On July 1, 1907, the S.S. Cassel, a German steamship, docked in Galveston, Texas, bringing the first group of Jewish immigrants to the United States as part of the so-called Galveston Plan. The concept behind the plan, which functioned until 1914, was to ferry Eastern European Jews fleeing the pogroms of czarist Russia to someplace other than New York, from which they could branch out to make new homes for themselves in towns and cities in the American West. The people responsible for the plan were prominent German Jews in New York, who said they feared a rise in anti-Semitism if Russian Jews continued pouring into the East Coast.
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The idea of the “removal” of Jewish immigrants -- as the practice was called by immigration professionals at the time -- to different parts of the young country had been around for a while. However, the proposal to accomplish this by direct transport to a distant port was the brainchild of Jacob Schiff, a German-born New York financier who was the unofficial leader of American-Jewish philanthropy. Schiff offered to put up $500,000 of his own money for the plan, which he described to Israel Zangwill, a hopeful ally, in the following manner: “to make propaganda to Russia itself for a change of this flow of emigration to the United States, from the Atlantic ports to New Orleans and other Gulf [of Mexico] ports, to arrange with steamship lines to furnish the necessary facilities and to do all the manifold work which is necessary to promoted a large immigration into the indicated channels.”
The Jewish Immigration Information Bureau, the organization established to oversee the program, considered both Charleston, South Carolina, and New Orleans, Louisiana, as potential points of disembarkation before settling on Galveston, on the Texas coast southeast of Houston. Charleston wasn’t interested and New Orleans was malaria-ridden. Galveston, however, was open to the idea. One of its draws was that it was small, and immigrants were unlikely to want to remain there. Being further west, it was also better placed to funnel new Americans to the developing frontier. And it was already serviced by the Norddeutscher Lloyd shipping line, which sailed from Bremen, Germany, a major port of departure for the Jews pouring out of Europe in those years.
A point of contention among those who initiated the Galveston scheme was whether to allow observant Jews to participate. Schiff, among others, thought it would be unrealistic for Sabbath-observant Jews to try and make a go of it in small frontier towns if they were unwilling to work on Saturday. In the end, the written guidelines distributed by the JIIB included the warning that, “It is but proper that intending immigrants should understand that economic conditions everywhere in the United States are such that strict Sabbath observance is exceedingly difficult and in some cases even impossible.”
Two days before the first group of 87 Jews arrived in Galveston, the converted warehouse that was to receive the trans-Atlantic passengers burned down, just before its insurance policy took effect. Alternate facilities were quickly improvised.
The Cassel, which had departed Bremen on June 6, steamed into Galveston port on 7:30 on the morning of July 1. By prior arrangement, its Jewish immigrant passengers were permitted to disembark first. After interrogation by immigration inspectors, they were put on wagons and taken to the new reception facility, where they were given the opportunity to bathe, and fed a kosher meal. They were also greeted by the mayor of Galveston, Henry Landes, and by Rabbi Henry Cohen, of Temple B’nai Israel.
Historian Bernard Marinbach, in his book “Galveston: Ellis Island of the West,” describes how a representative of the arrivals, speaking in Yiddish, responded to the salutations of the Mayor Landes: “We are overwhelmed that the ruler of the city should greet us. We have never been spoken to by the officials of our country except in terms of harshness, and although we have heard of the land of great freedom, it is very hard to realize that we are permitted to grasp the hand of the great man. We will do all we can to make good citizens.”
The immigrants were then assigned, and dispatched, to 19 cities in Missouri, Minnesota, Iowa and several other states in the Midwest and West. None remained in Galveston.
By the end of 1907, some 900 Jews had come through Galveston on their way to new homes in America. The program continued until 1914, when World War I broke out, and local resistance in the U.S. made it unfeasible to continue, and during that time, it helped a total of 10,000 settle in the United States, only a tiny fraction (one source estimated 1.2 percent) of the numbers of Jews that came to the country during those years. On the other hand, those 10,000 were distributed to more than 100 different American locales, where they were given the opportunity to invent their own individual version of the American dream.