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Excerpts from the 1892 Foster Commission Report

See Background Note


Answers to queries of the Commission investigating European immigration to the United States, with reference to the Kingdom of Poland.

4. The laws of this country forbid to entice anybody to emigrate. Nobody is allowed to go abroad without a legal passport, which costs half yearly 15 rubles and can be issued maximum for five years, unless he crosses the border secretly, and then on his return he is liable to fines and penalties, even to deportation to Siberia, according to article 325 of the criminal code, if he has sworn allegiance to a foreign power without his government's permission. ....
5. The Government here does not encourage emigration; it rather hinders it, except for Jews, who are supposed to cross the border even without passports, provided the country gets rid of them. For it must be borne in mind that they form nearly one-fifth of the whole population of the Kingdom of Poland, numbering 8,250,000 of inhabitants. Young men approaching the age when they are bound to military service experience difficulties in obtaining passports for abroad.

Joseph Rawicz, United States Consul.


From the report of Commissioners Weber and Kempster, August 30, 1891.

... We then visited a quarter of the city where the Jews congregate for the purpose of obtaining employment, a sort of market square. There were hundreds of men, women, and children of all ages and in every condition of poverty and wretchedness; young, stalwart fellows, and people bent with age, all anxious and many grouped and in earnest and anxious conversation. Some were in rooms with doors open, and as the houses are built close to the very narrow walks, the whole interior could be plainly seen. It was toward the close of the day, and we could see the evening meal spread upon the tables, consisting generally of black rye bread and water. Most of these were people who had formerly lived in the interior and had been driven into the Pale. The important question with them is how to obtain even this bitter, black bread, which constitutes their main sustenance. Many of them were brought here by étapé, and therefore had no clothing except that which they carried on their backs, and most of them without money to buy clothing. Most of the children had but a single garment, and all of them were in a condition of depression and apparent homelessness. There was an entire absence of intoxication, and we may say here that the Jew is singularly free from this vice; not a single case of intoxication among Jews was noticed anywhere in Russia. Conversation with some of them disclosed the fact that the principal questions discussed are "What shall we do, and where shall we go to get bread?" for anticipation of the terrors of approaching winter and the certainty of starvation, which they see no means of averting, aggravate the present misery. Willing and able to work, they are unable to obtain it; forbidden to work outside the city, forbidden to trade in the country, unable to leave the precincts where they now are, excluded from governmental work, it is no wonder they wish to fly somewhere where they can breathe and have an equal chance in the struggle for existence. The only thing which prevents them from going en masse to other countries is their poverty.

Sworn testimony taken before the Select Committee on Emigration and Immigration (foreigners); House of Commons. Exhibit A. I. Extract, page 117

Examination of HERMANN LANDAU, member of the Jewish board of guardians, vice-president of the Poor Jew's Temporary Shelter; and one who takes a general interest in the welfare of poor Jewish inhabitants of London.

Q: Does not the arrival of these poor foreigners (meaning Hebrews) tend to overcrowd the labor market and make it more difficult for those who are living in the east-end of London to get full employment?
A: In my opinion it does not affect the trade at all, or to a very slight extent at all events.

Q: But if there is such a difficulty in getting full employment one would conclude that the greater number that come into London from abroad would make it more difficult to get full employment?
A: I do not think so, because the people that are here already do not and can not get full employment, and a great many of those are sent to America for the purpose of bettering themselves.

Q: Do you mean that they are sent after they have been some time in this country?
A: Yes; the board of guardians send a good many families away to America.

Q: After being two or three years in England?
A: Yes, and longer.

Q: Is there no objection made in America to receiving them?
A: No; it is only this morning that I have received the report of the United Hebrew Charities of New York, in which I find that they do not complain on that score, and there seems to be no difficulty, because they say: "We should be wanting in our duty were we to omit to state the difficulties we encounter through the immigration of persons incapable of work." Then they say: "With all the sympathy for their position, we can not find the means to permanently help these helpless people in a community that has no care for thousands of impoverished, aged, and weakly persons. People unable to work should be warned against immigration which must result in bitter disappointment in a foreign land, and in most cases making their position worse instead of better from a material point of view." But they never complain of people who are able to work.

