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October 14: Emma Lazarus on Ward’s Island

October 14, 2014
emma_lazarusEmma Lazarus was on Ward’s Island as a volunteer with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) on this date in 1882 when rioting broke out among Jewish immigrants, who were flooding New York from Russia at the rate of about 2,000 per month because of the outbreak of pogroms throughout Russia after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. According to a newspaper account published in Pennsylvania, the “revolt among the Russian Jewish refugees” resulted from “harsh treatment by Superintendant Shattuck. A squad of half a dozen police were sent over to the island, but were routed by the rioters after clubbing one of them senseless. Later in the evening, one hundred police were sent to the scene, but the trouble had quieted down.” “The Jewish Question which I plunged into so recklessly & impulsively last Spring,” Lazarus wrote to Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “has gradually absorbed more & more of my mind & heart... it has about driven out of my thought all other subjects.” Between November and the following February, Lazarus wrote her “Epistle to the Hebrews,” a weekly column that urged established American Jews (Lazarus was fourth-generation) to embrace the refugees, and in 1883 she would write “The New Colossus”, the magnificent sonnet that is engraved in the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. “Emma Lazarus, the celebrated bard of free immigration, was badly shaken [by the riot] and, if only temporarily, adopted a frigidly Social Darwinist approach to the immigration problem.” —Derek Jonathan Penslar, Shylock’s Children