The Last Ships from Ham­burg: Busi­ness, Rival­ry, and the Race to Save Rus­si­a’s Jews on the Eve of World War I

  • Review
By – January 17, 2024

In The Last Ships from Ham­burg, Steven Uji­fusa tells the sto­ry of the sec­ond Exo­dus that, between 1881 and 1914, brought two and a half mil­lion Russ­ian and Cen­tral Euro­pean Jews to the Unit­ed States. This mass migra­tion was pre­cip­i­tat­ed by out­bursts of anti­se­mit­ic vio­lence fol­low­ing the 1881 assas­si­na­tion of Russia’s Czar Alexan­der II. The Jews became the scape­goat, as they had been so many times before. Risk­ing all they’d ever known, they ille­gal­ly escaped from Rus­sia by train, head­ing to Ham­burg, Ger­many, where they board­ed steamships to the shores of the Unit­ed States. Many were drawn to the US by the dis­es­tab­lish­ment” clause of the con­sti­tu­tion that allowed free­dom of reli­gion, as well as eco­nom­ic and edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of own­ing land.

Their haz­ardous pas­sage was made pos­si­ble by the coor­di­nat­ed efforts of two Jew­ish men: one in Ger­many, Albert Ballin, and the oth­er in the Unit­ed States, Jacob Schiff. Ballin was a vision­ary. As man­ag­ing direc­tor of the Ham­burg-Amer­i­ca ship­ping line, he worked hard to retro­fit exist­ing ships and build new ones — all of which helped tremen­dous num­bers of Jews set sail for Amer­i­ca. Schiff, the phil­an­thropist and man­ag­ing part­ner of the bank­ing firm Kuhn, Loeb and Co., was like­wise devot­ed to res­cu­ing Jews from Rus­sia and East­ern Europe and bring­ing them to the Unit­ed States. As a rail­road and bank­ing mag­nate, he raised large sums of mon­ey to facil­i­tate Jew­ish immi­gra­tion and reset­tle­ment in Amer­i­ca. In addi­tion to donat­ing to mul­ti­ple Jew­ish char­i­ta­ble caus­es and bankrolling the Jew­ish immi­gra­tion net­works, Schiff also attempt­ed to enlist the sup­port of the US gov­ern­ment, whose immi­gra­tion poli­cies were being influ­enced by eugeni­cists such as Hen­ry Cabot Lodge, Har­ry Laugh­lin, and Prescott Farnsworth Hall. How­ev­er, Schiff’s efforts to sway the gov­ern­ment were unsuc­cess­ful. In 1824, Con­gress passed the restric­tive John­son-Reed Immi­gra­tion Act, which estab­lished a quo­ta lim­it­ing immi­gra­tion to two per­cent of each group’s population.

Ujifusa’s metic­u­lous­ly researched and well-writ­ten work illus­trates the vast influ­ence these gen­er­a­tions of immi­grants had on Amer­i­can cul­ture and soci­ety. Sad­ly, this was the last major wave of Jew­ish immi­grants allowed to start new lives in the Unit­ed States.

Lynn David­man holds a Ph.D. in soci­ol­o­gy from Bran­deis Uni­ver­si­ty and is the author of three books, the first of which, Tra­di­tion in a Root­less World: Women Turn to Ortho­dox Judaism, won a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. In the course of her career she has taught at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh, Brown Uni­ver­si­ty, the Uni­ver­si­ty of Kansas and most recent­ly, Bryn Mawr College. 

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