Greener Grass in the Big Country

The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE, March 31, 2016 | Go to article overview

Greener Grass in the Big Country


Millions went West for a better life, but there were casualties in the human traffic, says Hester Vaizey

The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World

By Tara Zahra W. W. Norton, 400pp, £18.99 ISBN 9780393078015 Published 19 April 2016

Evidently you don't wish to care for me anymore...Nothing more is left for me except to stretch out my hand and beg on the street, or to take my life away." These were the desperate words of an Eastern European woman who was abandoned by her husband when he emigrated to the US. America's great story of immigration has traditionally focused on both its scale and its success, but as Tara Zahra's vivid and meticulously researched work shows, this success was only part of the story.

At the turn of the 20th century, mass migration from Eastern Europe hollowed out whole villages, transforming the lives of those who stayed behind as well as those who left. While Polish and Hungarian nobles bemoaned the loss of cheap agricultural labour, even the possibility of immigration threatened to break up families, as one contemporary Polish magazine explained: "Entire villages have been ruined to such an extent that fathers can no longer say a sharp word to their sons, or else he immediately gets the response 'Give me my inheritance and I will emigrate to Canada'." This was the other side of "America fever", which promised departing Eastern Europeans freedom and social mobility.

For all those who found an American El Dorado in the Land of the Free, others did not. One migrant quoted by Zahra recalled of her feelings on arrival: "It wasn't the America we knew from movies and books...I was deeply, deeply disappointed." Indeed, many of those labouring in US factories and mines found their standards of living plummeting, and some returned home. …

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