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Lara Fitzgerald
Subject: U.S. History
Grade Level: 11
Topic: U.S. Immigration
Essential Questions:
Why do we move from place to place?
What should we keep from our past, and what should we throw away to assimilate into a new
How do we define an American?
General Objectives: Virginia Standards of Learning
The student will demonstrate knowledge of how the nation grew and changed from the
end of Reconstruction through the early twentieth century by
a) explaining the relationship among territorial expansion, westward movement of
the population, new immigration, growth of cities, and the admission of new
states to the Union
VUS.14 The student will demonstrate knowledge of economic, social, cultural, and political
developments in the contemporary United States by
a) analyzing the effects of increased participation of women in the labor force;
b) analyzing how changing patterns of immigration affect the diversity of the United
States population, the reasons new immigrants choose to come to this country, and
their contributions to contemporary America;
General Objectives: NCSS Standards
I. Culture
d. compare and analyze societal patterns for preserving and transmitting culture while
adapting to environmental or social change;
e. demonstrate the value of cultural diversity, as well as cohesion, within and across
Learning Outcomes:
Students will be able to describe the reasons for persons to immigrate to the U.S. during the past
150 years.
Students will be able to compare problems and prejudices against persons immigrating to the
U.S. at different periods of time.
Students will be able to discuss how people choose what aspects of their native culture to keep
and which to disregard in order to assimilate to a new culture.
Students will be able to express views about how people of different cultures can co-exist in
contemporary society.
Following an introduction of the idea of the U.S. as a salad bowl and/or a melting pot,
students will first be assessed on their creation of another image for the United States. They will
be split into partners, and each SET of partners will be responsible for one image with an
explanation of that image and how it represents the United States as a community of people.
There will be a rubric to evaluate each pair’s image that will measure students’ creativity,
explanation of image and connection to U.S., and overall neatness/organization. After students
have had a sufficient amount of time to complete the assignment, volunteers will be asked to
share their images and interpretations.
Students will be assessed on preparation and participation in a simulation involving
immigrants to the United States. Each student will be assigned to a group (preferably no more
than 3-4 in one group). Students may choose which group as long as groups are chosen by
interest not by persons in the group. This will be done prior to this class. When students come
to class, they will have time reserved in the computer lab to look at two specific websites for
information on their specific immigrant group. If the computer lab is unavailable, students will
be able to read physical copies of articles from “Immigrants… The Changing Face of America”
from the Library of Congress online collection. Students will then be asked to present their
information as if they were representatives of an organization of current American citizens from
that background. This part of the lesson will occur over two class periods (computer lab for
research within this lesson and presentations during the next class period). Students will be
assessed on their conduct in the lab and within their groups, their reading preparation, and their
presentation (graded by a class evaluation and a teacher evaluation using the same rubric).
Students will be asked to write a narrative about moving to a new place. They will be
asked to describe how they feel about the move and assimilating to a new culture. They will also
be asked to discuss what about their own family traditions (whether culturally related or not)
they would bring with them and which they would sacrifice (if any) in order to more easily
assimilate to culture. The narrative will be peer-reviewed and revised in a future class.
As a final quick assessment, students will be asked to describe (on an index card) one
new thing they learned about a specific immigrant group or immigration in general that they did
not know before. They will also be asked to write down anything they are still interested in
covering more in depth.
Content Outline:
*students will be constructing most of the content themselves, but here is a timeline of
immigration to the U.S. shortened from one provided by the Library of Congress online
collection, “Immigration… Changing the Face of America”.
The U.S. establishes first Native American reservation and policy of dealing
with each tribe as an independent nation.
Native American
The federal government requires two years of residency for naturalization
All Groups
Congress bans importation of slaves.
African American
The American Colonization Society forms—assists in repatriating free African
African American
Americans to a Liberian colony on the west coast of Africa.
Congress establishes reporting on immigration.
All Groups
Congress passes the Removal Act, forcing Native Americans to settle in Indian
Territory west of the Mississippi River.
Native American
Cherokee Indians forced on thousand-mile march to the established Indian
Territory. Approximately 4,000 Cherokees die on this “Trail of Tears.”
Native American
Potato crop fails in Ireland sparking the Potato Famine which kills one million
and prompts almost 500,000 to immigrate to America over the next five years.
The Mexican-American War ends: U.S. acquires additional territory and people Mexican
under its jurisdiction.
The California Gold Rush sparks first mass immigration from China.
Poland’s religious and economic conditions prompt immigration of
approximately two million Poles by 1914.
Polish & Russian
Congress legalizes the importation of contract laborers.
The 14th Amendment of the Constitution endows African Americans with
African American
Japanese laborers arrive in Hawaii to work in sugar cane fields.
California Senate committee investigates the “social, moral, and political effect Chinese
of Chinese immigration.”
United States Congress investigates the criminal influence of Chinese
Italy’s troubled economy, crop failures, and political climate begin the start of
mass immigration with nearly four million Italian immigrants arriving in the
United States.
Russia’s May Laws severely restrict the ability of Jewish citizens to live and
work in Russia. The country’s instability prompts more than three million
Russians to immigrate to the United States over three decades.
Polish & Russian
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 suspends immigration of Chinese laborers
under penalty of imprisonment and deportation.
The Dawes Act dissolves many Indian reservations in United States.
Native American
Congress establishes a civil government in Puerto Rico and the Jones Act
grants U.S. citizenship to island inhabitants. U.S. citizens can travel freely
between the mainland and the island without a passport.
Cuban & Puerto
The United States and Japan form a “Gentleman’s Agreement” in which Japan
ends issuance of passports to laborers and the U.S. agrees not to prohibit
Japanese immigration.
