LET ME GET THERE

From Bessarabia [1904]

"The Russian immigrant is a very desirable one..."

Departing 24 June 1904 on the S.S. Pretoria from Hamburg, Germany, Jacob Kohn [Yankel Kogan / Янкель коган], his wife, Chaje, and six children arrived at Ellis Island on 8 July 1904. The Kohn's had come to join family that had already migrated to the United States some years earlier.  However, their journey had begun much further away than Hamburg, and their motives for emigration most likely began with smoldering trauma and a persistent, suffocating threat of violence. The full context of their arrival, detention and release intersects with events that illuminate less explored but startling aspects of U.S. immigration policy and practice during the early 1900s. Sherman made at least one photographic portrait of the family as they waited in detention on Ellis Island; as with much of his work, he left the image undated, uncaptioned, and its subjects unnamed.
The Kohn family came from a large city in the southwestern region of the Pale of Settlement: Kishinev [Кишинёв], then capital of the Russian Empire's Bessarabian Governorate (today's Chișinău, Moldova). At the turn of the century, Kishinev had one of the highest number of Jews as a percentage of the total population of any city in Europe; more than 40% of Kishinev's citizens were Jewish. But by 1903, the already uneasy relations between Kishinev's Eastern Orthodox Christian and Jewish citizens was about to take a far more ominous turn; the family's departure was most likely precipitated by the very real threat of violence. Although the Kohn family entered Ellis Island in July 1904 as immigrants, today they would have been considered refugees or refugee-adjacent.

Hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews settled permanently in the United States during the early 1900s, most for economic reasons, but many were hastened in their journey west in response to horrific pogroms that had made life unbearable in the Pale of Settlement, particularly during 1903-06.1 It wouldn't take long before ambiguous visual characterizations of their plight and expected emigration to the United States would appear in the popular press—with a choreography similar to patently racist ones. Dubious reporting on the turmoil Jews were facing in Czar Nicholas II's Imperial Russia and the menace they posed to the U.S. would also follow, heightened by the fact that the cost to travel had just plummeted.

Atlantic Rate War

Transatlantic steamship fares on the busy North German Lloyd and Hamburg-American lines were reduced dramatically during the early summer of 1904, immediately coinciding with an upward spike in the number of arrivals at immigration stations like Ellis Island. A full-fledged rate war had broken out between rival shipping lines, causing the cost of steerage tickets to be cut by as much as 50-70 percent; a steerage ticket on a Hamburg-New York steamer could now be purchased for as little as $7.50 (approximately $230 in 2021 dollars). Weeks before the cuts went into effect, a flurry of alarmist reporting in the U.S. press warned that the "criminal, diseased or degraded off-scourings of Europe" would be boarding steamers heading for the United States simply because of the reduction in the cost of steerage tickets. Apparently, people who could afford higher-priced fares were more desirable than those that came at reduced rates.2

While the rate war was quick to be negatively reported on in U.S. press, so to were U.S. government officials' denial that there would be any significant effect on the overall "quality" of immigrants; the high standard immigration inspectors consistently sought in arrivals would preclude the admittance of undesirables. Rebuttals and reassurance that immigration stations were fully prepared to deal with the expected influx would even come from the Commissioner General of Immigration, Frank P. Sargent, who explained "Why should anyone fear that lower steerage rates or no steerage rates at all could affect the character of the immigrants who are admitted? [...] Ellis Island may be jammed with the scum and riffraff of the world, but they will never reach the mainland."3 Higher detention and deportation rates were assured to accompany the increase in the number of (mostly) southeastern European immigrants who took advantage of the reduction in ticket prices.

