Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Jewish emigration: a century-old need to find safe havens

By Peter I. Rose / April 14, 1988



Shores of Refuge: A Hundred Years of Jewish Emigration, by Ronald Sanders. New York: Henry Holt. 647 pp. $27.95. In the Broadway musical based on Sholem Aleichem's story ``Tevye's Daughters,'' one of the characters asks the rabbi, ``Is there a prayer for the Tsar?''

Skip to next paragraph

``Yes, there is,'' he replies. ``Dear Lord, keep the Tsar - far away from us!''

Those who saw ``Fiddler on the Roof'' will remember that prayer and all it represented. It was a commentary on the conditions that led hundreds of thousands of Jews - rich and poor, Zionist and Orthodox - to flee that part of Eastern Europe known as the Pale of Settlement, beginning in 1881. Tsarist oppression and anti-Semitic pogroms triggered the first of a series of waves of refugees who sought to reestablish themselves in other parts of the world. Many went to Palestine and Western Europe; many more came to the United States. Almost from the start of the new exodus, those in the latter category were aided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. That organization, known as HIAS, is still the principal American agency dealing with the rescue, relief, and resettlement of Jews.

A grant from HIAS allowed Ronald Sanders, author of ``The High Walls of Jerusalem: a History of the Balfour Declaration'' and several other books on Israel, to undertake this documentary history of a century of Jewish emigration and of those who assisted it.

Sanders begins with a description of the plight of the East European Jews before and during the Russian Revolution and in its immediate aftermath. Many who had believed the new politics would mean a better life for all, including Jews, found themselves targets once again. Subsequent events, including civil wars and renewed pogroms, led many more to emigrate.

Not long afterward, Jews in Germany and Austria became the victims of vicious anti-Semitic policies. In the early days of the Third Reich, thousands left, only to find difficulty in obtaining permission to settle in many of the world's democracies, including the US. Various programs were advocated to deal with the mounting flow. The best known was the Evian Conference, held in the spring of 1938. Sanders reports that Arthur Ruppin, a representative of Palestine's Jewish Agency, argued that this was ``the first silver lining in the dark clouds hanging over the Jews since the Nazis came to power.'' But Sanders demonstrates how wrong Ruppin, and others who put their faith in Evian, proved to be.

Other attempts to aid the victims of Nazi persecution are discussed. Sanders cites activities going on behind the scenes during the worst years of the Holocaust and provides important insights into the great efforts made to deal with the survivors of the concentration camps. Many of these homeless, stateless, displaced persons helped to establish the new state of Israel.

The penultimate chapter is a commentary on the persistence of anti-Jewish sentiment in the USSR and the emigration of Soviet Jews today. The reader is made aware of the continuing necessity for Jews to have safe havens - and of the debate over where such potential refugees should finally settle.

According to Sanders, ``as the Soviet-Jewish emigration rose at the end of the 1970s, so also did the temperature of the controversy between the American-oriented and the Israel-oriented. [The debate] had a familiar ring.'' In 1882 the Muscovite Jew Chaim Khissin asked himself not whether he should leave but whether he should go. Sanders reports that his comrades were divided. Some said, ``We prefer to go to the Holy Land and try our fortune on the ruins of our former greatness.'' Others said the only place to find solace and security would be ``the United States of North America, a country civilized beyond all others.''

``Who was right?'' asks Sanders.

He then answers his own question. ``It would seem that both were.''

Peter I. Rose teaches sociology at Smith College.