Monday, September 08, 2008

Two takes on the migratory narrative

I've just submitted this short article about two sessions from the recent conference to ZichronNote, the journal of the SF Bay Area Jewish Genealogical Society. I am posting here as well as part of my blog coverage from the conference. BTW, next Sunday I am on a panel at the SFBAJGS monthly meeting to discuss these and other sessions for a "Highlights from Chicago" panel discussion.

Between the decision to leave home and the beginning of a new life in America or elsewhere, migrating Jews from the western regions of the Russian Pale encountered a difficult transition in East Prussia. The fascinating presentation "Litvak Migratory Decisions in the 19th Century and Their Consequences," by University of Klaipeda professor Ruth Leiserowitz, filled in the gaps in the migratory narrative during a well-attended Monday afternoon session in Ballroom A.

One of the world's leading experts on Prussian social history, Leiserowitz is also a professor through and through. She basically read the paper in her almost expressionless accented English. But the material was so compelling that it overcame any dryness in her presentation style.

Whether motivated by economic opportunity, draft evasion or technology-driven global awareness, migrants faced challenging economic and logistical obstacles during the first legs of their passage to a new life. Along the way, they spent anywhere from weeks to years to the rest of their lives in Prussian port cites like Memel and Libau.

Using statistics and anecdotes (and some well-chosen slides) to help tell the story, Leiserowitz covered the details of their illegal border crossings and their lives in the margins of Prussian society. Because of her focus on the transition period instead of the more familiar arc of voyage and arrival, her portrait is bittersweet—more about the circumstances driving families to fragment than those bringing them together in a new land of opportunity.

There were other sessions for that. This one shined a light on chapter of Jewish history, including my family's, that deserves to get more attention. For much more information, see Leiserowitz's Jews in East Prussia online exhibit at

For a different take on immigration, I attended the Wednesday presentation "HIAS Archives: What Can and Cannot Be Found There," by HIAS historian Valery Bazarov, in which described the small bank of filing cabinets in the society's New York office as "bursting with Jewish immigration history."

The same could be said of the presentation itself. Though Bazarov has given this talk many times before, his animated speaking style brought that history to life with accounts of cases mined from HIAS' long and honorable past. Thus we hear the story of a Jewish infant surviving from the steerage of the Titanic, of the South African family coming to New York to be able to adopt two black African children, of Holocaust refugees in Lisbon and Shanghai.

In each case, the HIAS files were crucial in solving mysteries and bringing families together. Today the "archive" includes records from many but not all of the society's 150 branches around the world, and Bazarov says it is his mission before he retires to locate any boxes that may be still hidden. Since HIAS is a service agency for helping immigrants, it does not an archiving mission. Records may be scattered about in different files, and most data is not indexed for searching.

Bazarov himself may be the best search engine when it comes to HIAS records. I can say this with surety since he helped my brother a year ago in locating fragmentary records about my own mother's refugee experience in Marseilles and Lisbon.

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