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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 11: Migration •


Former Ruhleben train and control station, Berlin, August 2006.

Former Ruhleben train and control station, Berlin, August 2006.

Photograph: Tobias Brinkmann

From green borders to paper walls: Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe in Germany before and after the Great War

Tobias Brinkmann, Parkes Institute for Jewish/non-Jewish Relations, University of Southampton

In the spring of 1894, Mashke Antin, a Jewish teenage girl, left her hometown of Polotzk in the western part of the Russian Empire together with her mother and sister to join her father, who had moved to Boston two years earlier. The outer border of the Russian Empire was the first formidable obstacle the small family faced. Unlike the large majority of Jewish migrants the Antins had managed to obtain a passport and did not have to walk across the 'green border' illegally. But German border officials denied them entry and confiscated their passport, although the family had prepaid third-class ship tickets and did not intend to stay in Germany. They had to get off the train. 'We were homeless, houseless, and friendless in a strange place," Antin recalled. Fortunately, representatives of a Jewish emigrant aid organization who were positioned on both sides of the border managed to get them into Germany after a few days. Together with many other emigrants en route to America, the Antins boarded an overcrowded train bound for Berlin. The sight of the huge metropolis came as a shock for Mashke and probably most of the other migrants: 'I grow dizzy even now when I think of our whirling through that city... Strange sights, splendid buildings, shops, people, and animals, all mingled in one great confused mass.' But this train did not stop at any of the large Berlin depots. Several miles outside of the German capital, in a deserted area, the train finally came to a halt at a small station called Ruhleben. A Berlin journalist characterised it a few years later as 'the strangest and in more than one respect most interesting train station of the Imperial capital.' Germans, some in white overalls, rushed the migrants off the train, separated men from women and children, and threw the luggage on a big pile. Antin describes a scene of complete chaos as the bewildered and terrified migrants were driven into a small building. They were forced to undress and undergo disinfection in a primitive shower – only to be quickly hurried back onto the train which took them to Hamburg. After a two-week quarantine in what for Antin felt like a prison, the family boarded the ship to Boston where they arrived safely two weeks later. (1)

Nothing about Mashke Antin's journey through Germany in 1894 was particularly unusual – however strange it may sound today. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish, Polish, Ukrainian and other migrants from the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empire followed the same path and were treated similarly on their way to America and other destinations. Many of these migrants did not possess identity papers issued by their home state. They frequently travelled in sealed trains, often right through central Berlin. The disinfection station Ruhleben, in suburban Berlin, was a crucial stop on the transit corridor through Germany. From there the migrants continued their journey to the emigration ports Hamburg and Bremen, also in smaller numbers to Rotterdam and other Western European ports. Unusual about Antin's journey in retrospect was her decision to write a memoir in English, based on a letter written to her uncle in Yiddish shortly after her arrival in 1894. 'From Plotzk to Boston', published in 1899 under her Anglicised name Mary Antin, provides historians with a unique insight into the migrant experience on the grassroots level.

For most citizens of Western countries crossing international borders today is a routine affair - if they carry valid and increasingly sophisticated passports. Citizens of other countries, especially from Africa, parts of Asia, South and Central America, often face serious obstacles, when they want to cross the outer borders of Europe, North America, and Australia. They need health certificates, proof of sufficient funds to support themselves, and especially visas, which can be hard to obtain and for many are out of reach. The status of refugees and asylum seekers tends to be precarious and controversial, rarely offering a long term perspective. In some countries refugees are not allowed to work and have to depend on welfare payments; many are housed in camp-like settlements; a few find themselves in extraterritorial internment facilities at international airports and in a legal grey zone. Crossing borders illegally is dangerous – and can be fatal. Hundreds of Africans have drowned trying to reach Spain and Italy on ramshackle boats. Thousands of miles away, ever more Mexicans and Central Americans trying to cross into the United States fall victim to the scorching heat of the Arizona desert. Like the Antins, migrants who find themselves in a critical situation can sometimes rely on the support of migrant aid societies. Transnational Jewish philanthropic organizations founded in the second half of the nineteenth century put together considerable support networks for Jewish migrants in need between and across international borders. Their representatives pleaded with governments and transport companies, collected and published information in different languages, advised Jewish migrants, provided shelters and kitchens at train stations and offered financial assistance. They were important forerunners of contemporary transnational NGOs. (2)