The Dillingham Commission identifies Mexican laborers as the best solution to
the Southwest labor shortage. Mexicans are exempted from immigrant “head
taxes” set in 1903 and 1907.
California’s Alien Land Law rules that aliens “ineligible to citizenship” were
ineligible to own agricultural property.
The Supreme Court rules in Ozawa v. United States that first-generation
Japanese are ineligible for citizenship and cannot apply for naturalization.
The U.S. enters World War I and anti-German sentiment swells at home. The
names of schools, foods, streets, towns, and even some families, are changed
to sound less Germanic.
Immigration Act of 1924 establishes fixed quotas of national origin and
eliminates Far East immigration.
President Calvin Coolidge signs a bill granting Native Americans full citizenship. Native American
Congress makes annual immigration quotas permanent.
President Franklin Roosevelt signs Executive Order 9066, authorizing the
building of “relocation camps” for Japanese Americans living along the Pacific
Congress allows for importation of agricultural workers from within North,
Central, and South America. The Bracero Program allows Mexican laborers to
work in the U.S.
The Magnuson Act of 1943 repeals the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,
establishes quotas for Chinese immigrants, and makes them eligible for U.S.
The War Bride Act and the G.I. Fiancées Act allows immigration of foreign-born Chinese
wives, fiancé(e)s, husbands, and children of U.S. armed forces personnel.
The United States admits persons fleeing persecution in their native lands;
allowing 205,000 refugees to enter within two years.
Bureau of Indian Affairs terminates federal services for Native Americans in lieu Native American
of state supervision.
The Immigration and Nationality Act allows individuals of all races to be eligible
for naturalization. The act also reaffirms national origins quota system, limits
immigration from the Eastern Hemisphere while leaving the Western
Hemisphere unrestricted, establishes preferences for skilled workers and
relatives of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens; and tightens security
and screening standards and procedures.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs begins selling 1.6 million acres of Native American Native American
land to developers.
Congress amends the 1948 refugee policy to allow for the admission of
200,000 more refugees.
Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution prompts mass exodus of more than 200,000
people within three years.
Cuban & Puerto
The Cuban Refugee Program handles influx of immigrants to Miami with
300,000 immigrants relocated across the U.S. during the next two decades.
Cuban & Puerto
The Immigration Act of 1965 abolishes quota system in favor of quota systems Chinese
with 20,000 immigrants per country limits. Preference is given to immediate
families of immigrants and skilled workers.
The Bracero Program ends after temporarily employing almost 4.5 million
Mexican nationals.
The Cuban Refugee Act permits more than 400,000 people to enter the United Cuban & Puerto
The Refugee Act redefines criteria and procedures for admitting refugees.
The Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) legalizes illegal aliens residing
in the U.S. unlawfully since 1982.
The Civil Liberties Act provides compensation of $20,000 and a presidential
apology to all Japanese-American survivors of the World War II internment
90 minute lesson:
Teacher Activity
Student Activity
Introductory Hook [5-10 min]:
The instructor will begin by reciting a poem by
Walt Whitman…
“You, Whoever You Are
You, whoever you are!...
All you continentals of Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia,
indifferent of place!
All you on the numberless islands of the
archipelagoes of the sea!
All you of centuries hence when you listen to me!
All you each and everywhere whom I specify not, but
include just the same!
Health to you! good will to you all, from me and
America sent!
Each of us is inevitable,
Each of us is limitless—each of us with his or her
right upon the earth,
Each of us allow'd the eternal purports of the earth,
Each of us here as divinely as any is here.
Students will be asked to react to the poem,
and interpret for themselves what Walt
Whitman is trying to say with the poem. The
instructor will ask for volunteers to give their
answers. If the instructor does not get a
sufficient number of volunteers, students can
talk to a partner first.
Walt Whitman
Melting Pot or Salad Bowl? [15 min]:
The instructor will introduce the concept of
images of the U.S. as a melting pot of cultures
mixed into one and/or a salad bowl as a diverse
group of different cultures. The instructor will
then instruct students to split into partners.
In partners, students will be asked to construct
one image per set of partners of the U.S. and
how cultures are represented within the
country. There are minimal guidelines.
Students must have a visual image and an
explanation of how that image depicts
American culture. After students have been
given the chance to construct an image, each
partner will be asked to share their image and
explanation. This assignment will be graded
simply for completion.
Immigration Project [30 min]:
The instructor will ask students to get into their
groups (if they are not already sitting with their
groups) and take the students over to the
computer lab to look at two specific websites
on U.S. immigration. If the computer lab is
unavailable physical copies of articles about
In their groups either at the computer lab or in
the classroom with their articles, the groups
will pull out important and interesting
information on the assigned immigrant group
and produce a written outline of that
information. A rubric will be provided, so
specific immigrant groups from the
“Immigration… The Changing Face of
America” presentation from the Library of
Congress’ online collections. The students
have a rubric and are only assigned to look at
two specific websites, so the instructor will
want to monitor the students to make sure they
are on task (and not on random internet sites).
students have a guideline of what information
is needed and what is expected for the outline
and presentation.
*After 30 minutes, students will stop. They
will have time to put everything together and
present during the next class period.
Immigrant Narrative [30 min]:
The instructor will take the first 5 minutes to
explain this assignment to the students.
Students will have 20 minutes to write about a
personal experience moving or a fictional
account of what an immigrant might feel like
in a new place. After 20 minutes, the
instructor will ask 3 or 4 students to volunteer
to summarize their narratives. This is designed
to be a reflective, notebook assignment.
