28 September 2010
In today’s seminar for the Strand A section of our course, we discussed immigration, Jewish American culture and literature with Dr. Alan Gibbs, whose research interests involve Jewish American literature. Gibbs introduced the subject, which was relatively new to the majority of us, by looking at Emma Lazrus’ poem “The New Colossus” that is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. An excellent reading of the poem can be viewed on Youtube . This poem captures the tone and theme of today’s class discussion because it refers to the millions of immigrants who travelled to America and passed through Ellis Island at New York harbour. Lazarus’ poem, with it position on the base of the Statue of Liberty, inadvertently becomes a welcoming plaque to all the immigrants travelling to the United States.
Gibbs advanced our discussion of immigration by displaying photographs of immigrants, immigrant conditions on board the ships and immigrants passing through Ellis Island’s quarantine on the overhead projector.
These photographs visually convey the hardship and degradation involved in immigration that the immigrants suffered in pursuit of a better life. This led us to discussing the possible reasons why immigrants would risk their lives and their family’s lives by fleeing their home countries to come to a place where the conditions were no better if not worse.
The answer to the question ‘what were they escaping?’ cannot be answered in one simple sentence, as there is numerous reasons contributing to their departure from their homeland. One reason is because of the pogroms in their home countries. The 600 anti-Jewish decrees and conscripting of boys from age 12-25 years by Tsar Nicolas I were all aimed at annihilating Jews. Jews were utilised as scapegoats for Russia’s economic hardships and held to blame for widespread poverty. The mass exodus of Jews westward to Europe and beyond to the United States in the summer of 1881 is a symptom of the widespread tradition of anti-Semitism.
[The rest of this section is completed in another part of my blog.]