Acquiring Knowledge About Migration: The Jewish Origins of Migration Studies

Migration processes and the acquisition of knowledge are inherently intertwined. Knowledge can refer to certain skills that seasonal or return migrants acquire and communicate through networks, often over generations. Networks connect migrants and serve as repositories of knowledge. Distinguishing between different actors (such as migrants, employers, or state officials handling migrants) or between various institutions and organizations (including migrant self-help associations) makes it possible to disentangle different layers of “migrant knowledge,” including knowledge about migration. Of course, the latter also describes scholarly attempts to make sense of migration. Little has been written about the history of studying migration. The scholarship about Jewish migration is no exception. In the following paragraphs, I want to discuss two aspects that illustrate the impact knowledge about Jewish migration has made on general migration studies: the origins of studying Jewish migration outside the academic sphere, on the one hand, and the role of several Jewish social scientists and historians in shaping the conceptual foundations of migration studies in the United States during the middle decades of the twentieth century, on the other.

Like many scholars working on migration, I first began studying immigrant adaptation and community building in a city. My dissertation examined the origins of the Jewish community in mid-nineteenth-century Chicago. I examined how Jews hailing from small rural communities in Central Europe adapted to a rapidly expanding industrial city in the American Midwest whose inhabitants were overwhelmingly other European immigrants. Unlike in Europe at the time, the American state did not meddle in religious affairs and Jews were not required to belong to an organized Jewish community. Soon after the first Jews from small Bavarian villages settled in Chicago in the 1840s, they formed religious congregations and small self-help associations. Early on, religion emerged as a major source of conflict within the community. A secular umbrella organization, the United Hebrew Relief Association (UHRA) was established in 1859 to overcome growing divisions by providing a social safety net. The UHRA resembled a traditional Jewish communal organization but was much more loosely organized and strictly secular to avoid any conflicts. The number of newly arriving Jewish migrants increased sharply in Chicago during the second half of the nineteenth century. Supporting large numbers of immigrants in need became the central focus of the UHRA, which owed its existence to recently arrived immigrants.1

Annual reports from the UHRA of Chicago are online at the Internet Archive for 1860–63 and at HathiTrust for the 1890s.

This organization’s annual reports shed light on the origins and evolution of an American-style Jewish community. As the community expanded, the reports offered more details about newly arriving immigrants and the impact of mass immigration in and beyond Chicago. The reports illustrated a shift from collecting information and data to the production of applied knowledge and thus the professionalization of the organization. Initially, businessmen managed the organization’s affairs, even handling the disbursement of cash and food. As more immigrants kept arriving, collecting information and data was not enough. The leadership expressed the need to formulate sustained policies to address poverty. By the 1880s, professional social workers and administrators were replacing volunteers. Social workers visited immigrant families in their homes to study poverty and provide advice about hygiene and education. The organization funded a number of Americanization projects, a school, agricultural colonies, and the establishment of social workers in the heart of the immigrant neighborhood. The reports evince a swift transition from collecting information to researching and addressing social problems on the basis of acquired knowledge. This change correlated with a shift from stereotypical perceptions of migrants to more differentiated assessments of social problems.

The example of the UHRA shows that Jewish (and general) migration emerged as a subject of serious study and public debate on the local level decades before academics became interested in immigration in connection with emerging disciplines in the social sciences. The first detailed studies about immigrants in industrializing cities, so-called social surveys, were compiled by social workers in settlements in London, New York, and Chicago after 1880. When pioneering urban sociologists like Louis Wirth and other students of the so-called Chicago school, led by Ernest Burgess and Robert E. Park, began to conduct field research in Chicago’s immigrant neighborhoods in the 1920s, they acknowledged the work of communal organizations representing different immigrant groups and social settlements.2

By 1900, Jewish community organizations existed in most American cities. European Jewish communities also transformed as more Jews moved to and through rapidly expanding cities during the second half of the nineteenth century. A significant number of the two million Eastern European Jews who embarked on the journey to the United States between 1870 and 1914 benefitted from an efficient Jewish support network along the main transit routes in Europe and at the ports of entry in the United States. Several Jewish aid organizations assisted local communities with the coordination, in particular the Paris-based Alliance Israèlite Universelle and the German Jewish Hilfsverein (aid association). The reports of these organizations contain extensive information about migration routes, immigration policies, and the political and economic situation of Jewish migrants in Eastern Europe.3

