Ellis Island on the Gulf: Remembering the Galveston Movement

Portrait of Henry Cohen. Photo by Paul Verkin. Courtesy of the Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.
Between 1907 and 1914, 10,000 Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire landed at the Port of Galveston, bound for cities all over the West.

*This story originally aired August 26, 2013.

Pelican Island sits just north of Galveston in Galveston Bay. A century ago, this was one of the nation's busiest immigration stations. And it was here that a handful of Jewish leaders looked to solve one of their most serious problems: Where could they find a haven for Jews fleeing massacres in Czarist Russia?

Sarah Bernstein grew up in White Russia, now Belarus. Her granddaughter, Patricia Bernstein, lives in Bellaire.

"She had a vivid memory of her father sitting up all one night during Passover brandishing a butcher's knife, because he was afraid there was going to be a pogrom in their area, which fortunately never materialized."

For more than two decades, refugees from pogroms had been landing at New York's Ellis Island. The majority settled in New York and other Northeastern cities. Rabbi Jimmy Kessler is rabbi of Galveston's Congregation B'nai Israel.

"Jacob Schiff, who in the late 1800s, early 1900s, was probably the most influential Jew in America, certainly one of the richest, thought the northeast corner was too overpopulated with Jews, giving rise to anti-Semitism."

Schiff feared this would lead to much more restrictive immigration laws. He set up an organization to encourage migrants to land in Galveston instead and settle in the West, where there was less competition for jobs. As an incentive, Schiff subsidized the cost of the long sea voyage.

Helping to coordinate efforts in Galveston was Rabbi Henry Cohen. Patricia Bernstein describes her Grandmother Sarah's arrival.

"She arrived on October 10, 1913, and it also happened to be Kol Nidrei eve, the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement. And the famous rabbi, Henry Cohen of Galveston, who was such a force in Jewish life in Texas, came on board and conducted a service for the Jewish immigrants there."

Most of the new arrivals were soon put on trains. Jewish communities from Colorado to North Dakota took them in and helped them find work. Sarah and her future husband, Charles Hoffman, ended up in Fort Worth. Kansas City took in the most refugees. My great grandfather, Samuel Ertel, stayed there briefly before moving on to Seattle.

Others, Rabbi Kessler says, were intimidated by Texas's wide open spaces.

"If you take a protractor and you make a circle in ever widening dimensions, you'll find all kinds of towns where I think they just got off the train and decided, 'This is far enough. I'm not going anywhere else.'"

Schiff and Cohen's efforts could not hold off the backlash forever. Stricter immigration controls forced them to shut down the Galveston Movement just as the First World War broke out in Europe.  But the legacy of the movement remains, with countless descendants spread all over the country.

Bio photo of Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Business Reporter

Andrew Schneider joined KUHF in January 2011, after more than a decade as a print reporter for The Kiplinger Letter...