The origins of the modern passport and border control system, systematic border fortifications, the rigid rules regulating the status of migrants, and the difficulties faced by huge numbers of refugees and 'illegal' immigrants can be traced back to the First World War. (3) The Great War was a major turning point which brought an era of relatively free migration to a sudden end. The nineteenth century, especially the second half, had witnessed an unprecedented mass migration on a global scale: South Asians migrated within the British Empire to Africa and the Caribbean, Chinese labourers across the Pacific to North and South America, and millions of Europeans like the Antins to North America. Some migrants had little or no agency over their fate, such as indentured labourers or slaves. Nevertheless, most nineteenth century migrants faced relatively few legal barriers. Jews suffered severe restrictions in the Russian Empire but they were not prevented from leaving; in America they faced hardly any checks upon arrival - until the early 1890s. Antin's experiences demonstrate that the German authorities had implemented procedures for screening and isolating transmigrants on their journey through its territory. And Germany was not alone. After 1880, the arrival in North America and Western Europe of increasingly 'strange' people from Eastern and Southern Europe as well as Asia led to discussions about immigration restrictions. These 'new' migrants were perceived as 'racially' and culturally threatening. By 1882 the US Congress had excluded Chinese migrants from entering. The outbreak of contagious disease in Hamburg, Central Russia and New York in the early 1890s also had an impact. In Hamburg, some blamed Russian Jewish migrants (wrongly) for the 1892 cholera epidemic. The root cause for the spreading of the epidemic was Hamburg's inept city government which had done little to fight the unhygienic conditions prevailing in working class quarters. The US government reacted quickly and interrupted the transatlantic migration for several weeks, stranding hundreds of migrants. (4)

The harsh German measures experienced by Antin were in fact part of a system of 'remote control' (Zolberg) established by the United States, the main recipient of European migrants. After 1891 persons who were judged 'likely to become a public charge', were ill, had been involved in criminal or immoral activities, or appeared in other ways suspicious, were refused entry and returned. For this purpose, a federal immigration authority and screening facilities were established. And following the Hamburg Cholera outbreak the US government demanded proof of medical checks and a period of quarantine before departure. And US immigration authorities examined migrants much more closely than before. On 2 January 1892 the Irish girl Annie Moore was the first immigrant to pass through the reception centre Ellis Island in New York harbour. It was hardly a coincidence that the Ruhleben 'control station' near Berlin had gone into operation only a few weeks earlier in November 1891. In the following years the Germans established several similar stations along the Russian border. Since the steamship companies had to return rejected migrants without a charge to Europe, they often refused to take suspicious migrants on board handing them over to the respective port officials. In turn, the German authorities tried to make sure that such persons did not cross the border, not least because the Russian authorities frequently refused to readmit 'their' citizens. In Britain too, public pressure to guard the borders and keep unwanted migrants out increased during the 1890s. Negative images of Eastern European Jews played an important role in the public debate. The 1905 Aliens Act made it possible to refuse entry to poor migrants. Admittedly, this system excluded few Europeans from immigrating to the United States and Britain before the First World War, but it served as a blueprint for future restrictions. (5)

The history of Jewish migrants in Berlin before and after 1914 illustrates the transition from a relatively unfettered migration system to a severely restricted regime. A significant number of the c. 2,000,000 Jews who left Eastern Europe for the West between 1880 and 1914, overwhelmingly for the United States, passed through Berlin, often in sealed trains or organised transports without a real chance to venture into the city. Germany introduced sophisticated screening measures but it did not block the transmigrants from the East. Indeed, mass transit migration was a highly lucrative business for its rail and steamship companies. German migration policies differed considerably from Britain, France and the United States, which subjected immigrants to increasing checks but still accepted them. Walking undetected across the long green border which separated Germany from the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was relatively easy. But Imperial Germany made it hard for foreigners to settle permanently within its borders. In the last third of the nineteenth century Germany developed into a major economic powerhouse in Europe with an expanding and innovative industrial sector. A traditional exporter of migrants especially to North America, Germany became a country of immigration, but without formally acknowledging it. Few migrants could evade its tight residency and work permit system and often ruthless administrative "solutions". Polish and Ruthenian seasonal farm labourers were allowed in but subjected to a strictly enforced rotation scheme. Eastern European Jews were sometimes tolerated, yet repeatedly expelled. In spring 1906, for instance, several thousand Russian Jews were deported from Berlin, although many had lived in the city for years and Russia was in a state of turmoil following the 1905 Revolution. (6)

The First World War interrupted the transmigration system almost overnight. In Western and Eastern Europe green borders turned into military frontlines. Most countries involved in the war put foreigners under strict surveillance, expelled or interned enemy aliens, and introduced identity papers. In 1915 the Russian authorities forcibly 'resettled' thousands of ethnic Germans and Jews away from its western front. Germany forced Russian Jews and Poles in large numbers to work for its war industries. When the United States entered the war in 1917, Congress passed restrictive immigration legislation by a large majority. British immigration policy too became much more restrictive, and remained so after 1918. Soon after the war had ended in the West, Berlin emerged as one of the main theatres of a European refugee drama. The collapse of the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian Empires, the rise of the Soviet Union and the formation of new nation states in East Central Europe were accompanied by a series of military campaigns and often brutal violence against minorities, notably Jews. For countless people from the war zones Berlin served as an initial refuge. (7)