Students will be asked to write a personal
narrative as if they were an immigrant arriving
at a new place (The student may choose where
they are from and the new place). They may
use a real story if they have actually moved,
but they must still explain the differences in
places and what traits, traditions, and aspects
of their culture they wanted to keep and what
they needed to give up to “fit in”. There is no
required length for the narrative, but the
student must thoroughly describe a new
situation, what they had to give up, and what
they kept.
Exit Card [5 min]:
The instructor will hand out index cards for
each student. Two questions will be written on
an overhead. The instructor must collect one
index card from each student before they leave.
Each student will be asked to write down one
new thing they learned about the specific
immigrant group that they researched (or
immigration in general) and what they may
like to learn more about.
*After presentations, students will be asked to
fill out another exit card describing an
immigrant group that was presented by a
different group.
Materials Needed for Lesson:
Computer lab (hard copies of articles if computer lab not available), overhead projector,
This lesson differentiates for students by providing them with a variety of activities on an
individual, small group, and whole class level. Students will not be doing much intensive
reading individually. The “hook” taps into students’ emotional and linguistic abilities, and gives
students the chance to participate in discussion. The immigrant project allows students to work
in small groups and organize information according to their group strengths. The narrative gives
students a chance to work individually and tap into their personal stories. Students are
interacting with the content the majority of the lesson with little straight lecture. Students
present the information to each other and get exposure to major themes a number of times.
Subject Matter Integration:
This lesson is not necessarily a lesson that fits within a specific unit (chronologically).
Ideally, I will teach this topic a number of times throughout the course, since immigration
becomes an influential issue a number of times in U.S. history. I would probably teach this
lesson later on during the semester when the students have a good grasp on the class atmosphere
and can take a large amount of responsibility for their learning (since there is minimal teacher
instruction). This lesson fits within a unit looking at the U.S. during the turn of the 19th century
with the first large scale restrictions on immigrants to the United States. However, the essential
questions come up consistently throughout history, and they may want to be referred back to a
number of times.
Reflections on Lesson Plan:
This lesson plan requires a lot of responsibility and effort on the part of the students,
particularly because there is little instructor interference (if the lesson goes well). I realize that
these activities ask a lot of students using their time efficiently and being able to switch gears a
number of times within one class period. Again, I wouldn’t teach a lesson resembling this one
until I had a firm grasp on my students and they were comfortable with each other and the class
Additional Resources:
(articles on different immigrant groups located at this site)
Immigration Project: Rubric
Group Cooperation
Participation, group
Research Depth
paragraph on group’s
journey to U.S., when
largest numbers came,
personal accounts,
Written Outline
Organization, useful
Planning, group
participation, structure
Does not participate
in group research or
Participates with
group at certain times
and small if any part
in presentation
Interacts well with
group and takes an
equal part in
Provides little
background and/or
information on
immigrant group
Provides background
history of group with
little to some
additional information
Provides concise, but
thorough background
of group’s journey to
U.S. with reference to
personal accounts
and/or culture
No overall
organization and little
useful information
Organizational Sketch
with some useful
information, but little
Easily Identifiable
structure with detailed
Little Planning or
Group effort, hard to
Somewhat planned,
most of group
participated, and at
times hard to follow
Well planned with full
group participation
and easy to follow
Russia and Eastern European Immigrants Article
The story of immigration from the Russian Empire is
almost too complex to tell. In the 19th century, Russia
was the largest country in the world—it reached from the
Baltic to the Pacific, and covered substantial portions of
both Europe and Asia.
The population of the Empire was extremely diverse and
included the peoples of dozens of conquered nations—
Belarussians and Ukrainians, Kazakhs and Bukharans,
Uzbeks and Azerbaijanis. Issues of national identity were
rarely clear. Borders were uncertain, the census was
unreliable, and many of the subjugated nations clung to
their own group identities, refusing to call themselves
The Russian Empire in 1890
To learn more about the ethnic diversity of the Russian Empire, visit The Empire That Was Russia.
By the end of the 19th century, this vast country was on the verge of an era of tumultuous change and
suffered from overpopulation, widespread famines and political unrest. Many of the Empire’s peoples found
it impossible to stay any longer and joined the great worldwide migration of the last decades of the century.
Within a few decades, the Empire would be overthrown in a socialist revolution, then torn apart by years of
Three of the groups to join the exodus were the Russians, the Poles and the Jewish people of Eastern
Europe. All three groups took different paths, but their journeys would soon bring them to America.
Russian Beginnings
The first Russians to come to U.S. territory didn’t even have to leave
Russia to do so. In the 18th century, Russian explorers traveling east
from Siberia discovered Alaska and claimed it as a possession of their
emperor, or czar. The Aleutian island of Kodiak became the first
Russian settlement in 1784, and traders and fur hunters founded
trading posts throughout the territory. Eventually, Russia’s possessions
ranged far down the Pacific coast, reaching all the way to Fort Ross in
California, a mere 100 miles north of San Francisco.
The czar never planned to hold onto Alaska and sold the territory to the
Sitka, Alaska in 1827
U.S. in 1867. Russian cultural influences persisted long afterwards
however. The Russian Orthodox religion had arrived with the first traders, and missionaries continued to
found primary schools and seminaries for generations to come. Many Native Aleuts and Eskimos converted to
the new faith, and Russian Orthodox churches can still be found in Alaska today.
Struggling to Leave Home
The next great wave of emigration from the Russian Empire came in
the late 19th century—but the Russians were barely included in it. In
the 1880s, the Russian countryside was strained by severe land
shortages. Facing poverty and starvation, farmers and peasants from
across the Empire sought a brighter future overseas, and millions set
sail for the United States. Ethnic Russians, however, could not share in
this hope; the imperial government barred them from leaving the
country. Over the next few decades, Ukrainians, Belarussians,
Lithuanians, and Poles arrived at Ellis Island by the hundreds of
thousands. Russians, however, made the journey only a few at a time,
and only by braving many hazards. The U.S. census of 1910 found only
65,000 Russians in the country.
