Tuesday, March 9, 2010

FAMILY HISTORY: Welcome to America, 1920

What a country! In America, gangsters controlled the ballot box. Don't take my word for it. Here's the featured cartoon in the Jewish Daily Forward from Election Day, November 2, 1920. Republican Warren Harding beat Democrat James Cox that day, but the Forward rejected both of them. It's candidate was the Socialist, Eugene V. Debs, running his campaign from prison, serving a term for wartime sedition. Debs would get over a million votes.

November 1920 was also the month that my grandfather landed at Ellis Island, having fled Eastern Europe a step ahead of the law (see prior posts). Having left wife and children behind, he found himself rootless and moniless, stranded in the biggest, freest city on earth -- a far cry from backwoods Poland. It would take six years to bring over the rest of the family.

It wasn't just politics that must have seemed strange to him. Here's a cartoon that month from another Yiddish Daily, The Day (Deer Taag). Here, the corrupt goon is the fat, rich landlord squeezing pennies from his impovished slum tenants.

Want more goons? Try the police. Earlier in 1920, New York coppers backed by Justice Department agents had rounded up over 5,000 recent immigrants in the notorious Palmer Raids, holding them for weeks on vague charges of disloyalty, deporting almost a thousand, then freeing the rest. "Third degree" tactics were normal back then; "civil liberties" was mostly still just a fancy word on college campuses.

Did I mention organized crime? Let's see. There were the gangs under Lucky Luciano, Dutch Schultz, and Legs Diamond, not to mention Albert Anastasio and Murder Incorporated over in Brooklyn. And they were just the celebrities.

Want to cross the street? Try walking through this: Driving around New York.

We have built a ridiculously nostalgic image of life for immigrants reaching America in the early Twentieth Century. Don't be fooled. It was hard, raw, painful, and unforgiving: the back- breaking strain of sweatshop labor, the squalor of tenements, and disdain of the native born. By 1921, "old" Americans grew so hostile against newcomers that they imposed the most restrictive peacetime immigration quotas in history.

Psychologists use a phrase to describe how people can take a painful experience and color their own memory to justify it by turning it into something glorious and honorable -- cognitive dissonance. That's the American immigrant experience.

1 comment:

Anne Bobroff-Hajal said...

Hello, Ken Ackerman,
I’m an artist and historian: AnneBobroffHajal.com/blog

You and I seem to share some interests: history, researching our grandparents’ worlds, the Red Scare, and maybe others. Your research and the questions you posed about Joseph Rubinsky sound absolutely fascinating. Have you moved farther in this project?

I never met my grandfather, B. L. Bobroff, inventor and businessman. I’ve been trying to research his life in Russia before he came to the US at the age of 22 around 1905. To my amazement, I recently discovered that he got caught up in the Red Scare while trying to establish trade with the Bolshevik government. He was picked up by the Bureau of Investigation from a steamship on his return from Russia in 1920; he had apparently gotten $6 million in contracts with the Bolsheviks via his Bobroff Foreign Trade and Engineering Company. Recently I discovered googlebooks had scanned a 1921 hearing of the House Foreign Affairs committee which included 25 pages of testimony by my grandfather. http://books.google.com/books?id=RnwMAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA33&lpg=PA33&dq=%22b.+l.+bobroff%22&source=bl&ots=pWhxspLk8Z&sig=bgBf82OEcarWK69YQdtRje4mI4c&hl=en&ei=P-fFS9W1G4OKlwf9r8CADA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CAYQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22b.%20l.%20bobroff%22&f=false
So far, my attempt to learn more about my grandfather's life in Russia up to age 22 has yielded almost nothing. If you're aware of any resources for that, I'd love to hear them.