Good Americans: Italian and Jewish Immigrants during the First World War

By Christopher M. Sterba | Go to book overview
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Introduction
The Melting Pot Goes to War

Private Abraham Krotoshinsky was in serious trouble on the night of October 7, 1918. A member of the famous “Lost Battalion” surrounded in the Argonne Forest, Krotoshinsky had made his way through enemy positions in a desperate attempt to find relief for his starving and casualtyridden unit. By sprinting through machine-gun fire, inching along flat on his stomach, and even pretending to be a corpse, he had eluded capture for more than ten hours.“Then my real trouble began,” he recalled, as he neared American trenches.“I was coming from the German lines and my English is none too good. I was afraid they would shoot me for a German before I could explain who I was.” Deciding to call out “hello” several times, “since [the enemy] never used that expression when he tried to talk English,” the young Polish Jew was able to convince nearby doughboys that he too was a U.S. soldier. Despite the fact that he had gone through the same process of training and combat duty as his American-born comrades, his eastern European background nearly cost him his life. 1

The image of Krotoshinsky caught in the middle of No Man's Land suggests both the extent and the limits of the Great War as an acculturating experience for millions of southern and eastern European immigrants in the United States. These “New Immigrants,” as they were popularly known, arrived in America between the 1880s and the outbreak of the World War in 1914. Among them were approximately 6 million Italians and eastern European Jews, who, compelled by poverty at home and lured by the tremendous industrial growth of the United States, left the social and economic turmoil of their home countries. The poverty and exploitation they endured in America are well documented. So are the bigotry and nativism they confronted, which considered them incapable of assimilating the culture and mores of the United States. To much of the native born public, these newcomers were much less desirable than the British, Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants of the so-called Old Immigration from northern and

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