Q: Is it correct to say that the majority of the moneyed class have from £ 2 to £ 3 in their pockets?
A: Yes.

Q: You do not suppose that that is sufficient to carry a man to America and maintain him there until he gets work?
A: No. They originally start with an amount sufficient to carry them on to their destination.

Q: What do you call that amount?
A: Six or seven pounds; but they first of all have to run the gauntlet of the frontier guard in Russia. A man is obliged to have a particular passport and he is not allowed to leave the country without it. It has happened that sometimes there is a very good-natured (as I might call him) frontier guard who will accept a rouble for the privilege of letting him go, whereas another will insist upon receiving twenty roubles, and of course, if you take twenty roubles out of fifty it makes a very large hole in it.

Q: Still you do not mean to tell the committee that men with £ 3 in their pockets are in a position to go on to America and make their way there?
A: When they start for America they generally have a letter from America, from relatives or friends inviting them to come.

Q: And they are provided for when they get there?
A: Yes.

Q: You have brought the report of the Shelter; will you kindly read the first few lines in the "Constitution of the Poor Jew's Temporary Shelter" for 1875-76 and tell me whether you agree with it or not?
A: I have not brought that with me.

Q: I will read it to you and ask you in connection with the Shelter, whether you agree with it: "The influx of homeless and helpless foreign Jews, driven by force of circumstances to seek a livelihood in England, being sadly on the increase and unduly pressing on their struggling brethren already here, this society is formed with a view to prevent newcomers from either being driven to the mission house or lapsing into pauperism and becoming a burden upon the community;" do you agree with that?
A: Yes; but I wish to qualify this, with your permission. I think we all know that charities are allowed a certain amount of exaggeration, by which they appeal to the charitable. We know that the hospitals generally appeal for funds and say that they are in a bankrupt state, and so we have to appeal to charity. We could not enter into all the details of the work done in the institution for the purpose of relieving England of a large number of people who would otherwise stay here, and so we put it on the ground of charity in order to get some funds.

Q: What is the meaning of this passage in speaking of the Shelter? You are asked "What is the exact object of the Shelter for the immigrants to this country?" and you answered "To forward them and protect them in this way: We have often a Belgian, or a German, or a Hungarian, or an Austrian coming to the Shelter for a similar position, but those we send either to the consulate or certain charitable societies of those countries, and in almost all cases, excepting where a man is known to be an impostor (and there are some, though very few), they are taken in hand and dispatched by those societies either to their homes or to some destination whither they are anxious to go." You are the medium, then, between the immigrants and those various charitable societies?
A: Yes.

Q: And those societies you mention in the conclusion of your answer do practically the work of sending them either back to their own country, or forward them to the United States?
A: Yes; exactly so.


From the report of Commissioners Weber and Kempster, September 1, 1891.