The professional work of Jewish aid associations prepared the ground for the emerging scholarship about Jewish migration during the first decades of the twentieth century. An early example is a detailed 1905 essay about Jewish migration from Eastern Europe by Bernhard Kahn, the first executive director of the Hilfsverein in Berlin. During the 1920s, Kahn coordinated European aid projects for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).4 His successor at the Hilfsverein, Mark Wischnitzer, managed the assistance for a large number of Eastern European Jews who had been displaced during and after the First World War and for German Jewish emigrants after 1933. In 1943, the American Jewish Committee commissioned Wischnitzer to compile a survey of Jewish migrations because its leaders expected that most surviving Jews in Europe would be permanently displaced for years. The intended purpose of Wischnitzer’s 1948 study, To Dwell in Safety: The Story of Jewish Migration Since 1800, was to make knowledge about Jewish migration history accessible to Jewish community leaders, political decision makers, and a wider Jewish public. To Dwell in Safety remains the most comprehensive study of Jewish migration between 1800 and 1948.

Wischnitzer’s own migration and career trajectory as a Jewish scholar and aid worker were closely related. He grew up in the Russian Empire, attended high school in Austria, and obtained a PhD in history at Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelms University in 1905. Until 1914, he subsisted on a limited income in St. Petersburg working on a Jewish encyclopedia project and teaching courses at a small Jewish college. After fighting in the Austrian army during the war and a doing a brief stint as a journalist in London in 1919/20, he realized that an academic career was not a viable option. In 1921, he accepted an offer to oversee the affairs of the Hilfsverein. Wischnitzer only began publishing about Jewish migration after 1938, when he left Nazi Germany with his family. He found employment in Paris with the JDC but was forced to flee when German troops invaded. Like most Jews from Eastern Europe, he was unable to secure a U.S. immigration visa, and so he was stranded in Marseilles in 1940. At the last minute, Joseph Rosen, a friend from the JDC, helped Wischnitzer obtain a visa for the Dominican Republic, where Rosen directed an agricultural colony project for Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. Wischnitzer eventually secured a U.S. immigration visa in 1941 and could join his wife and son, who had been able to reach New York the previous year.

His case was not unique. Quite a few of the scholars who wrote about migration and displacement were very much part of the story they wrote about. The most famous example, of course, is Hannah Arendt whose texts about statelessness and displacement were a product of her own flight. The term “displaced persons” was coined in 1943 by Eugene Kulischer, a Russian Jewish demographer who escaped from Europe to New York in 1941 on a path similar to Arendt’s and Wischnitzer’s. Today Kulischer is regarded as one of the founding figures of historical migration studies.5

Widespread anti-Semitism at American research universities during the interwar period created significant obstacles for refugee scholars like Wischnitzer and Kulischer, who were not well known when they arrived in the United States in the early 1940s stateless. Wischnitzer was able to secure a position in the small but relatively sheltered sphere of Jewish aid associations before being appointed to a professorship at a small private Jewish university when he was sixty-six years old. Kulischer’s silence on Jewish migration (and the Holocaust) in his influential study Europe on the Move from 1948 was almost certainly an attempt to gain acceptance for his work among an academic establishment that regarded Jews as unwelcome outsiders.6

In an ironic twist, anti-Semitic exclusion but also a commitment to preserving Jewish identity partly explain why several secular American Jewish social scientists helped lay the conceptual foundations of American immigration and ethnic studies during the middle decades of the twentieth century. New fields in the social sciences were slightly more welcoming for young Jewish graduate students during the 1920s than established disciplines such as history, which excluded most Jews. Between the 1920s and early 1960s, several Jewish social scientists redefined key sociological concepts such as assimilation, acculturation, and pluralism. The pragmatist philosopher Horace Kallen rejected the “ideal” of a homogenous society, arguing that democracy in the United States depended on cultural pluralism. Kallen and other Jewish scholars were insiders who had an acute sense of being outsiders.