Russian farm children in Colorado
The Russians who did make the journey formed small communities and took
work where they could find it. Some took advantage of the Homestead Act
and headed west to found new family farms on the seemingly endless
American plains. A number of pacifist sects, such as the Dukhobors and
Molokans, settled in California and Oregon, where they maintained their
traditional practices—and distinctive music—well into the 21st century. Many
Russians went to work in the growing industries of the 19th century, toiling in
the mines, mills, and sweatshops of the East Coast and Great Lakes.
To hear music and speeches from the Russian Molokan community, visit the
collection California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties.
Russian Molokan church in
Some of these early Russians were circular immigrants—they planned to stay
only long enough to save some money and then to return home to Russia.
Many of those who did return, however, found their homeland in the midst of
the greatest turmoil in its history.
Revolution and Persecution
In 1917 the imperial government of Russia was overthrown by socialist
revolutionaries called Bolsheviks, and all the lands of the Empire were
convulsed by four years of civil war. As the Russian Empire died and the
communist Soviet Union came into being, tens of millions of people
were caught up in anarchy, bloodshed, and widespread property
destruction, and more than 2 million fled the country. More than 30,000
made their way to the United States.
These new Russian immigrants had
mostly been prominent citizens of the
Empire—aristocrats, professionals, and
former imperial officials—and were called
“White Russians” because of their
opposition to the “red” Soviet state. The
Russian immigrant family, 1918
White Russians were welcomed by the
U.S. government, which was concerned about the spread of socialism, and
Russian-speaking bankers in
quickly formed organizations to provide aid to their homeland. In the
Chicago, 1916
meanwhile, though, they had to find ways to support themselves in America.
Many took up manual labor for the first time in their lives, and tales spread of former princes working as
headwaiters and generals driving taxis. At the same time, they had to learn to live with the older generation
of Russian immigrants. Many of these farmers and laborers had suffered terribly at the hands of the imperial
aristocracy, and the White Russians did not always find a warm welcome when they asked the Russian
American community for help.
Soviet Exiles
Soon, though, all Russian Americans fell victim to a wave of xenophobic
panic that spread through U.S. society. After the Russian Revolution,
the American government began to fear that the U.S. was in danger of
its own communist revolution and cracked down on political and labor
organizations. Russian immigrants were singled out as a particular
danger, and their unions, political parties, and social clubs were spied
upon and raided by federal agents. In New York City alone more than
5,000 Russian immigrants were arrested. During the worst years of the
Red Scare, 1919 and 1920, thousands of Russians were deported
without a formal trial. Ironically, most were sent to the Soviet Union—a
new nation that the older generation of immigrants had never lived in,
Russian American steelworkers,
and that the White Russians wanted to overthrow. As a result of the
Red Scare, the Russian American community began to keep a low
profile. Fear of persecution led many Russians to convert to Protestantism, to change their names, and to
deny their heritage to any outsiders.
In the 1930s, fears of a new world war brought several thousand more Russians
to the U.S. These immigrants were fairly affluent and well educated, and many
were able to eventually find work in their old professions. Some had been
farmers in the old country and founded a string of successful farms in the midAtlantic states. Others gravitated to established Russian American communities
in Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Pittsburgh, New York City, and Cleveland.
Vladimir Nabokov
This wave of Russian immigrants also carried with it the latest intellectual and
artistic currents from Europe. The interwar years saw many of the major
thinkers of the Russian avant-garde make their way to New York, where they
influenced and enriched the burgeoning modernist movement. The composer
Igor Stravinsky was able to present his challenging symphonies to U.S.
audiences, while the choreographic vision of George Balanchine helped bring
much of 20th century American dance into being. Later, the novelist Vladimir
Nabokov brought his elegant prose and incisive critical sensibility to bear on the
cultural landscape of his new homeland, illuminating both its promise and its
The end of World War II saw an even greater upheaval, as refugees from
across Europe fled the chaos and depression of the postwar years. More than
20,000 Russian refugees—known as “displaced persons” successfully reached
the United States. By this time, though, tensions between the U.S. and Soviet
Union were rising, and prospective emigrants became pawns in a global
geopolitical game. In 1952, the Soviet government had become embarrassed
by the high rate at which its artists and scientists were decamping to
America, and it established strict controls over emigration. Just as it had been
during the rule of the czars, Russian immigration to the U.S. became a rare
and risky undertaking.
The Great Thaw
Cartoon about Soviet refugees,
For two decades, any Soviet citizen who dared move to the U.S. became a
nonperson—the Soviet Union stripped defectors of their citizenship, cut them off
from contact with their families, and sometimes made it illegal to even mention
their names. In the early 1970s, however, relations between the two
superpowers began to thaw. The authorities began allowing a few thousand
dissatisfied citizens to leave the U.S.S.R. each year, including Jewish Soviets,
dissidents, writers, and others deemed “undesirable” by the state. Cultural ties
were also extended, and Soviet artists and musicians were sent on tours of the
United States; when some of these cultural ambassadors chose to defect, the
Soviet government was embarrassed once more.
The defectors of the 1970s included a number of world-renowned artists, such
as the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph
Brodsky. Many joined the sizable group of Russian Americans who had long
Russian American Marine
agitated against abuses of the Soviet system, most notably the fiercely critical
novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a survivor of many years as a Soviet political prisoner. In the late 1980s,
as the U.S.S.R. entered its death throes, these activists saw their efforts come to fruition. Before it finally
collapsed in 1990, the Soviet Union threw open its gates to all emigrants, and hundreds of thousands of
Russians began to find their way to the U.S. once more.
