Over twenty-three million immigrants came to America in the period 1880-1919. For those Eastern European Jews who chose to escape the persecution of their homeland and immigrate to America there was no turning back. In 1851, only one immigrant from Russia was admitted to the United States. In 1890, 35,600 Russian immigrants arrived in the United States; and by 1907 over 259,000 Russian immigrants escaping the “Pale” came to the United States to seek refuge from persecution and economic hardship.
The flight of the European Jewish immigrants was spurred not only by economic exigencies but also by the systematic persecution of an antagonistic government. They could not return to their homeland; few carried with them nostalgic memories of a beloved mother country. John W. Foster, U.S. Ambassador to St. Petersburg, compared the situation of the Jews in Russia to the barbarities of the Dark Ages.
For most modern Americans, the name Castle Garden has little or no meaning but, to the early European immigrants, it meant America. Built originally in 1808-1811 as Castle Clinton, a fort for the defense of New York Harbor, it became Castle Garden, an amusement hall—the scene of Jenny Lind’s American debut in 1850. In 1855 the amusement hall was converted into a reception center for the newly-arrived European immigrants.
As the amount of immigrants increased, the Garden located at the southern tip of Manhattan Island was closed; a former army arsenal on Ellis Island was converted into a reception center in 1892.
Arrival at Castle Garden or Ellis Island did not mean immediate admittance for the immigrants to the New World. Before actually setting foot on American soil, the immigrants had to pass government inspection.
Those immigrants who were without friends or relatives in New York, without letters of employment or money, or incapable of work were sent to Ward’s Island. A few were permanently employed there, but the majority were placed in hospitals and lunatic asylums. The death rate was large after all those able to work and healthy had been drafted off.
Of the actual arrival, George M. Price gave a detailed and somewhat bitter account which first appeared in book form in 1893 (
The Russian Jew in America)
Castle Garden, Price wrote, “is a large building through which all Jewish arrivals must pass to be cleansed before they are considered worthy of breathing freely the air of the land of the almighty dollar. In the spacious courtyard, which is surrounded by high walls so that no one can enter or leave except through the gate, at which are stationed half a dozen guards, those immigrants who have not been admitted to the United States have to find a place for themselves . . .
“About the conveniences of the immigrants,” said Price, “the Americans worry very little. The Europeans they say are unaccustomed to luxury; they can be satisfied with the soiled courtyard of the ‘Gates of Freedom’, as the Yankees call this preliminary prison . . . For about a week, they kept us in this Hades where we had to sleep on the floor under the open skies . . . they finally found accommodations for those who came on our boat . . . some were placed in houses . . . and the rest, among whom was I, they simply expelled from the Gates of Freedom, ‘Go’, they said, ‘our land is big and fruitful, go ahead and live in it by begging.”’
For most of the immigrants, the conditions at Castle Garden and later on Ellis Island, really didn’t matter—they were in sight of the new promised land, America. The Czar, pogroms and the poverty of Europe were behind them; better times, they felt, were ahead in the country whose streets were “paved with gold.”