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Jews Emigrate to America, an essay by Joseph Roth from 1927

Joseph Roth
March 13, 1927
Joseph Roth. Cities and People: Essays, Reports, and a Feuilleton. Translated into Ukrainian from German by Olesia Yaremchuk and Khrystyna Nazarkevych. Chernivtsi: Books - XXI, 2019, pp. 238-246.
Printed in:
Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper
Original language:

Jews Emigrate to America


Even though the permitted number of Eastern emigrants has already been exceeded several times, and even though the American consulate requires more documents than any other consulate in the world, many Eastern European Jews are still leaving for America.

America is a distant land. America represents freedom. Almost everyone has at least one relative in America.

It’s challenging to find a single family in Eastern Europe without at least a cousin or uncle in America. Twenty years ago, at least one of them left: perhaps to evade military service or to escape after being deemed fit for it.

If Eastern European Jews had just a little less fear, they could rightfully boast that they are among the most averse people to military service in the world. For a long time, their homelands of Russia and Austria deemed them unfit for military duty. However, once Jews gained equal rights with other citizens, they also became subject to military conscription. Yet, it was more about equal responsibilities than equal rights. From then on, Jews could face mistreatment not only from civilian authorities but also from the military. Jews willingly embraced the label of being unfit for military service. So, when they were presented with the supposed honor of fighting, training, and potentially dying, sorrow prevailed among them. Young men nearing twenty, who anticipated a favorable decision from the military commission due to their health, fled to America. Those lacking funds resorted to self-harm. Self-mutilation had been prevalent among Jews in Eastern Europe for decades before the war. Those gripped by the terror of soldiering would let their fingers go limp, sever tendons in their feet, or even apply poison to their eyes. They became heroic cripples—blind, paralyzed, crooked—and they endured prolonged, terrible suffering. They refused to serve in the army, unwilling to go to war and face death. Their common sense remained intact and guided their decisions. It calculated everything meticulously. Common sense concluded that living in immobility, however challenging, was still more valuable than perishing in health. Their piety reinforced this reasoning. To die for an emperor or a king wasn’t merely foolishness; it was a sin—a departure from the Torah and a violation of the commandments. It was a sin to consume pork, to bear arms on Shabbat, to undergo military training, to raise a hand, let alone a sword, against an innocent person. Eastern European Jews epitomized heroic pacifism. They endured suffering in the name of pacifism, willingly embracing disability. Yet, no one has yet penned an ode or poem honoring these Jews.

“The commission is coming!” That cry was terrifying. It was a military medical draft board traveling to all the small towns in search of recruits. A few weeks before the commission’s arrival, the “torture” began. The young men subjected themselves to torture to debilitate themselves, to weaken their resolve: they deprived themselves of sleep, smoked excessively, embarked on exhausting journeys, ran, and indulged in debauchery, all in the name of serving God’s purpose.

Military doctors were also bribed. This bribery was facilitated through high-ranking officials and former military doctors who had been compelled to resign due to various fraudulent activities. Whole cohorts of military doctors grew wealthy, left the army, and established private medical practices, partly with the intention of facilitating bribes.

Those with means deliberated over how to spend their money: on bribes or on escaping to America. The desperate chose America, never to return. With heavy hearts, they left behind their relatives, but with light hearts, they left their homeland.

They were bound for America.


And today, these are the legendary kin of Eastern European Jews. Former deserters transformed into affluent or at least prosperous merchants abroad. The ancient Jewish God did not abandon them to their destiny; rather, He rewarded their commitment to peace.

This American relative represents the last hope for an Eastern European family. It’s been a long time since we heard from him, from our cousin. All we know is that he married and started a family. An old, yellowed photograph hangs on the wall—a memento sent in the mail twenty years ago along with a $10 bill. For the longest time, that was the extent of what his Eastern European relatives knew about him. Nonetheless, his family in Dubno remains certain they’ll find him somewhere in New York or Chicago. Surely, he no longer goes by the Jewish name he had back home. He speaks English, holds American citizenship, wears comfortable suits with wide pants, and sports jackets with padded shoulders. He is not recognizable. Perhaps our visit won’t be entirely pleasant for him. Nevertheless, he won’t turn away his relatives…

As the relatives ponder various possibilities, one day the postman arrives bearing a thick registered letter. Inside are dollars, inquiries, well-wishes, and greetings, along with a promise of a “ship ticket soon.”

