World War I and Rising Nationalism

Headline from Pittsburgh Post, June 3, 1919

As the First World War erupted across Europe, Pittsburghers mobilized to raise money, aware that these funds could only help so much. Jewish communities of Europe were devastated, but movement during this period was nearly impossible.

Toward the end of World War I, the Russian Revolution provided a temporary sense of optimism for the long-suffering Jews of Eastern Europe. These hopes were quickly dashed. Between 1918 and 1920, civil war broke out across Russia, and over 60,000 Jews were murdered in pogroms. Scholars have stated:  “in the history of modern Jewish suffering, only the Nazi Holocaust obscures the memory of the Eastern European inferno during and after World War I.”

As World War I ended, a nativist haze descended on the nation; Jews were targeted as un-American, unacceptable, or suspicious because of their religion, alleged ideas, activities, and presumed “race.” Immigration resumed, but the attitude of suspicion only grew.

David Reed

Decades of backlash against immigrants culminated in 1924 with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Restriction Act. United States Senator David Reed, one of the men who cosponsored this bill, was a Pittsburgher. He was one of many Americans who believed immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe would prove unable or unwilling to assimilate into American life, that they would not appreciate or support America’s democratic institutions and would undermine America from within.

“[It is a pity that] some of our bitterest restrictionists cannot be made to see face to face the rising second generation of Eastern Jewry! I wish I had the magic power to conjure up the presence of the Johnsons and the Reeds and some of the other ‘one hundred percenters’ to accompany me…through the halls and classrooms of our bustling settlement, located in the very heart of the Ghetto, and expressive of some of the highest aspirations and ideals of American life.”

-Irvin Lehman, president of Pittsburgh Foundation of Jewish Philanthropies
Irvin Lehman

In 1927 there was an immigration quota of only 150,000 immigrants to the United States per year. In 1929, the stock market plummeted and the Great Depression began, and Jews were blamed for the economic downturn. Eventually the president ordered denial of passports abroad because of vast U.S. unemployment during the Great Depression. This was the atmosphere in America before 1933, the year that Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany.