THE LAST SHIPS FROM HAMBURG: Business, Rivalry, and the Race to Save Russia’s Jews on the Eve of World War I (Harper, Nov 21, 2023), by historian Steven Ujifusa provides the reader with a well-researched history primer about the time leading up to those turbulent days and their aftermath. Despite rampant antisemitism in Europe and to a lesser extent in the United States, two Jewish titans of the shipping trade made the mass migration of Jews from Russia, Germany, and other parts of Europe possible. They were two remarkable entrepreneurs, Albert Ballin of the Hamburg-American Line (HAPAG), and Jacob Schiff of investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Co. Those two moguls held the keys that opened the door to the Goldene Medina.
It was a time when the Russian Empire and much of Europe treated Jews as second-class citizens. Governments excluded them from attending universities, as well as engaging in academic, legal and medical professions. As for social networking clubs, admission to them was out of the question. Consequently Jews had to form their own social networks, and develop those skills necessary to become merchants, tradesmen, and money lenders, while living in impoverished villages called shtetls or ghettos.
Although there were notable exceptions, like the extraordinarily successful and wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs, Ballin and Schiff, elite circles denied to them admission. The bigoted ruling classes considered them common tradesmen not landed gentry. To them, they were Jews who spoke German, not German, they were Jews who spoke Polish, not Polish, and Jews who spoke Russian, not Russians. They even considered the Rothschilds, who financed German economic expansion, nothing more than fake nobles.
Financial failure and civil discontent needed a scapegoat, and as usual, the default choice was the Jews, because history was replete with the idea that Jews cause the world’s ills. That canard was popular throughout Europe, Russia, and even in influential enclaves of bigotry in the United States. For example, Henry Ford, published the Dearborn Independent which was rife with antisemitic tropes. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was instrumental in limiting Jewish and Chinese immigration. Abbott Lawrence Lowell, president of Harvard, aimed to restrict Jewish matriculation to no more than ten percent of the student population. And finally, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the US State Department imposed quotas against Eastern European immigration and even barred Jewish asylum seekers sailing on the St. Louis, entry to the United States, thus condemning them to certain death at the hands of the genocidal Nazis.
Steven Ujifusa’s meticulous investigation of those turbulent days, as chronicled in THE LAST SHIPS FROM HAMBURG, illuminates for the reader that once free of the fetters of European anti-Semitism, all things were possible. In fact between the years 1881 and 1914 over 2.5 million Jews managed to overcome the obstacles placed in their path and legally emigrated to the United States. Having to leave property, possessions, and family behind, they still came. No matter how dangerous the journey and how difficult it was to face an uncertain future, they still came. And despite the bigotry and hardships facing the new arrivals to the new world, they still came.
Today Jews and other oppressed minorities are the fortunate beneficiaries of their ancestors’ dogged determination, courage, and resilience, which has given them access to the American Dream.