From that moment on, the family begins their preparations “for America.” Seasons change, months pass by, and a year elapses, yet the ship ticket has yet to arrive. Nonetheless, it doesn’t deter them—”we are going to America.” The entire city, along with all the surrounding villages and neighboring towns, becomes aware of their plans.

A stranger arrives in town and inquires, “What’s happening with Yitzhak Mayer?” “He’s off to America,” the locals reply. Meanwhile, Yitzhak Mayer continues his daily routine, today and tomorrow, much like yesterday and the day before, and there appears to be no change in his household.

In fact, a lot has changed. Firstly, he has changed internally, adjusting himself to America. He no longer harbors doubts about what he’ll take with him, what he’ll refuse to part with, and what he’ll keep or sell. He already knows the fate of the quarter of the house in his name, inherited from deceased or emigrated relatives. Currently, three-quarters of the house is owned by someone else. He could reclaim the remaining quarter but at a small price. Yet, who else would buy a quarter of a house except the owner of the rest? Therefore, when the “mortgage debt” is cleared, he plans to borrow as much money as possible. In time, he’ll succeed, having either cash or promissory notes, which are just as good as cash.

Don’t assume that a Jew arriving in America learns, for instance, English. He knows how to navigate in a foreign land. He speaks Yiddish, which is the most widely dispersed language in the world geographically, though not in terms of sheer numbers. He’ll undoubtedly manage. English isn’t necessary. Jews who’ve resided in New York’s Jewish neighborhoods for thirty years still primarily speak Yiddish and can easily comprehend their grandchildren.

So, he has already mastered the language of a foreign land—his mother tongue. He has also acquired money. Now, all he needs is to muster the courage.

He isn’t fearful of America; rather, it’s the ocean that daunts him. He’s accustomed to traversing vast open spaces, but not water. Once, when his ancestors had to cross the sea, a miracle occurred—the waters parted. When he’s separated from his homeland by the ocean, it feels like an eternity. And the Eastern European Jew harbors apprehensions about ships. He doesn’t trust them. For centuries, Eastern European Jews have dwelled in regions far from the seas. They’re not afraid of the steppe or endless plains; rather, it’s disorientation that unsettles them. He’s accustomed to facing Mizrahi, to the east, three times a day—not just a religious practice but a deeply ingrained need to know one’s whereabouts. When a person is confident in geography, it’s easier for them to navigate from here and easier to discern the ways of the Lord. Then, one has a better understanding of where Palestine lies.

And out at sea, how do you discern God’s direction? You can’t identify where Mizrah is. You’re uncertain of your position relative to the rest of the world. You’re not at liberty. You’re reliant on the course your ship follows. Those, like Eastern European Jews, who have a deeply ingrained awareness in their blood that they may need to flee at any moment, can’t feel liberated on a ship. Where could they flee if something were to happen? They’ve been fleeing for thousands of years. Threats have loomed for millennia. They’ve been running for their lives for thousands of years. You ask what could happen? Who knows? Couldn’t pogroms break out on the ship as well? And then what?

And if one of the passengers on the ship dies unexpectedly, where will they be buried? Their body will be consigned to the depths of the water. The ancient legend of the arrival of the Messiah vividly describes the resurrection from the dead. According to this belief, all Jews buried outside their homeland will be compelled to roll underground until they reach Palestine. Those fortunate enough to rest in Palestinian soil will spare themselves a lengthy and arduous journey, avoiding this ceaseless, relentless rotation. But what about the deceased lowered into the water? Could they possibly awaken? Is there any land beneath the water? What strange creatures inhabit those depths? A Jewish body must remain intact; it must return to the earth undamaged. And don’t sharks devour drowned individuals?

Furthermore, the promised ship ticket has yet to arrive. But it will surely come. Yet, a ticket alone is insufficient. An entry permit is also required, and they only grant it upon presentation of proper documentation. But where are the documents?

Thus begins the final, most intense struggle with documents for documents. If this battle is won, then nothing else matters. Across the ocean, in America, everyone will promptly receive a new name and a new document.

It shouldn’t be surprising that Jews hold their names with less reverence. They alter their own names and those of their parents without hesitation, whereas the sound of a name carries emotional weight for Europeans. Jews, however, change names with remarkable ease.

The name holds little significance for Jews because it isn’t truly their name. Jews, particularly those from Eastern Europe, lack surnames. Instead, they bear pseudonyms imposed upon them. Their true name is the one used when called to the Torah on Shabbat and holidays: their Hebrew name along with their father’s name. Surnames, from Goldenberg to Hescheles, are forced upon them by authorities. Governments mandated that Jews adopt surnames. But are these truly their names? If someone named Nachman adopts the European name Norbert, isn’t Norbert merely a façade, a pseudonym? A form of imitation. Does a chameleon exhibit reverence for the colors it’s constantly compelled to change? In America, a Jew may spell Greenboom instead of Grunbaum. They don’t mind the altered vowels.


Unfortunately, the time hasn’t arrived yet when he can choose his own name. He’s still in Poland or Lithuania, awaiting the “documents” that would validate his birth date, existence, and identity.

He embarks on journeys along paths that are just as bewildering, confusing, meaningless, and tragicomic—albeit on a smaller scale than those of his parents’ generation. Now, he’s directed along bureaucratic paths not from Pontius to Pilate, as the saying goes, but from Pontius’s waiting room to Pilate’s closed door. Indeed, all official doors seem shut to him, only accessible by the secretaries of the offices. But if anyone finds satisfaction in sending others on errands, it’s the secretaries.

But can they be bribed, you ask? You think bribery is so simple! You never know if bribery might lead to a lawsuit and result in imprisonment. The only certainty is that all officials are susceptible to bribery. Yes, all officials can be bribed. Venality is a trait of human nature. However, you never know when or if a person will confess to accepting a bribe. You never know whether an official who has accepted money from people ten times will not report them to the police the eleventh time, just to prove that he hadn’t taken anything on the previous occasions, enabling hum to accept bribes the next hundred times.

Fortunately, there are individuals almost everywhere who are adept at discerning an official’s state of mind—and they make a living off this insight. Some of these experts are Jews. However, they’re quite scarce, though they can be found in every city. Because they possess the skill to engage officials in a language they comprehend, they’re not much different from the officials themselves. So, you must first bribe them before you can even consider bribing others.

Yet, even flawless bribery doesn’t shield you from humiliation and numerous unnecessary procedures. You’re subjected to indignity as you navigate through superfluous paths.

And then you have the documents.


And so, after all is said and done, America once again closes its borders, citing that they’ve reached their quota for Eastern European Jews for the year, leaving them to wait for the next year.

Finally, you embark on a six-day journey aboard a passenger train in a common carriage to Hamburg. There, you wait for another two weeks for the ship. Eventually, you approach the boarding party. While other passengers wave goodbye with their handkerchiefs, on the verge of tears, the Jewish emigrant experiences happiness for the first time in his life. He’s fearful but places his trust in God. He’s journeying to a country that greets all newcomers with a towering statue of Liberty. Surely, the reality mirrors this majestic monument to some extent.

Yes, to some extent, reality does align with this symbol. Not because freedom is paramount for everyone overseas, but because there are even more marginalized groups than Jews themselves, specifically, niggers. Yes, a Jew remains a Jew there. However, his primary characteristic is that he is white. This is the first time his race proves advantageous.

The Eastern European Jew travels in third class or in the hold. The crossing of the ocean turns out to be better than he feared, but the docking proves to be much more challenging.

The medical examination at the European port was dreadful enough, but here you must undergo an even more rigorous inspection. Moreover, the documents are not in order either.

It’s also possible that some sort of pests may have found their way under a Jew’s clothing somewhere on the ship.

Anything could happen.

Thus, the Jew finds himself in a form of confinement known as quarantine or something similar.

America is shielded from the Jew by a tall fence.

Through the bars of his confinement, the Jew catches sight of the Statue of Liberty and no longer knows whether he is imprisoned or free.

Yet now, he has the chance to contemplate what life will be like in New York. It’s difficult for him to envision.

But here’s how it might unfold: he’ll reside amidst twenty-story buildings, alongside Chinese, Hungarians, and other Jews. He may once again work as a porter, fear the police, and face harassment.

However, his children, perhaps, will become Americans. They might even become renowned and affluent Americans. Titans in their own right.

This is what a Jew dreams of behind the bars of his quarantine.

Worked on the material:

Vladyslava Moskalets

Text transcript

Andrii Toropovych

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