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  • Susan Weinberg

Finding Their Way to Minnesota

Updated: May 10, 2022

I write you per your request to let you know how I am doing. . . I like the city very much. It reminds me very much of my old home in Romania, the rooms are very large, there is a nice lawn in front of the house and a fine well that we draw water from… When we left you ask(ed) us to send you our countrymen and friends if we found the place to our liking. As I like the place and find it a very good place for people to make a good living, I would like to have a cousin of mine sent who is a hat maker and is out of work in New York where he has been for eight months.

This is one of the letters that were sent to the Industrial Removal Office (IRO) in New York. What are they removing? This oddly named organization existed in the early 1900s with the objective of moving Jews out of New York to the interior of the United States. About 1400 of them came to Minnesota, perhaps some of your ancestors. In the first ten years of the century, the peak immigration period, the IRO moved 55,000 Jews to almost 2000 cities across the United States. By the time they closed their doors in 1922, they had moved 79,000 Jews. But those numbers capture only part of the story. As illustrated in the letter, a successful placement had a ripple effect as family and friends in New York and their town overseas followed them to their destination. The IRO estimated that each person drew at least five additional people who would have otherwise settled in New York and other large cities on the East Coast.

In 1900, New York had 500,000 Jews, the largest Jewish population in the world. That concentration, largely in the Lower East Side, created problems in sanitation, disease and crime. It was fertile ground for radical movements that drew attention to this immigrant population. The IRO was staffed by more established German American Jews who sought to quickly Americanize these new immigrants and mitigate the risk of anti-Semitism. Getting them out of New York was one of their strategies.

The IRO assisted Jewish immigrants with transportation and work. They had networks in cities across the country. A committee and designated representative determined how many people they could absorb and assisted them in finding work that used their prior training and provided an appropriate income. Often they were reuniting families or helping a person who was unable to find satisfactory work in New York. Depending on need, they might underwrite some portion of the transportation cost.

Local employers soon learned that they were a source of employees and sent them requests. Sometimes they encountered questions such as this: Mr. L desires us to write to you in his behalf and ask whether it will make any difference if he would refrain from working on Saturdays. He is a very pious Jew, and at his age, 54, it would be too much to ask him to make so radical a change in his religious life as to violate the Sabbath. He is a very fine gentleman and if you could make some concession in this matter and employ him with the understanding that Sabbath labor will not be required of him, you will be doing a meritorious act.(the company agreed)

The IRO also did periodic surveys of the growing Jewish communities so they could tell their future residents what to expect. Their 1906 surveys covered Minneapolis, Duluth, Eveleth, Chisholm, Hibbing and Winona. Their first question - how far away was the location was from New York? Each community reported at least one Orthodox synagogue while Duluth reported two Orthodox, one Reform and several Hebrew schools, lodges and social clubs. Minneapolis, with a population of 265,000 in 1906 and 5000-8000 Jews, noted nine congregations, of which one was Reform, and many Hebrew schools and lodges. Several respondents commented that winters were very cold to assure that no one was surprised upon arrival.

Curious about whether your family used the IRO to get to Minnesota? Read the next blog post to learn how you can find out.

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