Staying Jewish on the Arizona Frontier

The Drachman family played a very important role in the foundation of Jewish life on the Arizona frontier.

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In 1852, a boat landed in New York carrying among its many passengers the members of two Polish-Jewish families who were destined to change the history of Arizona. One family’s name is well known: the Goldwaters. The other family, the Drachmans, is less well known, but in the early years of Arizona Jewish history, no less important.

When he was only ten years old and living in a Pietrokov near Lodz, Poland, Philip Drachman’s parents decided that he and his younger brother Samuel would someday flee to America rather than, at age 13, be drafted into the Czar’s army. According to a family memoir, the boys’ parents removed floorboards from a room in their home and started digging a cellar in which Philip and then Samuel were hidden. “At night,” the account goes, “they would carry the soil out of the house and spread it over the ground so it would not be noticed. This went on for months and months.”

When Russian army officials came to find Philip, they were told that he had run away. Actually, he was in the cellar, where he lived for several months while his parents made arrangements to secret the two brothers to America. The memoir concludes, “Philip had health problems most of his adult life, and he felt they stemmed from the months he had spent in the damp hole underneath his home. It was said that he first came to Arizona for the warm, dry climate. Thus he may have been Tucson’s first health seeker!”

At age 16, Philip Drachman and his brother Samuel, age 13, arrived in New York after living for a time in England. Samuel moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Philip chose to pioneer the virtually undeveloped Arizona Territory. Philip became a naturalized American citizen in 1860 and by 1864 a successful landowner, cattle rancher, and retail merchant. In 1867, he persuaded his brother Samuel to abandon the civility of Charleston for the desert starkness and economic opportunity of Tucson.

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Michael Feldberg, Ph.D. is executive director of the George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom. From 1991 to 2004, he served as executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, the nation's oldest ethnic historical organization, and from 2004 to 2008 was its director of research.

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