However, some coverage was downright upbeat about the arrival of Russian emigrants in particular and even lamented the fact that by mid-1904 there were fewer Russian arrivals than expected. Standing in contrast to his consistently negative view of most southeastern European immigrants, especially Southern Italians and "Slavs", Sargent was enthusiastic about Russian immigrants:

The Russian immigrant is a very desirable one. We would like to see a great many more of them come to this country. They are good workmen, skilled in trades or professions, are steady and sober, and make good citizens. [...] The officials at the Department of Commerce and Labor lay much stress upon the proposition that the South offers a good home for the Russian. This is particularly true in the case of the Russian Jews. Homes can be found for all, and the department would welcome any movement looking toward the colonization of this class of immigrants. [...] We want all the Russian immigrants we can get, as well as all others who have the same high order of intellect. They are all welcome.4

Even though prominent public endorsements like Sargent's would prove short-lived, having multiple U.S. government agencies actively encouraging and defending Russian emigration during the early 1900s is remarkable, and at odds with the open hostility towards the "new" immigration expressed by prominent members of the U.S. Congress and the national press. To further add to the disconnect, there was also behind-the-scenes support for immigrants like the Kohn's that faced deportation coming from none other than President Roosevelt.5 However, Sargent's praiseworthy comments on the viability of Russian (Jewish) immigration belies the fact that there was an active relocation/resettlement scheme for east European Jews underfoot, one that would encourage Jewish immigrants to settle in non-urban areas, far away from their families and support networks on East coast; this is why Sargent mentions that the American South would be good for the Russians.6 Russian Jews were welcome to emigrate to the U.S., but mechanisms were in place, already for years, that would encourage their removal from cities after initial settlement.

Ironically, the settlement scheme Sargent was promoting was somewhat reminiscent of the centuries-old restrictive measures Imperial Russia placed upon its own Jewish population: with notable exceptions, Jews couldn't settle in any of Russia's major imperial cities and instead were forced to inhabit the smaller provincial towns and villages that made up the Pale of Settlement. Sargent was adamant that increasing the concentrated populations of Jews (and Southern Italians) in already overcrowded cities were "a menace to the physical, social, moral and political security of the country..." and the scheme was devised to thwart such perceived threats.7 8 Obviously, the plan to prevent immigrants from establishing "alien colonies in our great cities" and direct them instead to "open and sparsely settled country" was a modest effort in comparison, but multiple instances of Sargent's positive commentary on the prospect of Russian (Jewish) immigration given in his speeches, interviews, and official reports during 1903-05 are followed by suggestions that such immigrants are most needed in non-urban areas. On the surface, Sargent was responding to labor shortages in non-urban areas, but beneath it all there were hidden agendas from multiple actors.

Despite the unlikely pairing, it's clear that a backdrop of humanitarian catastrophe (i.e. pogroms), economic insecurity, an atypically supportive U.S. immigration policy towards Russian Jews, the short-lived Atlantic Rate War of 1904, along with the irrepressible drive to start a better life were all converging. The Kohn's had arrived in the middle of it all, in part driven by forces far beyond their control.

Leaving Kishinev

Little more than a year before the Kohn family's arrival in New York, Jewish residents of Kishinev experienced one of the 20th century's first and most horrific attacks specifically targeting Jews, i.e. the Kishinev pogrom. The pogrom started with an anti-Jewish riot that quickly led to the massacre of 49 Jews, the raping of hundreds of Jewish women, with hundreds more injured, and massive property damage to over 1500 Jewish-owned homes and businesses. The 1903 pogrom also foreshadowed further persecutions of European Jews and was an unmistakable precursor to the Holocaust. This was the worst aspect of old world that the Kohn family was fast leaving behind as they made their way across the Atlantic.

However, the path to establishing a foothold in the new world was far from clear. Detention rates at immigration stations soared at the time and the rhetoric emanating from the popular press, governmental, and support agencies ranged from ambiguous to hostile. Shortly after their arrival at 06:46 on 8 July, the entire family was immediately detained and held before a Board of Special Inquiry to determine their eligibility for entering the United States as immigrants. The Board's recommendation to deport the entire family came quickly, but they appealed for a re-hearing, which was granted, and took place on 14 July. They won the appeal and the Kohn family was allowed to leave Ellis Island and enter the U.S. on 17 July 1904.

A closer look at the 8 July 1904 manifest for the Pretoria reveals some startling facts that in part correspond with Sargent's predictions. Of the 1694 steerage passengers, 693 (41%) were detained—more than 400 of which held before a Board of Special Inquiry, a rate 2-3 times higher than usual. Most were detained under a Likely to Become a Public Charge (LPC) assessment, but other causes for detention included more blunt diagnostic categories in the cause of detention field, such as "stupid", "poor physique", and "illegitimate child." Despite the extremely high detention rate, there was an equally surprising companion rate: only five passengers were debarred from entry and deported (0.295%). Only one family won their appeal: the Kohn's.

