history being entwined with the Texas Jewish experience." His brother and grandfather's namesake, the late Charles Hoffman, was a Jerusalem Post reporter from 1980 to 1990. Charles left Europe for personal reasons, including leaving behind a prearranged marriage. Hoffman relates: "He took advantage of the inducements of the Galveston immigration program to leave behind the predetermination of his life and seek a future of his own making." He met Sarah in Fort Worth and they got married in 1915. Charles and his young family eventually moved to Comanche, where they ran a dry goods store. Being the only Jewish family in Comanche at the time, Charles believed that his actions and those of his family would reflect not only on the Hoffman name but on their Jewish identity as well. Making the effort to become a productive citizen, he participated in civic affairs. As reported in the Comanche newspaper, Charles said in a public talk: "Every day I am thankful that I came to America." The Hoffmans moved later to Austin. Poor travel conditions deterred Jews from coming via Galveston. An economic depression in 1908-1909 further beset the movement as Jewish communities turned down newcomers for lack of job placements. In addition, immigration officials in Galveston were more restrictionist than in Ellis Island, identifying health problems, especially cases of hernia, at 10 times the rate found in New York. Marinbach states that "coming through Galveston was sometimes a disservice to Jewish immigrants, who had a higher chance of being deported back to Europe than from Ellis Island. Many were promised work and were disappointed when they couldn't find work." The Galveston Movement was never meant to exist indefinitely. Schiff decided to end it after sending 100 shiploads of immigrants. "He was saved by the bell," says Marinbach. "World War I broke out after the last ship left, halting emigration from Europe for a while." While never capturing the imagination of the Jewish people as a solution to their problems, the Galveston Movement's dispersion of Jews strengthened small communities. "If Jews weren't dispersed throughout the United States and were all located in a few East Coast cities, their influence in government, commerce, media and academia would be much less than it is today," says Marinbach. America's forgotten gateway The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin (TSHM) is developing a major traveling exhibition scheduled for February 2009. Called "Forgotten Gateway: Coming to America Through Galveston Island," the exhibit will explore the dramatic story of Galveston as a significant transoceanic port of immigration into Texas and America between 1845 and 1924. Part of the exhibition, which includes multimedia displays, activity areas and a recreated inspection room, focuses on the Galveston Movement. "The Galveston Movement story fits into the third wave of immigration to America through Galveston, and is a beautiful example of this particular period in the 75-year history of immigration through Galveston," says Dr. Suzanne Seriff, project co-director and curator. "It is the period where Texas and Galveston are simultaneously the most organized, capable and developed in their recruitment of immigrants to Texas, while at the same time experiencing the effects of national xenophobia for 'alien foreigners' in general, and those from Eastern and Southern Europe in particular." Working with Jewish community centers, historical societies, synagogues and local newspapers, TSHM contacted more than 300 Jewish Galveston descendants throughout the Midwest and Texas. "Over 100 of these descendants personally shared and recorded their family histories personally at oral history and photo-scanning sessions in their communities in research that was led by the project coordinator, Anya Rous," Seriff says. To date, TSHM staff has gathered oral histories from Jewish descendants in Texas, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Missouri, Idaho and Nebraska. All those interviewed spoke about their Jewish identity and the importance of maintaining that identity in America. "They have incredible stories of cutting their beards upon arrival, shredding their winter fur coats on the boat over because they had been told the weather was hot in Texas - and then freezing on the train to Minneapolis - and other stories of adjusting to life as one of only two or three Jews in a Texas or Midwest town," Seriff says.