Why I Came to America

“’We live in a land of strangers, where there is no soil for the seeds of our activity to find roots. Remember, David, we are strangers!’”

Library of Congress

A gloomy cloud was lowering over the Jewish community. Men walked with their eyes cast down. Women and children shunned the streets. Rumors were flying in the air, fixing different dates for riots to break out against the Jews; and the slightest quarrel between Jew and Gentile in the marketplace, a sight by no means unusual, was sufficient cause for a panic to break out in the adjacent streets, and sometimes even to sweep the entire city.

Representatives of the community called first on the chief of police, and then on the governor; but the answer they received, judging by their sad looks, was not at all satisfactory. Then the more active element of the young people called a secret meeting. The situation was discussed from all points of view. Stirring speeches were made by different speakers, and attention was called to the fact that the government could not be relied on. The massacre of Kishinev was recalled, and analogies drawn. Finally the formation of a league of self-defense was agreed upon, and an appeal for such a union was thereupon made to the younger people.

The appeal met with hearty response. Young men from different classes of society rushed with enthusiasm to enlist in the league. Three companies were then formed, almost all of whose members were supplied with some kind of weapon from a special fund raised for that purpose. The city was divided into districts and sections, and plans were laid out to provide for common and uniform activity of the different companies.

The Jews were now beginning to regain their self-confidence. Almost all believed that some form of remedy had been found against the Russian ‘pogrom.’ Many of them, believing that the ‘Black Hundred’ would give up their plans as soon as they learned of the considerable risk involved in their contemplated attack upon the Jews, even argued that a collision could possibly be avoided. In short, the Jews of our city were determined, by an example of bold resistance and self-sacrifice, to point out to their brethren throughout the country a new way leading to their security.

In the jubilant choir of confident voices the only unharmonious note was that of the old and pious. These, watching the activity of the younger generation, only doubtfully nodded their heads, and repeatedly quoted, ‘Unless the Lord guard the city, in vain is the watchman wakeful.’

One of these was the father of my dear friend, David. I well remember one summer evening, when David and I had just returned from a meeting of the league. We were all sitting at the table in his house. The kerosene lamp spread a gloomy light throughout the room. Dead silence prevailed, and no one, it seemed, dared to say the first word.

Suddenly David’s father rose from his seat, casting a shadow on the wall. He was a man of about fifty years of age. He was tall and erect, but his hair and beard were as white as snow, and his brow, high and impressive, was covered with deep wrinkles. He began to pace up and down the room. His steps, like those of a belated passer-by on a deserted street, broke sadly on the quiet of the room.

I do not know how long he kept up his walking, but I suddenly perceived him as he stood right before David, as if he were trying to penetrate him with his sad look. At last he broke the silence.

‘Were you there again, David?’

David understood perfectly well what his father meant by ‘there,’ but did not reply. His father waited a few seconds and then continued, —

‘You were there again, David. Your father’s words and your mother’s tears do not seem to carry any weight with you. You young people believe yourselves wiser than your old-fashioned parents, — yes, and better, too. What is it, David, that draws you into the society of those heretics? Is it your love and devotion to our people? But were not your ancestors equally devoted to their people? And have they not always been treated as step-sons, nay, as outlaws? Has not their property always been exposed, and have not their lives been unprotected? Has not this been the case ever since they have come to this bloody land? Have they ever attempted to protect their lives by such fatal means as you wise folks do nowadays? They knew they were in a strange land, — do not start, David, this land never has been our fatherland, and never will be, — and to suffer was the lot that fell to strangers. But, above all, they remembered that their only hope was in God. Now, David, have you lost what was most noble in the character of our ancestors? Have you lost faith in God?’

It was not the first time David had heard such a speech, but I could see the tremendous impression his father’s words made upon him. He could not, however, refrain from answering. He spoke of changes in time and conditions, of the rôle of activity in forging man’s fate, of one great common cause, and all the rest.

His father listened gravely to his words, looked once more into his face and then began again: —

‘My boy, you have no experience in this world; you are only eighteen years old. I am fifty-one. Do you see my gray hair and the wrinkles on my forehead? My head was once covered with locks as black as yours, and my brow was as smooth as calm water. But it was experience that turned the first gray, and covered the latter with deep wrinkles. Now mark my words. Your labor is futile, and your sacrifices are in vain. For we live in a land of strangers, where there is no soil for the seeds of our activity to find roots. Remember, David, we are strangers!’

He was almost shouting. A wild fire was burning in his eyes. His pathetic figure was like that of an ancient prophet. For a minute or so he remained near David. Then he turned quickly and left the room I also departed, and went home in a most depressed mood.

The ‘pogrom’ took place sooner than had been expected. At first the bands of tramps, of whom the rioters were composed, were driven back by the league. But when, beyond the hooligans, appeared the police, followed by a company of soldiers, every hope of a successful resistance was gone. The soldiers for the first time in the history of recent pogroms, openly joined the rioters, and one of the bloodiest massacres followed. A large part of the city was burned down, most of the Jewish stores were robbed, synagogues were destroyed, the holy scrolls defiled, hundreds of Jews were wounded, and the number of dead reached scores. Among the latter was David.

Two days later, I stood at his grave. It was one in a long row of graves consecrated to the victims of the events of the last two days. Near me stood David’s father. His tall figure was bent and broken down. His lips were as mute as those of his dead son. Only his upper lip convulsively trembled every few seconds. Around us, women were bewailing their husbands, mothers their children, and children their parents. Here and there, a woman lost consciousness and was carried away from the bodies of her beloved ones. Heart-rending cries filled the air with agony. And in that chaos of agony I could distinguish but one clear voice, — it was that of David’s father. ‘This country has never been our fatherland and never will be! We are strangers!’ And heaven and earth seemed to reply in one sounding echo, ‘Strangers! Strangers!’ And for the first time it dawned upon me that my fate was no longer connected with that of the country in which I was born.