Why were they detained? Jankel Kohn, a blacksmith by trade according to the ship's manifest, was 65 years old and had just $4 to his name, with a wife and six children to support. Jankel's advanced age, lack of funds, and young family is probably what triggered the Special Inquiry hearing and LPC charge. An Ellis Island medical inspector also wrote "Dr. Certificate senility + corneal opacity" in the upper right hand corner of the ship's manifest, most likely another factor in the family's detainment. Simply being a southeastern European immigrant also carried its own set of disadvantages, and would underscore the multipurpose nature of the LPC category.

Publicly, Commissioner General Sargent offered mixed messages of support and disfavor for different immigrants. Privately, however, he didn't hide his prejudice:

"...sturdy Scotchmen, Irishmen, or Germans who land at Ellis Island with but a few dollars can enter immediately and find employment.” Those of other nationalities with little money, however, “should not be permitted to enter unless they produce satisfactory proof of their ability to work and support themselves."9

Despite such a covert double standard in play that southeastern Europeans had to contend with, Sargent's overtly praiseworthy comments on Russian immigration were included in a September 1904 Washington Times article. The article featured another photo of the Kohn family, captioned "A typical Russian family of immigrants."10 This article also fits with a distinct pattern of Sherman's Ellis Island portraits being paired with Sargent's interviews or extensive quotes from his reports, speeches, etc. in newspapers.11 In a later chapter, I explore some of the reasons why "immigrant type" photos like the Kohn's were being collected by Sargent from immigration stations like Ellis Island.

The photo in the Washington Times article, taken just outside an Ellis Island building, is more than likely Sherman's work, given the fact that the portrait captures the Kohn's all wearing the same clothes and standing in the same order as in the photo attributed to Sherman. Because of this, we can precisely date both photos to between 8 and 17 July 1904, making them some of Sherman's earliest definitively dated photographs.

Sherman's photo of the Kohn's, along with variations on the "typical Russian family" caption, would appear elsewhere, years after it was shot. Unbeknownst to the family, Sherman's portrait would reach new audiences, on two separate occasions, via the increasingly influential and widely circulated National Geographic Magazine.

This year the number will be greater...

This is the last photo that I unmasked, so it's suitably ironic that it was most likely one of Sherman's first Ellis Island portraits. As with the other photos, there was little to start with, save two captions in the May 1907 and February 1917 editions of National Geographic that featured dozens of Sherman's photos. The texts, photos and their captions offer insights on how public perception about immigration to the U.S. during the 1900s and 1910s was being actively shaped—seen through the lens of "immigrant types".

The short text in the May 1907 article was based on Sargent's then latest (1906) Annual Report of the Commission-General of Immigration, a well-publicized work which also featured many of the same photos taken by Sherman. Uncredited at the time, Sherman took all the photos displayed in the article and would have, it is assumed, provided log notes for the captions. The magazine would have then edited the captions, supplementing each with statistics on the particular "immigrant type" captured, along with sometimes stilted and dubious commentary. As stated in the introduction, the photos were provided to magazine courtesy of Commission-General Sargent, indicating the dependent relationship between Sargent and the Ellis Island Commissioner of Immigration, in part via Sherman.

Sherman's portrait of the Kohn family was one of 21 "immigrant type" photos featured in the 1907 article, a number of which prove problematic if they were meant to convey an accurate portrait of immigration to the U.S. at the time. All were taken at Ellis Island—leaving out other busy immigration stations that attracted immigrants from different parts of the world—and feature mostly families and single women, not the unaccompanied male immigrant that made up the bulk of typical immigration at the time. Some of the photos include erroneous captions, such as ethnic Berbers being listed as "Arabs" and Georgians captioned as "Cossacks". The article also included individuals who were debarred from entry and deported (e.g. "Serbian Gypsies") or were entering the U.S. as non-immigrant aliens (e.g. the "Arabs", "Cossacks", "Hindoos and Parsees")—most of which had come as performers at circuses and sideshows. It's also highly likely that many or all of the individuals photographed were detained and held for special inquiry, like the Kohn's, representing a minority of typical immigrants.