A New Revolution
Today, the United States is in midst of the greatest wave of Russian immigration that the nation has ever
seen. Although it is difficult to keep an accurate count, some sources suggest that Russian Americans
currently represent the second-largest national group in the U.S., following only Mexican Americans. The
Russian language is growing at an astonishing rate and can be heard in expanding enclaves across the
country, from the street corners of Borough Park in Brooklyn to the café tables of North Hollywood. This new
Russian American community is predominantly young and highly educated and still carries memories of the
turmoil of the 20th century. The ways in which this generation will enrich and transform its new homeland
will make for one of the most compelling stories of the 21st.
The Nation of Polonia
Poles first came to prominence in American life during the Revolutionary War.
The colonies’ battle for independence from Britain fired the imagination of
adventurers and freedom fighters from around the world, and more than 100
Poles came to fight on the side of the rebels. Two of them—Count Kazimierz
Pulaski and Tadeusz Kósciuszko—had experience in the independence struggles
of their homeland and were recruited by Benjamin Franklin to help lead the
fledgling American army. Both played pivotal roles in the colonists’ victory and
were hailed as heroes of the new republic. Towns and counties throughout the
U.S. now bear their names, and Pulaski Day celebrations are held every year in
Polish American cities.
The Polish people’s own fight for independence was less successful, and their
national identity came under harsh attack. By the 19th century, the ancient state
of Poland had been conquered and divided up by three imperial powers—the
Russian, Prussian, and Austro-Hungarian empires. Although they were separated
by distance and political barriers, Poles were unified by a belief in their own
Thaddeus Kósciuszko
independence, in their freedom to worship as Roman Catholics, and in their
distinct identity as a people. The difficulty of maintaining this identity under hostile imperial regimes led many
Poles to seek freedom overseas.
The first permanent settlement of Poles in U.S. sprang up on the Texas plains,
where a few hundred men, women, and children from Silesia founded the town
of Panna Maria in 1854. The small farm community grew and thrived, and soon
more and more Poles were making their way to the shores of America.
At the turn of the 20 th century, Polish
immigration exploded. Imperial repression, land
shortages, and chronic unemployment made life
more and more untenable for the Poles of
Farmhouse in Panna Maria,
Europe, and as the 19 th century waned they left
for America by the thousands, then by the
hundreds of thousands. Exact numbers are difficult to come by, given the many
different routes Poles took to the U.S., but the 1910 census found more than
900,000 new immigrants who spoke Polish. After World War I, Poland regained
its independence, and immigration began to slow. Even so, it is estimated that
more than 2 million Poles had immigrated by the 1920s.
Not all intended to stay. Many of the earlier Poles were known as za chlebem, or
“for-bread” immigrants, who came planning to earn a nest egg and return home.
Whatever their intentions, most Polish immigrants ended up remaining in the
United States. However, they still kept one eye on their homeland and
passionately guarded their language, faith, and sense of themselves as Poles.
Polish neighborhood in Chicago,
Life in Polonia
As Poles poured into the country, they came together in communities that
preserved many aspects of the Polish way of life.
Most Polish immigrants had come in search of a decent livelihood, and so were
drawn to the areas of the country where good work was available. In Poland,
owning land had been a great source of pride, and many Poles struck out for
farm country, founding agricultural towns in the mid-Atlantic states and New
England. The Great Lakes region reminded some recent immigrants of home,
and Polish names soon dotted the maps of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Michigan.
Polish American tobacco
farmers, Connecticut
America’s cities were the destination of most Poles, however. Heavy industry had
played an aggressive role in recruiting throughout Europe, and new Polish
immigrants were drawn to jobs in the factories, steel mills, slaughterhouses, and
foundries of the U.S. industrial belt. Chicago, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Milwaukee,
Detroit, New York, and Cleveland became anchor cities of the new Polish
communities, and Polish was spoken in the mines of Appalachia and the
Wherever they settled, Polish immigrants went about building communities that
were fiercely committed to the preservation of their national heritage and
culture. A national network of Polish-language newspapers, social clubs, and,
eventually, radio and television stations helped keep the Polish language alive.
Parochial schools were built within walking distance of every Polish
neighborhood, and more than 900 Polish Catholic churches were founded. Polish
Polish American children leaving music, dance, literature, and folklore were all kept alive through many decades
in an English-speaking land. Polish American communities might be widely
scattered, from Krakow, Wisconsin, and Wilno, Minnesota, to Bucktown in
Chicago and Cleveland’s Fleet Avenue. However, Polish Americans always made it clear that, while they were
citizens of the United States, they were also loyal to Polonia—the community of Poles worldwide.
That loyalty was galvanized by the dark decades of the Second World War and
by the Cold War tensions that followed it. Millions of Poles in Europe perished or
lost their homes during World War II, and thousands fled the Soviet takeover of
Poland that followed it. Polish Americans opened their homes to any refugees
who were able to escape, and they once more agitated for their country’s
freedom. When that freedom finally came with the fall of the Soviet Union,
countless family reunions took place, as European Poles met long-lost relatives
and Polish Americans set foot on Polish soil for the first time.
Polish American firehouse,
Today, Poles are moving to the United States again, as a generation newly freed
from foreign domination seeks its fortune overseas. They find a country shaped
by the achievements of the Polish Americans that came before them, such as the
poet Czeslaw Milosz, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the baseball player Stan
Musial, and the politicians Barbara Mikulski and Edward Muskie. New Polish
American communities are now rising up in New York, Detroit, and Chicago,
sometimes occupying the same city blocks as their predecessors did a century
before, and keeping the spirit of Polonia alive.