We left Minsk on the afternoon of September 1, reaching Wilna that night. This city is situated in the gubernia of Wilna and numbers about 115,000 inhabitants, of whom 50,000 to 55,000 are Jews. The same conditions noticed elsewhere were visible here, all avocations being overcrowded. The best carpenters receive at most 1 ruble per day in summer and are without work in the winter. Girls from 17 to 20 years of age employed in factories receive from 80 kopecks to 1 ruble per week, the days ranging from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Street paving is done by gangs, mostly Russians and Poles, with some Jews. The money earned is divided, so that occasionally they make from 1 to 2 rubles per day. Their work, however, is irregular, and sometimes they are employed but two days in a week, even in the summer; in the winter they can not work. Bricklayers receive from 90 kopecks to 1½ rubles per day of thirteen hours, two of which are devoted to rest. Very few Jews are employed at this trade, because they are excluded from governmental work. Some of the more dangerous work, however, as on high buildings, church spires, etc., they permit the Jews to do, "because they are more competent to do the work." Laborers receive from 10 to 50 kopecks per day.
Among others we met was Mr. _____, an extensive merchant of this place. He stated to us that two or three years ago his nephew was drawn for military service and duly reported for examination as directed. As there was little probability of his being reached that day (his number was far down on the list) he asked the sentry if he might absent himself to get something to eat, obtained permission and left for an adjoining restaurant. During his absence his number was reached, and failing to respond, a constable went after him, with whom he returned and explained his absence. He was accepted and served his time but was nevertheless published and fined for failing to report, the fine and publication costing 360 rubles. His friends raised and paid the money as they are liable for such payment. Every article of furniture or property belonging to the relatives of a defaulting conscript, with the exception of the clothes on their backs, is liable to seizure and sale and this operation is repeated from time to time until the whole amount is collected. Formerly, penalties were exacted from remote relatives, nephews, cousins, etc.; now only parents and brothers are held responsible, although in the case of a deserter the entire Jewish community where he is found is liable for the penalty. During one year in the several provinces these fines amounted to nearly 2,000,000 rubles of which there was collected from Jews about 200,000, and of this latter sum 14,000 rubles were reported by the police, the rest of it failing to reach the treasury. This system of levying fines is a source of considerable revenue to the police officials, as they collect it in 5 or 10 ruble installments as fast as a Jew can earn it, then report from time to time that "nothing can be found."
We here learned that the Rabbi Counlor, of Libau, had just passed through Wilna on his way to St. Petersburg in obedience to a resolution of the church community of Libau for the purpose of appealing to the minister of the interior for an extension of time to Jews who had been ordered out. He said that about 1,000 had already been expelled, but there are in addition 500 families, numbering from 2,500 to 3,000 souls, who had been ordered to leave before September 1. The Governor General told the deputation that he regretted very much the conditions which existed, but that he was powerless to avert them, and added that he thought the application to the authorities at St. Petersburg was simply a waste of effort and time.
Jews who settled in Courland before the year 1835 have the right of residence there as well as their descendents born there. These have not yet been ordered away, the expulsion referring only to those who settled there since that date. Libau is in this province, just outside the Pale. We have, therefore, the spectacle of Courland Jews who are permitted to remain because they were settled there before 1835, while those who settled in Moscow under the same conditions are expelled, both these places being outside the Pale. The reason why this distinction is made is not known; their deduction is that Courland, being on the border, the pressure is not so great because the conditions prevailing are more directly exhibited to their neighbors and the difference brought into plainer contrast. Others, when asked about this, will simply answer, "It is so ordered." This, in Russia, ends discussion. The order or edict of the ruling czar supersedes all laws promulgated by his predecessors, may annul contracts and destroy vested rights. They are often contradictory and inconsistent, and in construction it sometimes happens that what is held to be law in one province is unlawful in another.
We visited the tobacco factory of Mr. _____, employing 230 Jews. In a room about 18 by 34 and 10 feet high we counted 68 employees, all girls, ranging from 16 to 21 years of age, making cigarettes and picking tobacco. In another room about 20 by 40, 66 employees were counted. The wages of those girls picking tobacco range from 80 kopecks to 2 rubles per week; the hours from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Cigarette makers, by the piece, earn from 1½ to 2 rubles per week. Cutters, men, by piecework make from 4 to 5 rubles per week. The work, however, is irregular and the average rate of wages is 3 to 3½ rubles per week. In the drying department 3 to 5 rubles per week. Strippers and sorters, all girls, 6 to 12 rubles per month. Cutters, girls, 1 ruble 75 kopecks per week. Cigar-makers, 3 to 5 rubles per week. The rooms were dark and in the daytime required artificial light.
