German Jewish Immigrants

A Bavarian influx changed the face of American Jewry.


Between 1815 and the eve of the Civil War, two million German-speaking Europeans migrated to the United States. By 1875, the number would grow again by half. From the Atlantic seaboard cities to the new trans-Allegheny states, Swabian and Palatine re­gional dialects [of German] vied with English as a daily vernacular. As early as 1851, a group of German communities actually petitioned Congress to declare the United States a bilingual republic.

Why They Came 

The initial impetus for this human tidal wave was the ruination left by the Napoleonic Wars. Subsequently, agricultural enclosures and the inroads of the early Industrial Revolution merely compounded economic chaos. From 1815 on, by the tens and hundreds of thousands, villagers and city-dwellers alike sought a new future overseas. Their destination of choice was overwhelmingly the United States.

Gottfried Duden’s Report on a Journey to the Western States of North America (1829), with its vivid descriptions of American political and social op­portunities, became a catalyst for hundreds of articles, essays, and books, for innumerable discussions on the New World. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, as individuals and family groups alike, Germans traveled by river barge, by horse and wagon, and by foot; piled up in North Sea port cities; jammed the docks, the streets, the poorhouses; overflowed into the countryside. If they could not afford ocean passage, they signed on as indentured servants.

Jews were among them. Indeed, well before the American Revo­lution, German Jews comprised the majority of Jewish settlement in the colonies. Yet their numbers in the 18th century were minus­cule, and during the Napoleonic Wars their immigration stopped alto­gether. It did not revive until the 1820s. In common with most Central Europeans, Jews suffered from postwar desolation and the trauma of adjustment to a pre-industrial society. In backward southern and west­ern Germany, however, particularly in Bavaria, Baden, Wurttemberg, Hesse, and the Palatinate, Jews experienced an additional refinement of political oppression. Without special letters of “protection” from their governments, they were barred from the normal trades and professions. If a Jewish youth sought to marry, he was obliged to pur­chase a matrikel–a registration certificate costing as much as 1,000 gulden. For that matter, even a matrikel holder had to prove that he was engaged in a “respectable” trade or profession, and large num­bers of young Jews were “unrespectable” peddlers or cattle dealers. Facing an endless bachelorhood, then, many preferred to try their fortunes abroad.

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Howard M. Sachar is the author of numerous books, including A History of Israel, A History of the Jews in America, Farewell Espana, Israel and Europe, and A History of Jews in the Modern World. He is also the editor of the 39-volume The Rise of Israel: A Documentary History. He serves as Professor of Modern History at George Washington University.

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