The 1930s New York Experience as a Jewish Immigrant

By Gabriel Surges

About 10 million individuals called the United States their new home from 1910-1930. From all over the world, people in search of a chance at economic prosperity and shelter from heavy persecution filtered in. Following this period, immigration dropped substantially in the 30s due to restrictive laws, the Great Depression, and the onset of WWII.[1] Despite this drop, there was an increase in German-Jewish immigrants to the U.S. in the late 30s following an upscaling of the economic war against Jews by the Third Reich. New York City was the major port of entry for immigrants at this time, whereby a large portion chose to stay due to extensive nearby networks.[2]

With 1.5 million Jewish inhabitants by 1920, New York was the greatest Jewish population center of all time.Landsmanschaftn, or associations of immigrants from the same hometown, had long been established and provided Jews and other immigrants valuable material benefits as well as social interaction from the 19th century up through the 1930s.[3] Over 20,000 German Jews were apart of such a community in Washington Heights in 1940, making it the largest and most concentrated area of German Jews in the U.S.[4] Neighbors did not hesitate to offer help, material or not, to one another in times of financial crisis.[5] Jewish businesses were also extremely important within these communities. Rebecca Augenstein lived on Vyse Ave near Bronx Park South during the 30s. She recalls the neighborhood grocer’s generosity in offering credit: “…the grocer said to me, ‘You can “trust” all you want.’ And so it was… Everything that I bought when I didn’t have the money to pay, he used to mark it down. When we got the [relief] check every month, I went to the grocery store and he took off what I owed him”.[6] Grandparents of 2nd generation German-Jewish immigrant Michael Stern also owned a store in the Bronx, near the Willis Avenue Bridge. Both of these locations are located just miles away from Washington Heights (mapped below).

 Still, adapting to the new environment was difficult for some. Michael spoke on his family’s hardships upon their arrival to New York in 1938: “My father had no education other than some business training. It was hard for him to find meaningful employment in New York. He was a fur trader previously, but had poor language skills”.[7] Minnie Kusnetz, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant who illegally entered the U.S. through Canada in the early 1930s, was taken to Ellis Island where she went without food and sleep for the night, awaiting deportation. The next day her brother-in-law arrived with a lawyer and put up five hundred dollars, over eight thousand by today’s standards, for her release. She was married immediately after, in 1937. Even still, she was required to go back to Canada to obtain her visa, and her husband needed to obtain citizenship papers.[8]

The progression of the depression was also associated with a rise in anti-Semitism within the U.S. Discrimination was relatively common. In New York, around half of all young Jewish adults seeking jobs failed to find one. This was an unemployment rate of nearly twice the rate of the overall adult population. Still, young Jews often attended college. They were overrepresented in the city’s high school and college evening programs, and over 50 percent of full-time Jewish college students held a job during their time there. Because they often lacked the financial capacity to pay high tuition prices and private universities had restrictive quotas, many Jews ended up at City, Hunter, and Brooklyn Colleges. With Jews constituting over 80 percent of the student body, they became important centers for Jewish youth culture throughout the 30s. Nevertheless, young Jewish graduates found themselves with very few job opportunities.[9]

 

Map of South Bronx, NY


[1] Reinhardt, Claudia and Ganzel, Bill.Immigration Into the Plains during the Depression. 2003. Accessed February 18, 2016. http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe30s/life_30.html.

[2] Levine, Rhonda F.Class, Networks, and Identity: Replanting Jewish Lives from Nazi Germany to Rural New York. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 74.

[3] Soyer, Daniel.Jewish Immigrant Associations and American Identity in New York, 1880-1939. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 2-4.

[4] Levine, Rhonda F.Class, Networks, and Identity: Replanting Jewish Lives from Nazi Germany to Rural New York. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 50.

[5] Wenger, Beth S. New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 95-96.

[6] Ibid., 98.

[7] Stern, Michael. University of Wisconsin – Madison. Mosse Humanities Building, Madison, WI. February 10, 2016. Guest Lecture, Q&A.

[8] Cohen, Jocelyn, and Soyer, Daniel. My Future Is in America: Autobiographies of Eastern European Jewish Immigrants. (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 307-309.

[9] Wenger, Beth S. New York Jews and the Great Depression: Uncertain Promise. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996), 60-67.

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