After 1918, refugees and migrants encountered a very different state of affairs. The new and often closely policed borders in East Central Europe were one problem. More important was the end of the 'laissez faire-era' in transatlantic migration. Indeed, migrants faced a new type of 'remote' border, which can be aptly characterised as 'Paper Wall' (Wyman). The rise of the international passport and visa system was closely tied to the instability of the international system after 1918. As a reaction to the Russian Revolution, the uncertain political situation in Eastern Europe, and the huge number of displaced persons, the United States closed its doors, especially for migrants deemed racially and culturally too different and potentially threatening. In 1921 and 1924 Congress reduced the immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Asia to a trickle of the high pre-war levels. The 1924 act shifted the responsibility for the admission of an immigrant from the immigration officer in the port of entry to the consular officer in the migrant's home country who had to send the applications to the State Department before granting (or refusing) a visa. Such administrative procedures literally stopped many migrants. Other important destination countries such as Argentina and Canada too soon tightened their migration policies. (8)

The sheer number of displaced persons and refugees in the post-war era constituted a new phenomenon. Millions were caught in a legal no man's land, between visible and invisible borders, between homes they could not return to and destinations they could not reach, often in precarious places where they could not stay for long. Across Europe makeshift dwellings and camps became a common sight. After the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, and especially after 1945, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and of mass expulsions across East Central Europe, the refugee problem became even more precarious, thus overshadowing the post-1918 drama. (9)

'Paper Walls' constituted a serious obstacle for another reason. To obtain a visa, migrants had to produce a valid passport. The international identity-control system literally created new categories of people: illegal immigrants and – the stateless. Jews and many other Eastern Europeans had lost their citizenship with the collapse of the Empires without automatically receiving a new one. The successor states often refused to provide citizenship to groups that would boost potentially dangerous minorities within their borders. The League of Nations tried to address this problem by issuing provisional passports to stateless persons, named after the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, who acted as the League of Nations High commissioner for refugees. In his novel 'Pnin', the Russian-born writer Vladimir Nabokov, himself a stateless emigrant living in Berlin during the 1920s, recalled the hurdles facing stateless migrants and refugees in interwar Europe, 'the dreary hell that had been devised by European bureaucrats (to the vast amusement of the Soviets) for holders of that miserable thing, called the Nansen passport (a kind of parolee's card issued to Russian émigrés)'. (10)

After 1918, Jewish migrants could get off the train in Berlin and even stay for some time, but only because they often had nowhere else to go. Post-war Germany pursued a less restrictive migration policy, partly as a consequence of America's closed door policy. Initially, the Weimar Republic was simply not in a position to deport large numbers of migrants, nor to police its new borders. After the Republic had stabilized, it did not want to cause offence with its Western neighbours by deporting desperate refugees to the East. By the mid-1920s some refugees could and did 'return' to countries that had not existed when they had left. At the same time, the Soviet Union began to restrict out-migration. But the toleration and the reach of the German central government had also limits. Especially the rightwing press and fascist agitators constantly attacked Jewish migrants and refugees from the East, in some cases triggering violent assaults. In the early years of the Weimar Republic, in a period of political and economic turmoil, Jewish migrants also encountered rough treatment by the authorities in Prussia and especially Bavaria, amounting to physical abuse and arbitrary arrest, in some cases even deportation. (11)

Jewish migrants made important contributions to Berlin's avant-garde culture. And for a short time between 1918 and 1923 Berlin served as a vital centre of the Yiddish-speaking Jewish diaspora. (12) But at no time was Berlin an easy place for Jewish migrants. In his 1927 essay, 'Wandering Jews', the Galician-born Jewish writer Joseph Roth described the complex topography of Jewish migration during the 1920s: from the Eastern European Shtetl to Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, New York, and the Soviet Union. In the East, where the Jews came from, they could not stay. In Vienna they were not welcome. In Paris, America and in the Soviet Union, they could stay – if they managed to get in, which was difficult. And the price for admission demanded by the traditional immigration countries, and especially by the Soviet Union, was their Jewish past. Palestine, as Roth conceded in a short passage, was the 'only way out', but for him Zionism was a dead end. Berlin was the place of passage:

