Tag: Eastern Europe

Ellis Island: Gateway to America

On January 1, 1892, a 15-year-old Irish girl named Annie Moore was granted entry to the United States. She and her two brothers were the first to be processed through Ellis Island. Over the following 62 years, millions would follow Annie Moore through the Ellis Island port of entry.  The island, in Upper New York Bay, would become a major gateway as the busiest immigrant in section station in the United States.

English: Immigrants entering the United States...
Immigrants entering the United States through Ellis Island, the main immigrant entry facility of the United States from 1892 to 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While most connect Ellis Island with immigrants from other parts of the world – particularly southern and eastern Europeans – the port was, in fact, an entry point for many British immigrants as well. In fact, throughout the 1890s, nearly 329,000 emigrants left the British Isles and set sail for the United States. Those who were first and second class passengers were processed aboard ship and weren’t required to pass through Ellis Island – thus, their entry is not recorded there. Many others, however, were traveling in steerage, and they joined the masses flowing through the Island facility.

Before Ellis Island opened, many millions of immigrants had flowed into the country through New York’s harbour. Initially, immigrants were processed by state officials; however, the Federal Government took over immigration control in 1890 and put $75,000 into constructing an official processing facility.

The first facility was a huge Georgia pine structure with several outbuildings and numerous amenities. Three ships full of immigrants docked the day it opened and 700 immigrants were processed. The first year at Ellis Island saw nearly 450,000 immigrants pass through its halls on their way to a new life in America. The first facility was short-lived, however, and in 1897 the entire structure burned to the ground. No lives were lost in the blaze; however most immigration records up to that date were lost.

Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries...
Immigrants just arrived from Foreign Countries–Immigrant Building, Ellis Island, New York Harbor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Plans were put in place for a new, fireproof immigration station, and while construction was underway, passengers were processed at the nearby Barge Office. The newly constructed facility was enormous with the capacity to process as many as 5000 immigrants per day. The red brick building could house a huge number of immigrants at a time, and the dining facility was so large that it could seat 1000 at once.

Thousands passed through daily. Immigrants were given “six second physicals” during which they were checked quickly for any physical ailments, questioned, and then sent on their way. That was only a portion of the process, however, and most immigrants spent up to five hours under inspection. The majority of those processed were steerage passengers. First and second class passengers weren’t required to pass through the various inspection points at Ellis Island because the government assumed that if they had the money to buy a first or second class ticket, they would be able to support themselves sufficiently upon entry.

Between 1900 and 1929, over 1.2 million Britons migrated to the United States, many of whom were processed through Ellis Island before they were allowed entry. By the time Ellis Island closed in 1954, approximately 12 million immigrants had been processed there by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration.


Diaspora in the East End

In this Rosh Hashana greeting card from the ea...

The 19th century saw increasingly hard times and harsh persecution for Jews throughout Eastern Europe. Many Jews had emigrated to Eastern Europe in medieval times. They lived for many years under Polish rule; however, when the kingdom of Poland was divided in the late 1700s, a huge percentage of the Jewish population suddenly found themselves under Russian rule.

By the late 19th century, the Jewish people found conditions harsh and restrictive. They were confined to the Pale of Settlement, a section of western Russia between the Black Sea and the Baltic. Opportunities for employment were limited, as the Jews were only permitted to work in certain occupations. Most worked as artisans, tailors, metal workers, or carpenters. Many Jewish boys were forced into the Russian army, where they were required to serve for 25 years, facing a high risk of death and guaranteed brutality.

The local population was hostile, actively barring Jewish children from public schools, and increasingly forcing Jews out of villages into smaller towns. In 1882, the May Laws were passed, which forced the Jews in the Pale of Settlement to live in only a few select towns.

These towns were severely overcrowded, and the Jews had to compete fiercely for the few available jobs. Due to the intense competition, wages dropped far below the poverty line. Those not confined to towns fared little better, scratching out a meager existence on tiny farms.

Because they were so pressed, the Jews formed tightly-knit communities. They spoke Yiddish before learning Polish or Russian, and religious customs were strictly observed.

Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881, the persecution of Jews took on a new vengeance. A young Jewish woman was associated with the assassins, and this spurred the population on to violent attacks on Jews during the 1880s. Jews in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe lived in constant fear of violence, theft, and ever harsher restrictions.

This spurred a mass emigration to freedom as the Jews sought to escape the dangers and persecution of Eastern Europe. Between 1881 and 1914, over 2 million Jews left Eastern Europe looking for a new home.

Many, in fact, intended to go to America; however, upon arrival in England, over 120,000 Jews settled and stayed. Once again, Spitalfields drew an incoming population. The Jews were attracted by the opportunity for cheap living, and by 1900, a huge percentage of the Spitalfields population was Jewish.

Unfortunately, the Jews did not receive the warm welcome that the Huguenots had enjoyed. Overcrowding was horrific as the beautiful Huguenot structures were subdivided to house the huge population. Sanitization was a nightmare, and living conditions (in many cases) were scarcely better than those the Jews had left behind.

The huge Jewish immigration caused some friction amongst locals. The Jews were accused of taking local jobs and aggravating the already appalling working conditions present in many of the local businesses. Because the Jews were willing to accept overcrowded conditions, rents in the area shot up, further irritating the local population. Because of the unrest, the first Aliens Act was put into effect, restricting immigration into the country.

Soon, however, the Jewish population began to thrive, making themselves a distinct and prominent presence in the East End. Their tight-knit communities allowed them to hold on to their cultural heritage, with Yiddish being predominantly used as a spoken and written language.

The Jewish population developed into a vibrant community, centered in the East End. Small synagogues popped up throughout the community, providing a focal point for the Jewish population. Kosher butchers and food providers found huge success with acceptable foods being in high-demand. The Jewish Chronicle newspaper was widely read and Jewish trade unions flourished.

In time, much of the Jewish population became integrated into London society. People spoke Yiddish less and less, religious rituals were less distinctive, and Jewish children were noted to be “almost indistinguishable” from English children.

In time, the Jews too, moved away from Spitalfields. Unlike the Huguenots, the Jews left little to mark their time in the East End. Though the Jewish East End shows little of its history, the Jewish legacy and heritage has carried on to new generations throughout the UK.


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