Between Threat and Hope. Migration to the New World. Mary Antin’s Account

Monica Rüthers

Source Description

In 1894 Mary Antin (born Maryasche Antin) from the Belarusian town of Polotzk, her mother and three siblings traveled via Hamburg to Boston, her father already having gone ahead. Immediately after her arrival in 1894, Mary Antin gave an account of her voyage in a letter to her maternal uncle, Moshe Hayyim Weltman in Polotzk. According to the history of this letter as told by Mary Antin herself, her lamp tipped over shortly before she had finished the letter. Since kerosene had been spilled all over it, she had to write a new copy. In 1899 she published an English version of the account originally written in Yiddish based on the kerosene-doused original titled From Plotzk to Boston. The English version written when she was 18 was intended for the American public and differed noticeably in style from the letter written in Yiddish to her uncle and relatives back home in Russia when she was thirteen, which is the document discussed here. Literarily gifted Mary Antin was considered a child prodigy, and the publication funded by Jewish patrons was supposed to enable her further education. Mary Antin was supported by her teacher, Mary Dillingham, Boston Jewish philanthropists Lina and Jacob Hecht, and their friend, the well-known Jewish writer Israel Zangwill. The latter established contact with the journal American Hebrew, which printed the English version in serial form in 1899 before it was published as a book. In light of increasing xenophobia and political campaigns against mass immigration to the U. S., Antin’s patrons sought to present an exemplar of integration benefitting the country. In 1910 Mary Antin got hold of the original letter while on a visit to Russia. In 1914 her brother-in-law, John F. Grabau, had the letter bound and donated it to the Boston Public Library, where it is still located today, along with an introduction to the history of the manuscript written in English by Mary Antin.

The original manuscript is 68 pages long; due to an error, its pagination jumps from page 55 to page 60. This source interpretation is based on a transcript and English translation of the letter published in 2013 by Sunny Yudkoff.

  • Monica Rüthers

The account’s narrative planes

On the factual level, Mary Antin describes her experience of disinfection in great detail. Her account includes numerous details about the setting, procedures, routines, and actions. She uses the pronoun “we” or the more general “one,” thus letting herself and her relatives dissolve into the group of migrants. Her letter illustrates how individuals became an anonymous mass, how disoriented they were, and how they had no choice but to be subjected to the facility’s staff and procedures once they had embarked on the journey. They virtually became “prisoners” of institutions and procedures they could neither foresee, comprehend, nor influence. A second narrative plane of reflection and experience describing Mary’s thoughts and feelings and showing an attempt on her part to categorize and understand her experience in the first person is merely hinted at in this letter. She remains largely inarticulate on this level. Four years later, in the English version, she put more emphasis on her own perception, emotions, and thoughts. Therefore the original Yiddish text is all the more powerful in documenting the immediacy of her experience and her need to give an exact account of the incomprehensible, the overwhelming, and the shared experience of powerlessness.

The success story of Mary Antin’s account

The excerpt presented here, which describes the disinfection in Ruhleben, became well-known through the more reflective and more emotionally charged English version of 1899 because Mary Antin reused literal quotes from this version of the letter in her 1912 autobiography titled The Promised Land. The book was a great success, it went through several editions and was translated into German as early as 1913. In it Mary Antin describes her American assimilation and her ascent into the educated middle class as a success story. In the United States, her striving for complete assimilation was initially seen as exemplary for her generation of immigrants. Reviewers praised what was typical in her account, her “collective voice.” The Promised Land became required reading in schools, excerpts from it were printed in textbooks and discussed in citizenship class.

Mass emigration to the “New World”

The sanitary measures described in this document were a consequence of mass migration from eastern Europe. Between the 1880s and the First World War, numerous non-Jewish migrants and roughly two million Jewish migrants left the Russian Empire, Austria-Hungary, and Romania. Demographic and economic developments, legal restrictions, and the devastating poverty among the Jewish population resulting from it were the main reasons for mass emigration from the Tsarist Empire, which had already begun in the 1840s. Many others also left Europe in large numbers at the time in order to seek their fortune in the New World. They all traveled by train to the major seaports, just like Mary Antin and her family did.

