“I see that you are the real doctors, bringing people back to life again. You need not look far, but take me as a living example.” Thus wrote one Chaim Zadik Lubin, a native of Russia, in 1906 to an American-Jewish charity called the Industrial Removal Office (IRO), to thank it for arranging for his relocation, along with his wife and daughter, from New York City—where he was down and out—to Wichita, Kansas, where its agents found him gainful employment. Lubin’s letter was one of hundreds, not all nearly so appreciative, written to the IRO by its beneficiaries, which can be found in the now-defunct organization’s archives. Robert Rockaway describes the organization’s activities and shares some of the letters:
German American Jewish leaders created the IRO in 1901 to remove unemployed East European Jewish immigrants from New York City and relocate them throughout the United States to smaller cities where Jewish communities and jobs existed. From its inception to its liquidation in 1922, the IRO dispatched 79,000 Jews to more than 1,000 American towns and cities. The IRO enlisted the cooperation of the local Jewish communities to secure employment and housing for the men they sent and to ease their settlement into the communities. The central office in New York City was staffed primarily by German-American Jews, who exhibited the same ambivalent attitudes toward the newcomers as did other German Jewish philanthropists.
A number of factors motivated the German Jewish leaders to create this organization. By 1900, New York held more than 500,000 Jews, the largest Jewish population of any city in the world. The unending flow of Jewish immigrants into New York’s Lower East Side generated enormous problems for the immigrants and the city’s Jewish establishment. Packed together in the Jewish quarter, the newcomers endured filth, poor sanitation, disease, and soaring rates of delinquency and crime. Dispersing the immigrants would alleviate some of these problems. It would also ease the immense burden placed upon New York’s Jewish charities by hundreds of indigent and sick newcomers.
Another factor also influenced the IRO’s founders. They and other native-born American Jewish leaders believed that New York’s huge East European Jewish enclave offered a prime breeding ground for radical movements such as socialism and anarchism. Detaching the immigrants from this environment and shipping them to smaller Jewish communities in the Midwest, South, and West would forestall their subversion and facilitate their Americanization.
IRO leaders, like others of their class, also worried that even the most admirable and assimilated American Jews would be judged as being no better than the worst of the immigrants. So they took measures that they believed would protect their own standing. They hoped that distributing the immigrants and thus aiding their Americanization would enhance the image of the Jew in the eyes of the general public and lessen anti-Semitism.