Reprinted with permission from Writing Out Lives: Autobiographies of American Jews, 1890-1990, edited by Steven J. Rubin (Jewish Publication Society).
Mary Antin (1881-1949) immigrated to the United States in 1894 from Polotzk, Russia. In 1912, she published her autobiography, The Promised Land–one of the first English-language American-Jewish autobiographies. The introduction to the following excerpt says of Antin’s memoir: “It is in many ways a paradigm of immigrant autobiography: the classic story of assimilation, told with enthusiasm and hope for the future. It remains today one of the most memorable and vivid depictions of Americanization….” Nevertheless, as the following excerpt makes clear, the family faced the difficulties many newcomers to the U.S. encountered.
Anybody who knows Boston knows that the West and North Ends are the wrong ends of that city. They form the tenement district, or, in the newer phrase, the slums of Boston. Anybody who is acquainted with the slums of any American metropolis knows that that is the quarter where poor immigrants foregather, to live, for the most part, as unkempt, half-washed, toiling, unaspiring foreigners; pitiful in the eyes of social missionaries, the despair of boards of health, the hope of ward politicians, the touchstone of American democracy.
The well-versed metropolitan knows the slums as a sort of house of detention for poor aliens, where they live on probation till they can show a certificate of good citizenship.
First Impressions of a New Home
He may know all this and yet not guess how Wall Street, in the West End, appears in the eyes of a little immigrant from Polotzk. What would the sophisticated sight-seer say about Union Place, off Wall Street, where my new home waited for me? He would say that it is no place at all, but a short box of an alley. Two rows of three-story tenements are its sides, a stingy strip of sky is its lid, a littered pavement is the floor, and a narrow mouth its exit.
But I saw a very different picture on my introduction to Union Place. I saw two imposing rows of brick buildings, loftier than any dwelling I have ever lived in. Brick was even on the ground for me to tread on, instead of common earth or boards. Many friendly windows stood open, filled with uncovered heads of women and children. I thought the people were interested in us, which was very neighborly. I looked up to the topmost row of windows, and my eyes were filled with the May blue of an American sky!