Increasingly strict checks of emigrants

In 1892 a cholera epidemic caused by the consumption of unfiltered water from the Elbe river claimed 8,000 lives in Hamburg – and Russian-Jewish emigrants were blamed for it. The quick finger-pointing resulted from the widely held belief that transiting emigrants from “the East” were suspicious carriers of “Asian” viruses. Cholera, typhus, and the eye infection trachoma, which is spread by bacteria, were perceived as threats to European civilization. At the same time the United States introduced more restrictive immigration rules. Individuals who were sick or disabled were no longer admitted into the country. Migrants not only had to spend several weeks quarantined in Hamburg, but also in the immigration facility at Ellis island outside of New York, which was opened in 1892. Due to the cholera epidemic, Hamburg’s port was closed down temporarily, and in September U. S. authorities halted transatlantic migration from all European seaports for several months. This resulted in significant losses for the shipping companies. In order to prevent repatriations at their own cost, the shipping companies HAPAG and Norddeutscher Lloyd [North German Lloyd] in 1894/95 began to establish checkpoints at the borders with Russia and Austria where they had migrants undergo a precautionary health examination according to U. S. immigration rules. These checkpoints were modeled on the facility described by Mary Antin. It was located in Ruhleben near Berlin and had been established by the Prussian authorities in 1893. From there Mary Antin and her family continued their journey to Hamburg, where, upon arrival at the train station, emigrants were put on horse carriages taking them to a dockside barracks camp. They were interned there for eight days and received basic yet kosher provisions until their ship’s departure. Both the emigrants’ train station at Ruhleben, built before the disinfection facility in 1891, and the barracks complex built at Hamburg’s America dock Amerikaquai in 1892 were meant specifically to keep emigrants from the Russian empire out of Berlin’s and Hamburg’s city centers. In 1902 HAPAG replaced the dockside barracks with modern emigration facilities at the port’s periphery.

The disinfection procedure from the perspective of the migrants

In the 1890s scientific racism reinforced “stereotypes according to which eastern Europeans lived in dirt and squalor and were dressed in unwashed, bug-infested rags.” Paul Weindling, Ansteckungsherde. Deutsche Bakteriologie 1890-1920, in: Philipp Sarrasin et al. (eds.), Bakteriologie und Politik, Frankfurt am Main 2007, p. 366. In the manner of their execution, the health exams at times exceeded what was medically required. In this context, the perspective of the migrants themselves is important. It was “instilled in them early on to expect health exams and disinfection.” Ibid., p. 368. Mary Antin’s letter illustrates the impression this kind of treatment made on the migrants: “And I shuddered at the memory of how everyone had been treated (in the bath): The harsh faces of all the people whom we had seen in the Berlin baths – or better said, prison – with their white clothes. They made a terrible impression on everyone. Their orders, their rushing and yelling made everyone shudder.” (p. 29). Mary Antin’s letter containing this account of her experience also documents how this information found its way to potential emigrants eager for information. This knowledge was passed on through hundreds of thousands of letters written by emigrants that were read by entire networks: Mary Antin wrote that her original account had been returned to her by a relative in Vilna after it had been passed around among a circle of relatives and acquaintances in Polotzk and other branches of the family further afield in the Russian Empire.

The historiographical reassessment of the disinfection procedure

After 1945 the description of the disinfection procedure began to be interpreted differently. The above-mentioned passage was repeatedly quoted in historical writing, where it was described as “unsettling,” Tobias Brinkmann, Why Paul Nathan Attacked Albert Ballin: The Transatlantic Mass Migration and the Privatization of Prussia's Eastern Border Inspection, 1886-1914, Central European History 43 (2010) 1, p. 59, fn. 19. “hauntingly familiar,” Jolie Sheffer, Recollecting, Repeating, and Walking Through: Immigration, Trauma, and Space in Mary Antin's The Promised Land, in: MELUS 35 (2010) 1, pp. 141-166, esp. p. 150. or “a ghastly foreshadowing.” “eine gespenstische Vorahnung,”Robert Jan Van Pelt / Debórah Dwork, Auschwitz: von 1270 bis heute, Zurich 1998, p. 55. Now the account was reminiscent of images resembling in every detail scenes known from descriptions of the Holocaust: human beings treated like livestock, overcrowded train cars stopping in the middle of nowhere, the rushing, uniformed personnel shouting orders, the undressing, the communal shower room, the heaps of clothing and (in the English version) the agonies suffered. The images evoked by the text seemed to foreshadow future events. Michael André Bernstein’s concept of “backshadowing” Michael André Bernstein, Foregone Conclusions. Against Apocalyptic History, Berkeley 1994, p. 16. examines this anachronistic logic. Retroactive overshadowing by our knowledge of later events impedes an unprejudiced interpretation of this source. It is only from today’s perspective that such scenes generate unease. Until the Shoah the scientifically proven connection between disease, bacteria, and parasites had made it a regular practice to subject migrants to collective disinfection and delousing. By reinforcing ideas and norms rendering certain procedures “normal,” such social practices in the treatment of “poverty migrants” from “the East” gained a long-term effect, however: “We migrants were herded at the stations, packed in the cars, and driven from place to place like cattle.” Mary Antin, The Promised Land, Boston / New York 1912, p. 172. The National Socialists’ disguise for their murderous population policy took advantage of this “normality” and the common knowledge about the dangers from “the East” by updating it for interactions between Germans and Jews. The sanitary measures served as a narrative framework to deceive both Jewish victims and the German population about the regime’s murderous character. Jews were first deported and then, supposedly, treated according to the usual procedure for migrants. Thus there actually is a connection to the Shoah that is not based on anachronistic knowledge but on an interpretation of Mary Antin’s letter in its contemporary context: in the course of Jewish mass migration from eastern Europe via Hamburg to the United States, practices evolved and norms were created that shaped the ideas of Jews and non-Jews, of victims and perpetrators as well as eyewitnesses well into the Holocaust.

Contemporary references to Mary Antin’s account

To this day, uniformed personnel wearing gloves and protective masks are part of the iconography of migration at Europe’s periphery, for example when it comes to dealing with exhausted refugees arriving in boats at Lampedusa. In the context of refugees, the image of the mask “superimposes territorial borders on the boundaries of the body; migration here appears as an assault on the integrity of one’s own body.” Francesca Falk, Europa – der Blick auf die Ränder. Bootsflüchtlinge und Bildgedächtnis: Ikonen gefährdeter Grenzen, in: Benjamin Drechsel et al. (eds.), Bilder von Europa. Innen- und Außenansichten von der Antike bis zur Gegenwart, Bielefeld 2010, pp. 333-341, here: p. 338. As in Mary Antin’s time, migrants today are at the mercy of nontransparent systems of traffickers, organizations, and refugee camps.

Select Bibliography

Robert Jan Van Pelt / Debórah Dwork, Auschwitz: von 1270 bis heute, Zürich 1998.
Paul Weindling, Ansteckungsherde. Deutsche Bakteriologie 1890-1920, in: Philipp Sarrasin u. a. (ed.): Bakteriologie und Politik, Frankfurt am Main 2007, pp. 354-374.

Selected English Titles

Mary Antin, From Plotzk   Due to a copyediting error, the name of the Belorusian town of Polotzk was changed to that of the Polish town of Plotzk. to Boston. With a Foreword by Israel Zangwill, Boston 21899.
Mary Antin, The Promised Land. Boston / New York 1912.
Tobias Brinkmann, Why Paul Nathan Attacked Albert Ballin: The Transatlantic Mass Migration and the Privatization of Prussia's Eastern Border Inspection, 1886-1914, in: Central European History 43 (2010) 1, pp. 47-83.
Richard Evans, Death in Hamburg. Society and Politics in the Cholera Years, 1830–1910, Oxford 1987.
Michael P. Kramer, Assimilation in The Promised Land: Mary Antin & the Jewish Origins of the American Self, in: Prooftexts 18 (1998) 2, pp. 121-148.
Werner Sollors, Introduction, in: Werner Sollors (ed.), Mary Antin, The Promised Land, New York 1997.
Sunny Yudkoff, The Adolescent Self-Fashioning of Mary Antin, in: Studies in American Jewish Literature 32 (2013) 1, pp. 4-35.
Sunny Yudkoff, Transcription of Mary Antin’s Yiddish Letter (Precursor to From Plotzk to Boston), in: Studies in American Jewish Literature 32 (2013) 1, pp. 67-98.
Sunny Yudkoff, Translation of Mary Antin’s Yiddish Letter (Precursor to From Plotzk to Boston), in: Studies in American Jewish Literature 32 (2013) 1, pp. 36-66.
Magdalena J. Zaborowska, How We Found America. Reading Gender Through East-European Immigrant Narratives, Chapel Hill 1995

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About the Author

Monica Rüthers, Prof. Dr. phil., born 1963, is professor of Eastern European History at the University of Hamburg. Among her research interests are: socialist visual culture, socialist spaces, childhood in late socialism and Jewish and Gypsy spaces in the cultural topography of Europe.

Recommended Citation and License Statement

Monica Rüthers, Between Threat and Hope. Migration to the New World. Mary Antin’s Account (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, June 27, 2017. <> [July 27, 2017].

This text is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Non commercial - No Derivatives 4.0 International License. As long as the work is unedited and you give appropriate credit according to the Recommended Citation, you may reuse and redistribute the material in any medium or format for non-commercial purposes.