New York life for German Jewish refugees

By Emily Wigdale

As German Jewish refugees arrived in New York City, their lives were quickly altered as they attempted to assimilate into American culture. As we have previously discussed, George and Mary Stern would have experienced the transitional stage between European lifestyle and adoption of American identities. Right after George and Mary Sterns honeymoon, they quickly left Germany for their new life in the United States. One of the potential reasons for their emigration was due to increased tensions within Europe, which heighten the illusion of American superiority, “because of its humanitarian tradition, its history of granting asylum to the needy, and its rhetoric of freedom and democracy- and because the rest of the world was closing its doors- America in the 1930s was to German Jews the most sought after shelter.”[1] However, after arriving in New York City, George and Mary along with other German Jewish refugees experienced a wide array of cultural distinctions, economic hardships, and political differences.  

As German Jewish refugees, individuals faced the hardship of being accepted into American society.  Many Jewish leaders feared that massive amounts of German Jewish immigrants in the United States would heighten anti-Semitism, which was carried over to the United States through European ethnic groups and their attitudes. The United States public saw the Jewish people as an “other,” who preferred to identify themselves based on religion rather than accepting American nationalism as their primary identity. Julian Mack reported, “Jewish leaders themselves disagreed as to how warm a welcome America might offer German Jewish refugee. Finding widespread fear that any large-scale immigration would increase anti-Semitism and would lead to extremely adverse congressional action, they kept insisting that they were aware of the economic situation in the country and would not do anything to jeopardize the welfare of their fellow citizens.”[2] The mass movement of German immigrants into the United States, especially in New York, led to hostilities and hardships for the refugees, most notably during the Great Depression. The United States government recognized the growing anti-Semitism within American society. As a result, the government made a Frank Sinatra propaganda video highlighting the need for unity within American neighborhoods, schools, and the work place.

        Politically, the majority of the German Jewish population supported FDR, who was New York’s governor in the early 1930s. Into the late 1930s, FDR became even more of a fan favorite among German Jews with his position condemning anti-Semitism on the national scale. [3] German Jewish support continued throughout World War II. Even though FDR was an advocate for the protection of the Jewish minority, German Jews still faced various hardships of assimilating into American society.  Nancy Foner mentions, even though the President and his administration was accepting of the Jewish minority, the rest of society was not as willing, “Jews — and, indeed, almost all minorities — wanted equal rights and protections, regardless of their group affiliation. When Jews were excluded from jobs, colleges, housing, or public accommodations, it was because they were Jewish– or were not Protestant.”[4] German Jews appeared to threaten the status quo within the New York community. As the Jewish population began to assimilate into American society, a paranoia grew that mirrored European attitudes towards Jews. The American people viewed the Jewish community as having a desire to infiltrate and influence American thinking and life.  The American publics treatment of the Jewish people followed the historical trends of dealing with minority populations. However, because the American public was not able to distinguish Jews based on the color of their skin, unlike African Americans; instead the American public resorted to distinguishing and discriminating based on their religion.[5] 

        Despite the German Jewish community facing constant difficulties, the Jewish community within New York remained one of the strongest, most unified groups. Shuly Schwartz highlights Jeffrey Gurock’s description of New York Jewish Neighborhoods, he states “Gurok wisely chose to enrich the story of New York City’s Jews by looking at the texture of Jewish life in discrete neighborhoods-not only in Manhattan but also in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens. He chronicles periods of growth, decline, and renewal, as each neighborhood’s Jews weathered the challenges of earning a living, rearing children, determining what role Judaism would play in their lives and navigating relationships with other ethnic, religious and racial groups.”[6] It was apparent that Jews attempted to maintain their Jewish identity while achieving their American nationality. Simultaneously, German Jews continued to face backlash from various different communities. In particular, various institutions imposed restrictions such as, private schools, camps, colleges, resorts, and places of employment all imposed restrictions and quotas against Jews.[7] Majority of the Jewish population faced the difficulty of finding a new identity in a completely different culture.

        As George and Mary Stern made their way to New York after leaving Germany in July of 1938, they would have experienced the same identity crisis. They would have witnessed the push and pull between keeping their European identity, while trying to assimilate into American Society. It is more likely than not, George and Mary would have faced the backlash of anti-Semitism, and the difficulties of being Jewish immigrants. George and Mary Stern arrived in New York hoping for new opportunities, after arriving they encountered anti-Semitism and a struggle to develop an American identity.  

[1] Zucker, Bat-Ami. Frances Perkins and the German-Jewish Refugees, 1933-1940. American Jewish History. (03, 2001), 35-59,162. 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Shapiro, Edward. Jews Give Roosevelt another Chance. (Forward,  Jan 26, 1996)

[4] Perlmutter, Philip. From Ellis Island to JFK. (Shofar: 2002),163.

[5] Sarna, Jonathan D. The American Jewish Experience.2d ed. New York: Holmes and Meier,1997

[6] Schwartz, Shuly Rubin. City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York.(American Jewish History: 98, 2014)(1): 23-V. 

[7] Sarna, Jonathan D. The American Jewish Experience.2d ed. New York: Holmes and Meier,1997. 169.


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