Leopold Stokowski
A People at Risk
Just as ethnic Russians and Poles were finding their way to American shores,
one of the most dramatic chapters in world history was underway—the mass
migration of Eastern European Jews to the United States. In a few short
decades, from 1880 to 1920, a vast number of the Jewish people living in the
lands ruled by Russia—including Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and the Ukraine,
as well as neighboring regions—moved en masse to the U.S. In so doing,
they left a centuries-old legacy behind, and changed the culture of the United
States profoundly.
Jewish communities had played a vital
role in the culture of Eastern Europe for
centuries, but in the 19th century they
were in danger of annihilation. Of all the
ethnic and national groups that lived
Jewish refugee children pass the
under the rule of the Russian czars, the
Statue of Liberty, 1939
Eastern European Jews had long been
the most isolated and endured the harshest treatment. Separated from
other residents of the Empire by barriers of language and of faith, as
well as by an array of brutally oppressive laws, most never considered
Editorial cartoon calling for the
themselves Russians. Eastern European Jews were socially and
liberation of Jews in Russia, 1904
physically segregated, locked into urban ghettoes or restricted to small
villages called shtetls, barred from almost all means of making a living, and subject to random attacks by
non-Jewish neighbors or imperial officials.
In the 1880s, however, the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe were overwhelmed by a wave of statesponsored murder and destruction. When the czar was assassinated in 1881, the crime was blamed, falsely,
on a Jewish conspiracy, and the government launched a wave of state-sponsored massacres known as
pogroms. Hundreds of Jewish villages and neighborhoods were burned by rampaging mobs, and thousands
of Jews were slaughtered by Russian soldiers and peasants. The pogroms caused an international outcry,
but they would continue to break out for decades to come.
For tens of thousands of the Empire’s Jewish residents, who were already struggling to survive famines and
land shortages, this represented the breaking point. In an article for The Atlantic, the journalist Abraham
Cahan described a meeting of the Jewish community of Kiev, during which one speaker proclaimed:
There is no hope for Israel in Russia. The salvation of the downtrodden people lies in other parts, in a land
beyond the seas, which knows no distinction of race or faith, which is a mother to Jew and Gentile alike. In
the great republic is our redemption from the brutalities and ignominies to which we are subjected in this
our birthplace. In America we shall find rest; the stars and stripes will wave over the true home of our
people. To America, brethren! To America!
The cry “To America!” spread across Eastern Europe and launched a massive
human migration. Jewish immigrants came to the United States by any
possible means, defying the czar’s laws against emigration. Many fled by
night, eluding Russian border guards and murderous highway gangs and
bribing officials to allow them passage to Western Europe. From there, they
endured a weeklong ocean voyage, generally crammed into stifling steerage
compartments with little access to kosher food.
Arriving at Ellis Island
In the 1880s, more than 200,000 Eastern European Jews arrived in the U.S.
In the next decade, the number was over 300,000, and between 1900 and 1914 it topped 1.5 million, most
passing through the new immigrant processing center at Ellis Island. All in all, between 1880 and 1924,
when the U.S. Congress cut immigration back severely, it is estimated that as many as 3 million Eastern
European Jews came to the U.S.
On their arrival, they found themselves in the midst of a tremendous wave of new immigrants from all over
Europe and Asia. The Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, however, were different in two crucial ways.
First, they fled the old country at an astonishing rate; by 1920 more than one-third of the Jewish population
of the Russian Empire had emigrated. Perhaps more important, their rate of return migration was close to
zero—lower than any other major immigrant group. Many of the other immigrants of the turn of the 20th
century came to the U.S. as sojourners, planning to stay for a while, earn a nest egg, and return to their
ancestral homeland. The Jews of Eastern Europe had no such intentions; they had abandoned the Old World
once and for all. The United States was to become their new homeland.
Jewish immigration had been a part of U.S. history since its earliest years.
The first Jewish congregation in North America was formed in 1654, and
Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal arrived throughout the colonial
period. Since the early 19th century, Jewish immigrants from Germany had
built a substantial presence up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Still, no one was prepared for the tremendous influx of Jewish immigrants
that arrived from Eastern Europe. The social welfare institutions of the
German Jewish community, accustomed to dealing with much smaller
numbers, struggled to cope with the thousands of needy cases that stepped
ashore from Ellis Island each year. Many established Jewish Americans were
several generations away from their own immigrant roots and were
sometimes shocked by the threadbare, provincial figures who appeared on
Rosh Hashanah prayers on the
their doorsteps. The Eastern European immigrants quickly established many
Williamsburg Bridge
of their own support structures, coming together to form aid societies based
on the burial societies and congregations of their home villages. Soon, new arrivals had somewhere to turn
for advice, modest financial assistance, and aid in finding someplace to settle down.
Unlike every other immigrant group, however, the Jewish immigrants of Eastern Europe overwhelmingly
chose to remain in New York City. The close ties of shtetl life led many immigrants to stay close to neighbors
from their old villages. For many others, the strict religious practices of Orthodox Judaism required that they
live near an existing Jewish community. Around the turn of the century, nearly one-half of the Jewish
population of the United States lived in New York City. There, they would create a world unlike any other in
the annals of American immigration.
Hester Street, the Lower East Side, 1902
The Lower East Side
The capital of Jewish America at the turn of the century was New York’s Lower East Side. This densely
packed district of tenements, factories, and docklands had long been a starting point for recent immigrants,
and hundreds of thousands of the new arrivals from Eastern Europe settled there on arrival. By this time,
most American cities had sizable Jewish neighborhoods, most notably Chicago’s West Side. But for size,
crowds, and overall energy, none could compete with the Lower East Side.
