Between 1890 and 1914, a total of 15 million people immigrated to the United States. The immigrants—Italians, Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, Greeks, Hungarians, and Rumanians—came primarily from Eastern and Southern Europe. One and one-half million of them, or roughly 10 per cent, were Jews.
The last and greatest wave of Jewish migration to America began in 1881. The Jewish people came here principally from the Polish provinces which Russia had acquired as the result of the partition of Poland in 1772. Since that time, the Tsars had established and maintained in Poland a pale of Jewish settlement beyond which Jews were forbidden to go; and they had hounded these people with a bitterly repressive policy which included the direct instigation of pogroms, or massacres, of the helpless minority. In 1881, the assassination of Alexander II touched off a new wave of violence against the Jews and produced the passage of laws imposing new and ferocious restrictions upon them. Large scale migration to America set in and continued without letup until the outbreak of World War I.
The everyday language of the Polish and Russian Jews was Yiddish, a dialect originating with the Jewish settlements in medieval Germany, which the Jews retained as they were driven eastward. The songs of these Yiddish-speaking people were born of the bitterness of poverty and oppression; they drew upon both the Jewish literary and musical heritage as well as Slavic melody to express a many-sided picture of Jewish life. These songs—love songs, lullabies, street songs, ballads—came to the New World with the immigrants. Virtually erased by Hitler and Himmler's nearly total massacre of the Jewish population of Europe, these Yiddish songs constitute a precious part of the American heritage that is preserved in its fullness only here.
In Poland, many of the Jews had been village or small town handicraftsmen; in the United States, they found work at first principally in the clothing industry. Their first experience of America was in the sweatshops and tenements of New York City's lower East Side. Here they were crammed into slums that gave the City's Jewish quarter the dubious fame of having the densest population per square mile in the world. They lived and toiled amid what one observer described as "the endless panorama of the tenements, rows upon rows, between