Overall, the collection provides a distorted view of immigration at the time, but unlike many newspaper articles from the same era that also featured immigrant photographs (some by Sherman), the texts in the 1907 National Geographic article were straightforward, ostensibly factual, and free from overtly xenophobic remarks.12

1907 caption:

Typical Russian Hebrew Family — 153,748 Hebrews were admitted in 1906. This year the number will be greater. They come principally from Russia.

The photo's appearance in the February 1917 National Geographic, made during the height of WWI when the flow of immigrants to Ellis Island had substantially subsided, repeats some of the same patterns as the 1907 piece and included photographs of deportees, non-immigrant aliens, and disproportionately few unaccompanied male adults.

The Kohn family portrait was one of 37 mostly "immigrant type" photos, but with a different caption from the earlier issue. The 1917 caption reads:

A TYPICAL JEWISH FAMILY FROM RUSSIA — Among the Jews who came to America from Russia before the war were thousands of families like this one. Even amid direst poverty and the most insanitary surroundings many of them are able to triumph over dirt and disease by adhering to that remarkable code of personal hygiene laid down in the laws of Moses.

Sherman is credited as the photographer on four of the portraits, perhaps the only time he received proper attribution for his photographic work during his lifetime. The rest of the portraits included the note: "Photo from [Commissioner-General of Immigration] Frederick C. Howe", or lacked any attribution/copyright.

There was much more text in the February 1917 article than in the 1907 edition, providing a mostly positive view on the historic role of the immigrant in America, supplemented with official statistics and even a measured degree of support for the "new" immigration. Aside from a lengthy discussion on the effects a literacy test on immigrant arrivals would bring, including the expected debarment of "more than a fourth of Jews", most of the text focuses on immigrant assimilation and Americanization, rather than the "quality" of the immigrant and migration flows. The contrast to the representation of the "new" immigration in much of the popular press of the time is again stark, but momentous changes were underfoot in U.S. immigration policy, changes which most likely prompted the National Geographic article.

By early February 1917, the Immigration Act of 1917 had just been signed into law after passing in the House and Senate, overriding a veto from President Wilson. The Act would impose a literacy test on all arrivals over the age of 16, barring from entry any "mature" illiterates; it was a major victory for immigrant restrictionists who had lobbied for decades to see it as an official part of the inspection regime. The 1917 Act was also packed with a slew of new prohibitions—including the outright exclusion of South Asians by creating what would be come to be know as the Asiatic Barred Zone—and would pave the way for the far more disruptive Immigration Act of 1924.

Eight months after Sherman made his portrait of the Kohn's at Ellis Island, he photographed another detained family from Bessarabia that had also arrived on the S.S. Pretoria. Details about this family (name, ethnicity, arrival date, destination, etc.) were typed onto one print of the photo, making a much more straightforward path to investigate identity. It read: "Jakob Mittelstädt and Family, Russian German, ex SS ‘Pretoria.’ Admitted to go to Kuln [Kulm], ND, May 9, 1905." This family of ten was from Klöstitz, today's Vesela Dolyna, Ukraine, which lies less than 80 miles from Kishinev; both were then part of the Bessarabian Governorate.

Like the Kohn's, the Mittelstädt's were held for Special Inquiry under an LPC assessment; they underwent two hearings during eight days of detention before being admitted. Nearly a year after their arrival, Sherman's portrait of the Mittelstädt's was featured in the New York Times, complete with family name—and an inaccurate caption: "seven soldiers lost to the Kaiser."13

Sherman's portrait of the Mittelstädt's was also featured in the February 1917 edition of National Geographic, just two pages before the Kohn's. But unlike the Kohn's, the Mittelstädt's were ethnic Germans, Christian, had over $100, and were headed to a small town in North Dakota, rather than one of the most densely populated boroughs of New York.

