“Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian Jews began arriving in 1915….traveling through Siberia to Harbin or Shanghai, then across the Pacific.”
Approximately 8,000 Jews and Russians passed through Angel Island between 1910 and 1940. They included Jews, Baptists, Molokans, and Mennonites who were fleeing religious persecution and military service, people seeking better economic opportunities; those fleeing political persecution under the new Soviet regime; and Jewish refugees seeking a safe haven from Nazism. For them, class, nationality, and political convictions, but not race, were the main criteria for exclusion.
Overall, the Russian and Jewish experiences on Angel Island were very similar to their counterparts on Ellis Island. Fewer than two percent were deported, many because they were deemed “Likely to Become a Public Charge” – in other words, they had few financial resources. There were many ethnic and religious organizations available such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to help them so few were actually deported.
Large numbers of Russian, Polish, and Lithuanian Jews began arriving at Angel Island in 1915. They were mainly men who had left their homes to escape the turmoil of war and military duty. Most of them had to travel through Siberia to Harbin or Shanghai, then across the Pacific. Jewish women and children fleeing the war in Russia began arriving in 1917 and 1918 to join family members mainly on the East Coast. Some were excluded because of a new literacy clause in the 1917 Immigration Act intended to curb the new immigration from Eastern Europe and exclude South Asians.
Unlike Asian immigrants who were given thorough physical examinations, interrogated for hours and detained for weeks until a final decision was made, most European immigrants had an easier time. They were not subject to the same laws as Asians, although the 1924 Immigration Act made it more difficult for those from Southern and Eastern Europe to immigrate than their Northern European counterparts.
At least 500 Jewish refugees made it to San Francisco and Yokohama in 1939 and 1940 to escape Nazi regimes. Many had taken the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Moscow to Vladivostok, which took up to four weeks. From there, they would journey to Japan and then the United States. AIISF has compiled a database of case files of Jewish refugees available in the Station History section of its website, under the Education tab. It also has a number of stories told by Jewish and Russian refugees in its Immigrant Voices website, including Eva Schott Berek, Lotte Loebl Frank and Nick Friesen. Researchers can also find over 800 files of immigrants and refugees from Austria, Germany and Russia at the National Archives in San Bruno. We invite you to share your family’s stories as well.
Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, published 2010 by the Oxford University Press.