Jewish Migration to the United States

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Jewish American Research

This article is part of a series.
Overview of Jewish American Research
Jewish Migration to the United States
Holocaust Research
Finding Jewish Records
List of Useful Jewish Research Resources
Topics

This article originally appeared in "Jewish American Research" by Gary Mokotoff in The Source: A Guidebook to American Genealogy

Jewish migration to the United States is divisible into periods. For each there are sources of information for doing genealogical research.

Dates Period Number of Immigrants
1654–1838 Colonial/federal Fewer than 15,000
1838–80 German emigration 250,000
1881–1924 Eastern European emigration 2,000,000
1924–44 Pre-Holocaust 100,000
1945–60 Holocaust survivors 250,000
Present Russian Jews and others Up to 50,000 per year

Contents

Colonial Period (1654–1838)

The first Jews to come to North America arrived in 1654 at the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (renamed New York in 1664). Most were refugees from the Dutch colony of Recife, Brazil, which was conquered by the Portuguese that year. The Jews, fearing persecution from the Portuguese Inquisition, left with plans to go to Holland, the home of many Sephardic Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition 150 years earlier. However, they ran out of money and were forced to land at the Dutch colony.

Because Jews in the New World were allowed to practice their religion in a relatively nondiscriminatory environment, record books of American synagogues exist back to colonial times. Besides New York, early Jewish settlements were founded in Savannah, Georgia (1733); Philadelphia (1745); Charleston, South Carolina (1749); Newport, Rhode Island (1763); and Richmond, Virginia (1789).

There are records for this period at the American Jewish Historical Society and the American Jewish Archives, as well as at the synagogue archives themselves.

The definitive genealogical work, now out of print, is First American Jewish Families by Rabbi Malcolm H. Stern, fasg.1 It contains the genealogies (descendants) of every Jewish person known to the author who arrived in the United States before 1838 who remained Jewish for at least one generation. Some fifty thousand persons are identified in it.

German Emigration (1838–80)

Much information about this group can be found using conventional American genealogical resources; little is available through synagogue records. Family historians who have attempted to do German emigration research, Jewish or Christian, know about the paucity of information available for tracing ancestry back to Germany. Ship manifests and citizenship papers provide no clues as to ancestral towns in Germany, so genealogists must dig for information. Family records or death records may hold clues. For example, Jewish immigrants who arrived in the nineteenth century are among the most difficult of Jewish ancestors to document; however, Jewish tombstones of German immigrants have been known to indicate the town of birth. Check census records as well; census takers sometimes wrote down the town of birth rather than the country of birth on the census record.

Most German Jews left through the ports of Hamburg and Bremen. Emigration lists from Hamburg for the years 1850 to 1934 have survived and are available on microfilm through the Family History Library of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. Two separate indexes exist, both arranged by year. One, called the direct index, lists ships that sailed directly to the United States. The other, the indirect index, lists ships that stopped at other ports prior to coming across the Atlantic. Virtually no lists from Bremen exist today. They were destroyed in periodic purges. The earliest surviving lists are from 1920.

East European Emigration (1881–1924)

In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated, and the Russians blamed it on the Jews. Decades of pogroms against the Jewish population followed. This anti-Semitism, along with deplorable economic conditions, drove millions of Jews from Eastern Europe; 2 million went to the United States. Most Jewish Americans are descended from these persons, and there is a wealth of genealogical information about them.

Passenger Arrival Lists

To learn more about this wave of immigrants (Jewish and others), the U.S. government began documenting them more carefully during the 1890s. Passenger arrival records included age, occupation, nationality, town of last residence, final destination, and other data. Starting in 1906, place of birth was added, and in 1907, name and address of the nearest relative in the immigrant’s native country were added. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., has on microfilm the ship manifests and indexes to these lists. Most of these have been digitized and placed on the Internet. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation has records for Ellis Island from 1892–1924 online at http://ellisisland.org with an every-name index, but superior access to these images can be found at http://stevemorse.org. Records of Castle Garden, predecessor to Ellis Island can be found at http://www.castlegarden.org, as well as on Ancestry.com. Ancestry.com also provides indexes and images of other ports, including Baltimore, Boston, Galveston, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and other ports of less interest to Jewish research. Copies of these microfilms are available through the Family History Library and regional branches of the National Archives. If access to any of these Internet sites or facilities is difficult, you can request copies by writing to the National Archives, Washington, DC 20408.

Citizenship Papers

Most Jewish immigrants became citizens of the United States. Even those who decided not to complete the process usually went through the first step by filling out a declaration of intention. The declaration of intention form included a number of questions, such as date of birth, date of marriage, arrival date, name of ship, current address, and, in certain years, name at time of arrival in the United States. Consequently, declarations of intention are valuable resources for Jewish American research. Because the submitter was the actual immigrant, it is not unusual to find more accurate information, such as birth dates, in citizenship papers. The location of these papers depends on which court naturalized the individual. If the certificate of naturalization, thought by many to be the “citizenship papers,” is in the family’s possession, it will show the county, state, or federal court in which the citizen was naturalized. Contact the court to learn the current location of the records.

Another way to determine the court of naturalization is through voter registration records. Immigrants had to prove their citizenship, and these records often indicate the court where naturalized. Contact the board of elections where the immigrant lived to determine if the records still exist. Otherwise, the long (six months to one year) route must be taken: contact the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Washington, DC 20530. Some naturalization records have been microfilmed by the Family History Library. For more information on naturalization records, see chapter 9, “Immigration Records.”

Town Societies

Jewish immigrants formed societies based on their towns of origin; these were called landsmanshaftn societies. Membership in such a group invariably meant that the person came from the town or a neighboring town. One function of these groups was to buy land in a Jewish cemetery. Even if it cannot be determined that an ancestor was a member of a landsmanshaftn society, burial in a plot owned by such a group implies that the ancestor came from that town. (Be aware that the burial societies also sold burial plots to outsiders, so such evidence is not conclusive.) The archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 15 W. 16th St., New York, NY 10011, has a large number of records of these societies. The institute has published its holdings in A Guide to YIVO’s Landsmanshaftn Archive.2

Pre-Holocaust Period (1924–44)

Because this period is contemporary, a principal source of information is the individuals themselves or their children. A wealth of twentieth-century documentation on Americans described elsewhere in this book can be used as well.

Holocaust Survivors (1945–60)

Holocaust survivors who were friends and neighbors of victims can often provide valuable information. The National Registry of Jewish Holocaust Survivors contains the names of more than one hundred thousand survivors and their families living in the United States and Canada. The book is available in many Holocaust centers and major libraries. A list of institutions can be found at http://ushmm.org/remembrance/registry. The organization that created the registry will forward letters to survivors. Write to the American Gathering/Federation of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, 122 W. 30th St., New York, NY 10001.

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