Brownsville, Brooklyn and beyond

Slowly piecing the Kohn's story together eventually led me to living descendants of the family, and they to me, along with more nuanced layers to add to the story of the Kohn's journey and settlement in the United States.  A family member recalled that about one year before the Kohn family's arrival in July 1904, "the second oldest child – Sophie – was sent to the US...to see if it was 'religiously safe' for the family to emigrate to the States. I had always understood the Kohn family as being very Orthodox Jewish in their beliefs/practice. My Mother had always said that the family was very concerned about whether or not they would be able to practice their Judaism in America - hence the sending...[of] Sophie...ahead of time to assess the situation."14

It was an uncertain journey the Kohn's had entered into—after all the entire family was nearly deported—but the United States indeed proved to be a "safe" destination, and permanent one at that. Still, the family's roots had been centered around the Pale of Settlement for countless generations; the Pale's geographic, religious, cultural, economic, and political milieu would cast a long shadow on the Kohn's.  The family literally took a little bit of the old world with them across the Atlantic, standing not as a symbol of what they left behind but of what could not be taken from them.

According to the ship's manifest, the Kohn's were headed to a crowded tenement at 55 Powell Street in the Brownsville neighborhood of east Brooklyn where Jankel's brother-in-law was living. Having close family already established in the U.S. should have helped the Kohn's orient themselves; they would need it because during the early 1900s Brownsville was a place full of numerous challenges and few opportunities. But Brownsville certainly had an established and vibrant Jewish community.

Dubbed "Little Jerusalem" by its residents, Brownsville happened to be home to more Russian Jews than any other city in the United States. Despite the neighborhood's rough and tumble reputation, the Kohn's would have been able to get by with Yiddish (or Russian), buy kosher food, attend synagogue, and make new acquaintances without the open hostility they would have encountered in Kishinev. Still, family members old enough to work wouldn't have much in the way of lucrative employment opportunities in such a neighborhood; they would take what they could get, and manage to get by only with great sacrifice and struggle.

By 1907, the family had moved to Stamford, Connecticut, where most of the now eight children would spend the rest of their lives. Jankel died in the spring of 1910, barely five and a half years after landing at Ellis Island, leaving Chaje a widow at age 43 with four children age 11 and under to care for. However, for at least a couple of years prior to their father's death, two of the oldest children, Taube and Malke—now known as Tiny and Minnie—operated a small confectionery in Stamford, a remarkable feat for two teenage girls. A close look at the 1910 Census return for the family, made less than two months after Jankel's death, shows that the two oldest children were not unemployed at anytime during the previous year, attesting to the to the industriousness needed to keep such a large family afloat without a male wage-earner in 1900s America; everyone worked.

It appears that the Kohn's given names were quickly Americanized after settling in the United States, but for most members of the family it would take decades before they naturalized as U.S. citizens. Jankel Kohn didn't have the opportunity to make the first steps towards attaining citizenship before dying, forcing family members to each start the process on their own. Family naturalization records show confusion and inconsistency around when and where they came from, attesting to just how far their journey from the old world of Kishinev had become. As the children grew to adults, they worked in occupations such as chauffeur, truck driver, candy seller, fruit seller, dressmaker, saleslady, and produce dealer. None ever became a "public charge".

Notes

1 Spitzer, Y. (2015). Pogroms, Networks, and Migration: The Jewish Migration from the Russian Empire to the United States, 1881–1914. Brown University, 29.

2 With inflammatory titles such as "The governments of the old world conspire with ticket agents to flood American with human refuse", "Scum of Europe coming to America", "How to keep out undesirable immigrants", and "Big wave of Jews coming" along with captions under photos depicting "the familiar Italian type—such as herds in filthy quarters and remains alien for generations" and Slavs described as "anarchist(s) in the making if not already made—a menace to American institutions", syndicated U.S. press coverage of southeastern European immigrants during 1904/05 was not just anti-immigrant, it was openly xenophobic and bigoted, seemingly aimed to instill fear and suspicion of the immigrant other in its readers.

3 SARGENT DEFENDS CHEAP IMMIGRANTS. The Washington Times, 20 June 1904, via Chronicling America.

4 RUSSIAN IMMIGRANTS WANTED, BUT ARE UNEXPECTEDLY SCARCE. The Washington Times, 4 September 1904, via Chronicling America.