A less obvious case is the anthropologist Melville Herskovits, today regarded as one of the founders of African and African American Studies. Herskovits grew up in small towns in the American Midwest and Texas as the son of Jewish immigrants. After his graduation from Columbia University he struggled for several years to find an academic position. It is likely but not possible to definitely prove that widespread but informal anti-Semitism in academia was a reason. In a 1927 article, Herskovits traced the “feeling” of difference by Jews and African Americans to prejudice. This was just before he managed to secure a full-time teaching position at Northwestern University in 1927. His research in Suriname in the late 1920s demonstrated the “survival” of cultural traditions of African slaves—a finding reflected in the influential redefinition of the acculturation concept he and two colleagues proposed in 1936. They defined acculturation as the encounter between groups of different cultural backgrounds and “subsequent changes in the original cultural patterns of either or both groups.” This definition constituted a departure from the more traditional view of immigrant cultures’ complete cultural submersion in a supposedly homogeneous and dominant host society.7

More work has to be done on the history of scholarly migration studies within and beyond the academic sphere. Jewish scholars and proto-scholars (notably aid workers) contributed in important ways to the interdisciplinary study of migration, but so did members of other migrant groups who were the subject of academic and proto-academic study by members of their own group. This applies, to give just one example, to Polish-speaking migrants, the subject of an influential 1918 study by William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki.8 At the same time, it is important to look beyond specific migrant groups. Immigration and ethnic studies have flourished since the 1960s, based in part on the conceptual work of Kallen, Herskovits, and others. But the ethnic paradigm in immigration studies has inherent limitations because most authors tend to focus on a single (often their own) group, neglecting comparative perspectives and marginal groups that highlight the fluidity of ethnic boundaries.

Tobias Brinkmann is Malvin and Lea Bank Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and History at the Pennsylvania State University.


  1. Tobias Brinkmann, Von der Gemeinde zur “Community”: Jüdische Einwanderer in Chicago 18401900 (Osnabrück: Universitätsverlag Rasch, 2002); Tobias Brinkmann, Sundays at Sinai: A Jewish Congregation in Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012). ↩︎
  2. Charles Zeublin, “The Chicago Ghetto,” in Hull House Maps and Papers: A Presentation of Nationalities and Wages in a Congested District of Chicago, ed. Residents of Hull House (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1895), 91–114; The Social Survey in Historical Perspective 1880–1940, ed. Martin Bulmer, Kevin Bales, and Kathryn Sklar Kish (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Louis Wirth, The Ghetto (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1928). ↩︎
  3. Tobias Brinkmann, “The Road from Damascus: Transnational Jewish Philanthropic Organizations and the Jewish Mass Migration from Eastern Europe 1860–1914,” in Shaping the Transnational Sphere: Experts, Networks, and Issues from the 1840s to the 1930s, ed. Davide Rodogno, Jakob Vogel, and Bernhard Struck (New York: Berghahn Books, 2015), 152–72. ↩︎
  4. Bernhard Kahn, “Die jüdische Auswanderung,” Ost und West [Berlin], July and August 1905, 457–80. ↩︎
  5. Mark Wischnitzer, To Dwell in Safety: The Story of Jewish Migration Since 1800 (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1948); New York Times, October 18, 1955 (Obituary Mark Wischnitzer); Allen Wells, Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009); Eugene Kulischer, The Displacement of Population in Europe (Montreal: Inland Press, 1943); Hannah Arendt The Jewish Writings, ed. Jerome Kohn, Ron H. Feldman (New York: Schocken, 2007). ↩︎
  6. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, 1951); Eugene M. Kulischer, Europe on the Move: War and Population Changes, 19171947 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1948). ↩︎
  7. Daniel Greene, The Jewish Origins of Cultural Pluralism: The Menorah Association and American Diversity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011); Robert Redfield, Ralph Linton, and Melville J. Herskovits, “Memorandum for the Study of Acculturation,” American Anthropologist New Series, 38 (1936) 1: 149–52; Jerry Gershenhorn, Melville Herskovits and the Racial Politics of Knowledge (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2004); Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955); Milton M. Gordon, Assimilation in American Life: The Role of Race, Religion, and National Origins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). ↩︎
  8. Florian Znaniecki and William I. Thomas, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America: Monograph of an Immigrant Group, 4 vols. (Boston: Gorham Press, 1918–20). ↩︎
Suggested citation: Tobias Brinkmann, “Acquiring Knowledge About Migration: The Jewish Origins of Migration Studies,” Migrant Knowledge, September 25, 2019, https://migrantknowledge.org/2019/09/25/acquiring-knowledge-about-migration/.