We afterwards went to a small establishment where "uppers" for ladies' shoes are made. There were 12 apprentices, all Jews, from 15 to 20 years of age, who received 100 rubles without board or lodging for a term of three years apprenticeship, or 33 1/3 rubles per year. One young man, the son of a teacher now dead, was among them. He intends to go to America as soon as he can save money enough to pay his fare.
Adjoining this place there is a small establishment for making letter and note paper by hand machinery. The feeder of the machine receives 2 rubles per week, while his assistant, a young lad who furnishes the motive power, is paid 1 ruble per week. This boy sends to his parents, who live about 10 miles distant in a little town, one half ruble per week. He pays 50 kopecks per month for lodging leaving him about 6 kopecks or 3 cents per day for food, which consists chiefly of black bread, of which he eats at 10 in the morning and 10 at night. The day before, he had visited his sister, who was engaged in domestic service in the city, from whom he received some white bread, the recollection of which feast lit up his countenance with evident pleasure. He wrote his name and that of his father for us in Hebrew and Russian promptly and in a neat style.
We then went to the bookbindery and stereotyping establishment of Wittwe & Ronum Brothers, established in 1789, claimed to be the oldest existing Jewish bookbindery in the world and the most extensive in Russia. They usually employ from 100 to 150 men and have had as many as 200 at work at one time, all Jews. They have now about 50 hands and their trade is practically ruined, owing to the repressive laws. While nearly every Jew can read and write, and while in the humblest of Jewish homes there will be found some reading material, it is not now a question of books but one of food which confronts them. Ten printing presses were then idle, which in previous years, we were told, were sometimes running day and night. The wages are low and fair typesetters now receive from 3 to 4 rubles per week.
Another shoe establishment for the making of uppers was visited where 25 persons are employed, earning from 6 to 12 rubles per month. The usual complaint of hard times was made, all ascribed to the increased competition due to the expulsion from the interior.
The "Judengasse" and "Fleischgasse" are two streets or lanes, about 15 feet wide between the buildings. We found there little shops, or, more properly speaking, closets, some not more than 2 feet in depth, barely large enough for shelving, and filled with all kinds of cheap wares for sale, which are protected with shutters at night. The proprietors of these small places stand on the sidewalk, just outside of their establishments, and we were informed that they are thus exposed in the winter sometimes with the thermometer at 20° F. below zero. Stoves are out of the question for lack of room if for no other reason, as a fair-sized stove would take up all the space. Some of these dens are deeper, making it possible for the proprietors to remain inside. These establishments have little girls on the walk soliciting trade, who for their services receive 15 kopecks per week. The sales girls inside receive 30 to 40 kopecks per week without board. Lining these streets in great numbers were women and girls selling apples, pears, and plums such as farmers in the United States feed to their pigs. For this privilege they are charged an annual tax of 16 rubles, which if not paid results in confiscation of the entire stock and an order to discontinue business. Besides this, the usual method is observed of keeping on "good terms" with the police.
The stock in trade of these people will not average 1 ruble each, yet in this city, we were told, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 human beings whose existence depends on this traffic. Later, potatoes replace the fruit stock and so through the year according to season. We heard one woman offering 10 pears for 1 kopeck (one half cent). All of these people devote a portion of their means to the education of their children, as education thus far has meant privileges mitigating the restrictive and oppressive .... [end of excerpt]

Background Note

The above information was extracted from a report commissioned by Charles Foster, U.S. Treasury Secretary, in 1891. At the time, U.S. immigration was administered by the Treasury Department. The purpose of the Commission was to determine "the principal causes that incite emigration to the United States", as well as whether current immigration laws were being followed or abused by the steamship companies and others. The Commission members, separately and together, spent months traveling throughout Europe and Russia, within the Pale of Settlement and outside it. With the assistance of virtually every U.S. Consul in Europe, the commission members had little trouble accumulating the information they wanted and interviewing whomever they wished. To their credit, they not only met with the major players, steamship executives, immigrant aid groups, etc., but also spent considerable time interviewing ordinary Jews. Their (fully indexed) report runs hundreds of pages, containing observations and an eclectic mix of raw research. The report provides insight on the mechanics of Jewish emigration from Russia, as well as laws regarding Jews. Among the material included is:

  • Various transcriptions of passport documents, steamship circulars and regulations, and interview notes
  • laws of various countries, primarily those regarding immigration/emigration and steamship operation

    Source: House of Representatives Executive Document No. 235, 52nd Congress, 1st Session, Serial Set 2957