25 August 2007

Texas: The Galveston Experience

The Jerusalem Post has a detailed story on the 100th anniversary of the Galveston Movement, an organized attempt to bring Jews to places other than crowded New York City or other East Coast ports.

On July 1, 1907, 87 Russian Jews landed in Galveston, Texas. Some 10,000 would land there through 1914. While the number may not seem high - compared to the two million Jews who arrived at Ellis Island between 1881-1923 and stayed or moved to large East Coast cities - Texas was the gateway to other communities in Texas, the Southwest and the Midwest.

Dr. Bernard Marinbach (Jerusalem) wrote "Galveston: Ellis Island of the West" (SUNY Press, 1982) and is quoted, "The immigration to New York was not organized in any way, while the Galveston Movement was based on an ideology to disperse Jews in the United States."

The detailed story provides information on conflicts between the earlier German Jewish immigrants and the later Russian Jews, restrictionist immigration policies, concerned leaders, early plans for a Jewish homeland, and how the Galveston Plan came about.

Also mentioned is the University of Haifa's Dr. Gur Alroey of the Land of Israel Studies Department. I've heard him speak at a few conferences on his Mass Jewish Migration Database which locates Jews who immigrated through the Jewish Colonization Association (ICA), the Jewish Territorial Organization (ITO), and the Galveston plan.

The port was chosen because the Southwest and Midwest were easily reachable to disperse immigrants who came through the port of Bremen, Germany, where ITO operated. In Galveston, the Jewish Immigrants' Information Bureau (JIIB)found them jobs in various states, provided railroad tickets, supper and food for their continuing journeys.

London-born Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston was community head. He had served in Jamaica and Mississippi, and was rabbi of the Galveston Bnai Israel Reform congregation for some six decades. His grandson, Rabbi Henry Cohen II, wrote his grandfather's biography, "Kindler of Souls" (University of Texas Press).

"My grandmother, Sarah Bernstein of Russia, remembered vividly arriving in the Galveston harbor for Kol Nidre. She remembered Rabbi Cohen coming aboard the ship to conduct services for the new arrivals," relates David Hoffman of Evant, Texas. "They spent the night on the ship before disembarking the next day [after Yom Kippur]. She went to a large building where they were processed. Rabbi Cohen handed her a letter from her father [in Texas from 1912] with $10 that she needed to legitimately enter the country."

The same month Ephraim Zalman Hoffman of Hrubieszow, Poland, arrived in Galveston aboard the SS Wittekind which sailed from Bremen. Remaining in Galveston very briefly, his final destination was Fort Worth. The kitchen staff in the restaurant that employed him had trouble pronouncing Ephraim and called him Charlie, which he formalized to Charles.

Born after his grandfather died, David Hoffman heard of his life experiences from his grandmother. He is an architect specializing in restoration because of his interest in history and preservation. "I'm on the board of the Texas Jewish Historical Society due to those interests as well as my personal family history being entwined with the Texas Jewish experience." His brother and grandfather's namesake, the late Charles Hoffman, was a Jerusalem Post reporter from 1980 to 1990.

The story describes life in small towns, where immigrants might have been the only Jews, the 1908-09 economic depression, difficult travel to Galveston and more stringent health restrictions on immigrants.

In February 1909, "Forgotten Gateway: Coming to American Through Galveston Island," will open at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin, to tell the story of the port (1845-1924).

More than 300 Jewish Galveston descendants were contacted; more than 100 shared and recorded family histories at oral history and photo-scanning sessions. The museum worked with Jewish community centers, historical societies, synagogues, local newspapers, collecting oral histories in Texas, Kansas, Minnesota, Illinois, Colorado, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Missouri, Idaho and Nebraska.

Read the complete story here.

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