Early film of pushcart vendors on the
Lower East Side, 1903
When a new Jewish immigrant first set foot on the Lower East Side, he or
she stepped into a Jewish world. The earliest Eastern European Jews to
settle there had quickly established synagogues, mutual-aid societies,
libraries, and stores. Every major institution, from the bank to the
grocery store to the social club to the neighborhood bookmaker, was
Jewish-owned or Jewish-run, and everyone a Jewish immigrant might
speak to in the course of daily business would likely be Jewish. Even the
owners of the garment factories and department stores where many
immigrants worked were Jewish. For a new Jewish immigrant in a strange
country, this immersion in a familiar world, around people who shared a
common language, faith, and background, could be profoundly
For all the comfort that this shared heritage brought, however, the Lower East Side was still a very difficult
place to live--and a crowded one. By the year 1900, the district was packed with more than 700 people per
acre, making it the most crowded neighborhood on the planet. The reformer Jacob Riis described a visit to a
typical tenement building occupied by Eastern European Jewish families:
I have found in three rooms father, mother, twelve children, and six boarders. They sleep on the half-made
clothing for beds. I found that several people slept in a subcellar four feet by six, on a pile of clothing that
was being made.
This congestion brought with it many hazards, along with many
annoyances. Nearly half of the city’s deaths by fire took place in the
Lower East Side. Disease was rampant, clean water was hard to come by,
and privacy was unheard of. For many immigrant children, their
education in American life was acquired in the city streets, where lovers
strolled amid streams of raw sewage, vendors offered almost anything for
sale, con artists and petty thieves worked the crowds, and horse
carriages burdened with goods clogged the muddy roadways.
The Lower East Side could certainly be frightening, dangerous, noisy, and
cramped. However, it was still a place of relative safety compared to the
virulently anti-Semitic Russian Empire. And, however chaotic it might be,
as some observers at the time noted, it was still the greatest
concentration of Jewish life in nearly two thousand years.
Film of a Lower East Side fish
market, 1903
Facing Barriers
Most of the new Jewish immigrants faced unique challenges in their
search for work. In the Russian Empire, they had been barred by law
from a wide range of jobs, including farming, and so brought a more
limited set of skills with them than some immigrants did. At the same
time, they had to overcome the prejudices of U.S. employers, where
“gentlemen’s agreements” and open bigotry prevented them from
entering the professions and many heavy industrial jobs.
As a result, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe often had to find
Jewish family doing piecework in New
employment outside of the more established trades, as well as creating
York tenement, 1912
opportunities for themselves between the cracks of the American
economy. More than one-half of all Eastern European Jewish
immigrants worked in manual occupations, predominantly in the garment industry. The Jewish
neighborhoods of New York and Chicago were home to countless tiny, airless sweatshop factories, where
women, teenagers, and children worked long hours cutting, sewing, and finishing clothing for pennies per
piece. In 1892, a reporter for The Century visited some of the garment workers of New York:
[They] toil from six in the morning until eleven at night. Fifty cents is not an unusual compensation for these
murderous hours. Trousers at 84 cents per dozen, 8 cents for a round coat, and 10 cents for a frock coat,
are labor prices that explain the sudden affluence of heartless merchant manufacturers, and the biting
poverty of miserable artisans.
Sweatshops were not only unpleasant and exploitative—they could also be lethal. In the Triangle Shirtwaist
factory fire of 1911, nearly half of the 146 workers killed were Jewish teenage girls.
Another avenue of employment that was open to the new Jewish immigrants
was the retail trade. At least one-third of this generation of immigrants
worked in retail sales at some point, especially young women and girls.
Peddling also appealed to a large number of Jewish immigrants, providing as
it did a measure of independence and freedom from workplace discrimination.
An estimated 10 percent of the retail workers in the great wave of Jewish
immigration found work as peddlers at one time or another. Many of these
went on to own their own shops, and a few even launched department stores.
A peddler in New York City, ca.
A Cultural Renaissance
Even as the new immigrants were struggling to survive in the Lower East
Side, the Jewish neighborhoods of New York became the site of a momentous
cultural rebirth. Yiddish, the language spoken by the Jewish people of Eastern
Europe, had long been suppressed by the Russian imperial government, and
was denigrated by more affluent and urbane German Jews. However, as
hundreds of thousands of Yiddish speakers settled into the U.S. and realized
the extent of their linguistic freedom, a new Yiddish culture came into bloom.
The turn of the 20th century saw an explosion of new artistic and literary
ventures in Yiddish. The journalist Abraham Cahan, who emigrated from
Lithuania in 1882, founded America’s first Yiddish daily newspaper, the
Forverts, or Forward, in 1902. The Forward published news from Europe and
reported on events around New York, but, like many of the new Yiddish
papers, it specialized in advice for new immigrants, serving as a sort of
guidebook to life in a strange new land. By the late 1920s, the Forward had a
circulation of 20,000 copies per day, more than some English-language
dailies, and is still published today, in both Yiddish and English.
Thalia Theatre playbill, 1897
Yiddish theater had long survived underground in Europe, but it burst into public view in the U.S. Theater
companies sprang up around New York and Chicago and offered a broad selection of fare, from Yiddish
adaptations of Shakespeare and Chekov to slapstick comedies and folktales to original new works from the
modernist avant-garde. The audience for these plays was diverse and passionately devoted. In 1898
Harper’s magazine surveyed the Yiddish theater scene and reported that:
Night after night I have seen the two Yiddish theatres swarmed with men, women, and children largely from
the sweat-shops. I referred the question to my friend the cashier. “That is how you all misrepresent us!” he
exclaimed. “There are many poor Jewish families that spend sometimes three, four, five dollars a week here
at this theatre.” A brief calculation will show that, compared with their earnings, this represents a patronage
of art infinitely beyond that of the families uptown who parade their liberality in supporting the Metropolitan
Opera House.
The surge in newspaper publishing led to a demand for fiction in
Yiddish, and countless writers took up the challenge, turning out short
stories and novels for serialization. Many of these journeymen, whose
names are now lost to history, wrote for speed and published
sensational tales of crime, intrigue, and illicit romance under a number
of pseudonyms. The reporter for Harper’s noted that:
Mary Antin
Of the most popular of the novelists, Schorner, it is related that in
order to meet the demand he has to keep three or four tales under
way at once; and to keep all his printers supplied, he goes almost
daily from shop to shop, writing only long enough in each to meet
the present demand for copy.
A circle of more serious authors also emerged. Their leaders, including, Sholem Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, and
Mendele Mocher Sforim, blended tales from the shtetls with the concerns of urban immigrants and created a
new, distinctively American Yiddish literature.
At the same time, a number of the new immigrant authors published their work in English. These writers,
including Mary Antin, Anzia Yezierska, and Israel Zangwill, helped bring the Jewish immigrant experience to
the attention of the non-Jewish public and paved the way for the wave of distinguished Jewish American
artists and authors who would follow them.
As the great Jewish immigrant generation moved further into the 20th
century, it also moved farther out into the United States and further into the
national consciousness. By the late teens and 1920s, the new Jewish
immigrants had moved into careers in established industries, taken a leading
role in the labor movement, and even found themselves courted as an
audience by publishers and advertisers. Some of the peddlers and fruit
vendors of the turn of the century had become retail powerhouses and could
be found behind the counters of grocery stores, fabric stores, print shops,
religious stores, and fishmongers’ shops. Prominent service in World War I
led to a higher national profile, and political representation came at the same
time: In 1917 there were six Jewish members of the U.S. House of
Representatives, including Meyer London, who came up from the streets of
the Lower East Side.
The Jewish Women’s Home
One new line of retail business that Eastern
Journal, 1922
European Jewish immigrants invested in early
was the operation of storefront movie
theaters, or nickelodeons. A number of recent immigrants, including Samuel
Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer, the Warner brothers, and William Fox, soon became
involved in movie production as well as distribution and went on to found
several of the major Hollywood studios. Jewish immigrants also began to take
prominent roles on the Broadway stage and in early movies, and performers
who had started out working for immigrant audiences, like the singer Sophie
Tucker and the comedian Fanny Brice, became hugely popular nationwide.
Anti-Jewish prejudice remained an obstacle, however, and took many forms,
from the exclusionary policies that kept Jewish Americans out of Ivy League
universities to the violent threats issued by the Ku Klux Klan. When the Red
Sophie Tucker sheet music
Scare arose in 1919, government officials focused a disproportionate amount
of attention on Jewish radicals, and many were deported to the Soviet Union,
including the fiery anarchist activist and publisher Emma Goldman.
Decades of Disaster
In the 1930s and the 1940s, the Jewish population of the U.S. was
devastated by the catastrophe that overtook the Jewish communities of
Europe—the rise of Nazi power and the nightmare of the Holocaust. As the
danger became more and more apparent, and as European refugees fled for
their lives, Jewish Americans appealed desperately for help from their
government. Their appeals were not always successful; the U.S. refused to
relax its immigration restrictions against Eastern Europeans and turned away
several boatloads of Jewish refugees. On one refugee ship, the S.S. St. Louis,
the desperate passengers launched a mutiny just off the coast of Florida in an
attempt to reach American soil, but to no avail. Overall, more than 150,000
refugees did succeed in making their way to safety in America, and some
140,000 more followed after the war. But the Jewish civilization of Eastern
Europe, a culture more than a thousand years old, was utterly destroyed,
more than 6 million of its people murdered in the Nazi death camps.
During the Cold War years of the mid-20th century, when the remaining Jews
Poster calling for the liberation
of Eastern Europe were caught behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain, Jewish
of Jews in the Soviet Union
Americans agitated for their freedom. Eventually, several thousand Soviet
Jews were able to emigrate from the U.S.S.R. Jewish Americans also directed considerable political energies
toward the new state of Israel. After it was founded in 1948, many Eastern European Jewish immigrants
chose to make one more migration, and traveled from the New World to the land of Hebrew Bible.
An Era of Achievement
By the middle years of the 20th century, the Jewish American community had
fully come into its own. As many of the old anti-Semitic barriers fell away,
Eastern European immigrants and their children took prominent places in
American culture, across the full spectrum of achievement. The research of
scientists such as Jonas Salk and J. Robert Oppenheimer dramatically
reshaped the postwar world. The musicians Jascha Heifetz and Artur
Rubinstein, along with the pianist Vladimir Horowitz and the conductor
Leonard Bernstein, brought classical music to new audiences.
Leonard Bernstein
Radio and television were ruled by the
comedians Jack Benny, Milton Berle, George
Burns, and Sid Caesar, while jazzmen Benny Goodman and Stan Getz packed
the dance floors. The brothers George and Ira Gershwin were bestselling
songwriters, and Henry and Joseph Mankiewicz Oscar-winning screenwriters.
Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer had begun the literary work that would
bring each of them a Nobel Prize, both mining the depths of the immigrant
experience for new insights into what it meant to be an American in the 20th
Milton Berle
But the comic-book rack might be the best
indicator of the extent to which American life has been informed and enriched
by the Jewish American experience. The most colorful and most powerful
characters of the comics world--Superman, Batman, Captain America--figures
that over the decades have come to embody the dreams and aspirations of
American life, were all invented by Jewish teenagers--primarily the children
of Eastern European immigrants.
Movie poster, 1948