5 In January 1903, after receiving complaints "from representative Jews...of very high character" concerning the harsh conduct of Boards of Special Inquiry that led to the mistreatment and deportation of Jews, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote privately to William Williams, Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island, requesting that he "not to do anything to discriminate against the immigrant, especially the immigrant of any particular race or creed - but simply fairly and openly, after full consultation with all, to work in the interest of all for a higher grade of our common citizenship." In order to help achieve this, Roosevelt thought that representatives from immigrant aid societies should be present at Special Inquiry Hearings, such as the "United Hebrew Societies, or of the Italian Catholic Society, or of any similar German or Irish or other society [...] so that there could be no chance of failure or of the appearance of failure on our part to protect the rights of the immigrant." During their detention at Ellis Island, the Kohn's received assistance from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), in part because of Roosevelt's insistence that such organizations should be allowed to help argue special inquiry cases alongside immigrants facing deportation. See: Letter from Theodore Roosevelt to William Williams. Theodore Roosevelt Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division. Theodore Roosevelt Digital Library. Dickinson State University.

6 Besides tacit support from the U.S. government during the early 1900s, financial and logistical support would also come from a number of German Jewish philanthropies, who were reluctant to absorb great numbers of East European Jews into their established communities; some even wanted to "cut off Jewish immigration." By the 1910s, however, most German Jewish organizations had become full advocates of the "new" Jewish immigration. A number of Jewish immigrant aid societies worked hard to help families like the Kohn's, who were in limbo at Ellis Island, avoid deportation. See: Okrent, D. (2020). The guarded gate: Bigotry, eugenics, and the law that kept two generations of Jews, Italians, and other European immigrants out of America. 77-80.

7 United States. Bureau of Immigration. (1903). Annual report of the Commissioner-General of Immigration to the Secretary of the Treasury for the fiscal year ended 1902/03. p. 60. Available via HathiTrust.

8 According to "removal work" directed by the B'nai B'rith Order, between 1900 and 1903, nearly 10,000 "newly-arrived [Jewish] immigrants and dwellers on the lower East Side of New York have been distributed to about 450 places in the United States..." See: The American Jewish Year Book, September 22, 1903, to September 9, 1904 / 5664, Vol. 5, p.127.

9 Letter from Frank Sargent to William Williams, October 6, 1902, WW-NYPL. Quoted in Cannato, V. J. (2010). American passage: The history of Ellis Island. New York, N.Y: Harper Perennial, p. 205.  Williams was Commissioner of Immigration at Ellis Island for two terms, 1902-1905 and 1909-1913.

10 I blinked twice after spotting the photo, then compared it to the photo portrait attributed to Sherman and quickly realized they were the same family.  I then looked for matches on manifests based on the composition of the family (number, approximate ages, gender, etc.), religion, ethnicity, the assumption that the family was detained, and the upper bound date of 4 September 1904. Walking it backwards wasn't easy, but I arrived at a passenger record that seemed to match all the diagnostic points. But the only way to be sure I had the right family was to first find out what became of the one I identified. The pieces eventually came together and I found a direct descendent that had the rest of the puzzle. It was indeed a match, borne out by documentary evidence, memory, and photographs.

11 Other examples of the Sargent/Sherman connection include:12 Putting the scattered commentary together on some of the "immigrant types" referred to throughout the 1907 article offers a measured degree of praise about some, and warning about others. During 1906, according to the article, "Hebrews" (and Southern Italians) were deported at a disproportionately higher rate than other "races", e.g. the English and the Scotch; they carried less money with them, and were lumped together with other arrivals as having a high rate of illiteracy, nearly five times that of native-born citizens. Mirroring Sargent's comments at the time, most immigrants were headed to big cities, particularly New York, and "this year the number (of Russian Jews) will be greater."

13 IMMIGRATION RECORD WILL BE BROKEN THIS YEAR The New York Times, 11 March 1906. Available via Internet Archive. While initially settled by ethnic Germans, Klöstitz/Vesela Dolyna was never part of the German Empire but rather, at the time, Imperial Russia. Later in 1906, another newspaper captioned the same photo: "The kind of immigrant families Uncle Sam wants".

14 S. Joseph Levine, (Personal communication, 28 June 2021).

This page has paths:

This page references: