Starting Over: The Experience of German Jews in America, 1830-1945

Members of the "Stammtisch", a weekly meeting of German-speaking Jews in New York, in front of the Kleine Konditorei, circa 1982

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Leo Baeck Institute at the Center for Jewish History, a landmark year that coincides with a milestone in American history: the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews to America which will be celebrated in a major exhibition sponsored by the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History.

Starting Over: The Experience of German Jews in America, 1830-1945, will contribute to this broader theme with photos, letters, documents, sketches, paintings, maps, medals and other rare artifacts of German-Jews who settled across the United States. Many documents will be on view for the first time. “Many immigrants [German Jews] played a significant role in shaping a wide array of contemporary issues in the arts or in professional careers …assuming an American identity that was enhanced by its German Jewish influence, much as the American culture was enhanced by the sensibilities of the newcomers. They became active in Hollywood, on Broadway, in the arts, in publishing and in religion, especially in the Reform and Conservative movements. German Jews also established organizations such as: Hadassah, B’nai B’rith, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the National Jewish Welfare Board that continue to flourish.

Given the wealth of documents in the LBI archives on the German Jewish immigration to the United States, Ms. Strauss explains the sequence and background of how the exhibition is organized; “The émigré experience can be divided into pre-Nazi immigration of those taking risks to seek better opportunities and the Hitler-era arrival of disenfranchised Central Europeans fleeing for their lives.” The material on view is displayed in four sections:

Leaving Home surveys the restrictive decrees and quotas that prompted thousands of Jews throughout German-speaking countries to leave their families and countries in search of a better life in America.

New Horizons looks at the journey of 19th century émigrés, some rising from peddlers to tycoons, while most simply took advantage of new opportunities to create comfortable and secure lives.

The Nazi Years explores the wave of immigrants from Central Europe rushing onto American shores. Many settled in New York, arriving with impressive artistic, cultural and intellectual credentials. Some prominent intellectual writers, and musicians were able to blend into American culture immediately, but most newcomers struggled with low-paying jobs, while trying to learn English or earn an American degree. Self-reliant and determined, many of the refugees fared extremely well.

To Preserve and to Remember tells the history of the Leo Baeck Institute. Its library, archives, art and photo collections have become the foremost repository for the collective history of the German-Jewish experience. Founded in 1955, the Institute was named in honor of Rabbi Leo Baeck, who was the last leader of the German Jewish community under the Nazi regime and the Institute’s first president, LBI maintains an archive in the Jewish Museum Berlin.

May 17 through December 29, 2005 at Leo Baeck Institute


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