Most famous for her poem “The New Colossus” displayed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, many assume that Emma Lazarus was an immigrant herself. In truth, she was born a fourth-generation American who was inspired by the plights of refugees around the world to write the poem that won its place on one of the most iconic structures. Less well-known are the many factors and ideologies that helped her become a spokesperson for liberty and freedom in America.
Overlooking the Statue of Liberty just across New York harbor, the Museum featured Emma’s story in a 2011 exhibition Emma Lazarus: A Poet in Exile. This exhibition highlighted the ways in which Emma’s Sephardic, Jewish heritage influenced her in composing her enduring poem “The New Colossus.”
The exhibition was presented in the following sections:
FAMILY AND FREEDOMS
Many of Emma’s ancestors were leaders, particularly among the Jewish community. Colonial America posed both opportunities and obstacles, and Emma’s family worked to advocate freedom for all. Emma was raised in a well-respected and upper-class family in New York City. The decades of her youth posed new challenges to her generation – including the Civil War, labor unrest, and waves of immigration. Lessons from her ancestors would prove to be great influences in preparing Emma to be a spokesperson for liberty.
FINDING A LITERARY VOICE
Emma enjoyed great intellectual freedom during her childhood, as she was raised in a household that valued education and learning. Taking full advantage of her father’s library, Emma’s development as a poet was rapid, and her writing spanned a range of topics, from history and current events to her experience as a young Jewish woman.
At eighteen, she was invited to a social event where she met Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was through him that Emma met a large circle of literary figures who would encourage her interest in society and the natural world.
As Emma’s own career and influence blossomed, reaching its height in the 1870s and 1880s, she became aware of heightened antisemitism. Her concern for the plight of fellow Jews around the world crystallized after theassassination of Tsar Alexander II set off a wave of pogroms (anti-Jewish riots) throughout the Russian Empire. The consequent surge of immigrants to the U.S.would become the focus of her work from then on.
By the summer of 1882, more than 2,000 Jewish refugees entered New York each month. As Castle Garden, the gateway for immigrants that pre-dated Ellis Island, reached capacity, many were redirected to Ward’s Island. Emma observed the Jewish Russian refugees from a great societal distance but was determined to not let it interfere with her desire to help others or ability to wield her influence on their behalf. At Ward’s Island, Emma visited the refuge with Rabbi Gottheil and Philip Cowen, editor of The American Hebrew. In June 1882, The American Hebrew published three of Emma’s poems, which addressed what she observed at Ward’s Island.
Emma advocated for several programs designed to help Jewish refugees acclimate to life in New York City, including technical training in her serial column “An Epistle to the Hebrews.” Her work inspired the founding of the Hebrew Technical Institute in 1884 – a school that trained Jewish boys ages twelve to fifteen in subjects such as woodworking, casting, and physics. This work and the column cemented her position as a spokesperson on issues affecting the Jewish community. In it, she tested the boundaries of conventional attitudes with ideas that well surpassed those of mainstream society.
Emma constantly negotiated her position of insider versus outsider on her mission to help refugees. While her Jewish identity evolved through her published writings, her social position distanced her from the struggles of the refugees she was trying to help. The persecution of Jews overseas was a crisis that consumed Emma. By 1882, her deep concern for Russian Jewish immigrants had emboldened her to take risks politically and intellectually.
SONNET & STATUE
Emma’s concern for the plights of Russian Jews had expanded to encompass all of those in exile by 1883.
It was also in 1883 that a colossal statue was being constructed as a gift to the U.S. from the people of France in the name of liberty. Meanwhile, Americans were tasked with raising funds for the construction of its pedestal. It was then that Emma’s friend asked her to compose a poem for the Pedestal Art Loan Exhibition. The resulting poem, “The New Colossus,” laid out her extraordinary vision where she imagines refugees as children of a new nation. Emma’s poem was the opening piece of the folio and was read aloud at the exhibition’s opening.
After Emma’s death in 1887 and as the nineteenth century ended, “The New Colossus” had largely been forgotten. However, in 1901, Georgina Schuyler – a friend of Emma’s – decided to unite the poem with its subject. After two years, the poem was installed inside the base of the statue on a bronze plaque.
Emma Lazarus composed “The New Colossus” in 1883, at the beginning of what would become a great wave of immigration into the U.S., though its message is universally relevant to this day. Between 1886 and 1924, fourteen million immigrants entered America through New York. Though she died at only thirty-eight years old, her voice in “The New Colossus” would welcome all immigrants arriving in the U.S. as one of the most beloved and iconic texts in American life.
Her advocacy on behalf of Jewish immigrants and influence within the nineteenth-century Jewish American community converge with the Museum’s constant mission to educate the public on the topic of Jewish heritage. The story of Emma Lazarus, her writings, and her vision for the best of humanity stand as an example in lessons of acceptance and leadership that remain central to the Museum’s mission.