No Eastern Jew comes to Berlin voluntarily. Who, after all, comes to Berlin voluntarily? Berlin is a thoroughfare, where one stays longer because one is forced to. Berlin has no Getto. It has a Jewish quarter. Jewish emigrants come here, on their journey to America via Hamburg and Amsterdam. Quite often, they are stuck here. They have not enough money. Or their papers are not sufficient. (Of course, the papers! Half a Jewish life is wasted by the useless struggle against the papers). (13)

Roth portrayed the post-war German Metropolis as transit space between East and West. The Jews from the East did not come to stay, they came to go. Berlin had no 'Ghetto' – a space for Jewish life, at least partly tolerated and accepted by state and society – for Berlin suppressed difference. Obtaining passports and visas – 'the papers!' – could last many years, literally depriving migrants of their mobility across borders. Jewish life, as Roth described it, was characterized by the experience of transition, mobility and marginality. With the demise of the large multi-ethnic and multi-religious Empires the post-war borders which divided Europe literally fenced out Jews as a trans-territorial people. Years before 1933, Jewish migrants and refugees in Europe increasingly faced borders which they could not cross.

  1. Mary Antin, From Plotzk to Boston (Boston, 1899), pp. 41-43; Moderne Auswanderer [Modern Emigrants], in Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung 39 (1900), p. 612. During the First World War the German government interned several thousand British civilians as enemy aliens at Ruhleben, only a few hundred yards from the train and disinfection station: J. Davidson Ketchum, Ruhleben: A Prison Camp Society (Toronto, 1965). Back to (1)
  2. Mark Wischnitzer, To Dwell in Safety: The Story of Jewish Migration since 1800 (Philadelphia, 1948), pp. 100-115. Back to (2)
  3. John Torpey, 'The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Passport System', in Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World, ed John Torpey and Jane Caplan (Princeton, 2001), pp. 256-270. Back to (3)
  4. Dirk Hoerder, Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium (Durham, NC, 2002), pp. 331-405; Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (Cambridge, MA, 2006); Richard Evans, Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years 1830-1910 (Oxford, 1987). Back to (4)
  5. Aristide R. Zolberg, 'The Great Wall Against China: Responses to the First Immigration Crisis, 1885-1925', in Migration, Migration History, History, ed. Leo and Jan Lucassen (Berne, 1997), pp. 291-315, here p. 308; Daniel J. Tichenor, Dividing Lines. The Politics of Immigration Control in America (Princeton, 2002), pp. 87-149; Colin Holmes, John Bull's Island. Immigration and British Society (London, 1988). Back to (5)
  6. Jack Wertheimer, Unwelcome Strangers. East European Jews in Imperial Germany, New York (Oxford, 1987), p. 61; Klaus J. Bade, Migration in European History (Oxford, 2003). For Jewish transmigration through Britain see Nicholas J. Evans, 'Journeys', in Migration Histories, http://www.movinghere.org.uk/galleries/histories/jewish/journeys/journeys.htm (accessed 20 July 2006). Back to (6)
  7. Eugene Kulischer, Europe on the Move, War and Population Changes 1917-47 (New York, 1948), pp. 134-135, 171-176; Eric Lohr, Nationalizing the Russian Empire. The Campaign against Enemy Aliens during World War I (Cambridge, MA, 2003); Michael R. Marrus, The Unwanted - European Refugees in the Twentieth Century (New York/Oxford, 1985), pp. 52-80. Back to (7)
  8. Tichenor, Dividing Lines, pp. 114-149; Mae N. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton 2003); David S. Wyman, Paper Walls. America and the Refugee Crisis, 1938-1941 (Amherst 1968). Wyman uses the term for the period 1938-41, but it can be applied to the post-1918 period. Back to (8)
  9. Marrus, The Unwanted; John Hope Simpson defined the refugee in 1939 as the 'unwanted inhabitant of the world, unwanted in the country of his origin, unwanted in any other country'. The Refugee Question (Oxford, 1939), p. 3; for Britain see: Tony Kushner & Katherine Knox, Refugees in an Age of Genocide (London, 1999), esp. pp. 19-102. Back to (9)
  10. Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (New York, 1957), p. 46. For a specimen of a Nansen passport see: http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/collections/lon-un/league_era/nior/docs/niorps001.pdf (accessed 20 July 2006). Back to (10)
  11. Jochen Oltmer, Migration und Politik in der Weimarer Republik (Göttingen, 2005), pp. 219-270. Back to (11)
  12. Delphine Bechtel, La Renaissance Culturelle Juive en Europe Centrale et Orientale, 1897-1930: Langue, Littérature et Construction Nationale (Paris, 2002). Back to (12)
  13. Joseph Roth, Wandering Jews (New York, 2001), pp. 68-71. The original appeared under the title Juden auf Wanderschaft in 1927. Back to (13)

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