in Polotsk, Russia, on 13th June, 1881.
The family were Jewish and after the assassination
of Alexander II in 1881, the family
experienced several pogroms in Russia.
When Antin was thirteen her family emigrated to the United States
and they settled in the slums of Boston.
Mary attended the Boston Girls' Latin School and had her
first poem published in the Boston
Herald when she was only fifteen.
The letters she sent to her uncle living in Russia were also published
in The American
Mary moved to New York where she met
Amadeus Grabau, a professor
at Columbia University.
After her marriage to Grabau in 1901 Mary attended
Barnard and Teachers' College before the birth of her daughter.
Antin wrote several articles for Atlantic
Monthly before she published her autobiography, The
Promised Land (1912). The book
was highly successful and was used in Civic courses in US schools
until 1949. This was followed by They
Who Knock at Our Gates: A Complete Gospel of Immigration
A supporter of Theodore Roosevelt
and the Progressive Party, Antin
was one of the leading campaigners against restrictive immigration
Antin died in New York on 15th May, 1949.
(1) Mary Antin, The Promised
The Gentiles used to wonder at us because
we cared so much about religious things about food and Sabbath and
teaching the children Hebrew. They were angry with us for our obstinacy,
as they called it, and mocked us and ridiculed the most sacred things.
There were wise Gentiles who understood. These were educated people,
like Fedora Pavlovna, who made friends with their Jewish neighbors.
They were always respectful and openly admired some of our ways. But
most of the Gentiles were ignorant. There was one thing, however,
the Gentiles always understood, and that was money. They would take
any kind of bribe, at any time. They expected it. Peace cost so much
a year, in Polotzk. If you did not keep on good terms with your Gentile
neighbors, they had a hundred ways of molesting you. If you chased
their pigs when they came rooting up your garden, or objected to their
children maltreating your children, they might complain against you
to the police, stuffing their case with false accusations and false
witnesses. If you had not made friends with the police, the case might
go to court; and there you lost before the trial was called unless
the judge had reason to befriend you.
The czar was always sending us commands - you shall not do this and
you shall not do that - till there was very little left that we might
do, except pay tribute and die. One positive command he gave us: You
shall love and honor your emperor. In every congregation a prayer
must be said for the czar's health, or the chief of police would close
the synagogue. On a royal birthday every house must fly a flag, or
the owner would be dragged to a police station and be fined twenty-five
rubles. A decrepit old woman, who lived all alone in a tumble-down
shanty, supported by the charity of the neighborhood, crossed her
paralyzed hands one day when flags were ordered up, and waited for
her doom, because she had no flag. The vigilant policeman kicked the
door open with his great boot, took the last pillow from the bed,
sold it, and hoisted a flag above the rotten roof.
The czar always got his dues, no matter if it ruined a family. There
was a poor locksmith who owed the czar three hundred rubles, because
his brother had escaped from Russia before serving his time in the
army. There was no such fine for Gentiles, only for Jews; and the
whole family was liable. Now the locksmith never could have so much
money, and he had no valuables to pawn. The police came and attached
his household goods, everything he had, including his bride's trousseau;
and the sale of the goods brought thirty-five rubles. After a year's
time the police came again, looking for the balance of the czar's
dues. They put their seal on everything they found.
There was one public school for boys, and one for girls, but Jewish
children were admitted in limited numbers - only ten to a hundred;
and even the lucky ones had their troubles. First, you had to have
a tutor at home, who prepared you and talked all the time about the
examination you would have to pass, till you were scared. You heard
on all sides that the brightest Jewish children were turned down if
the examining officers did not like the turn of their noses. You went
up to be examined with the other Jewish children, your heart heavy
about that matter of your nose. There was a special examination for
the Jewish candidates, of course: a nine-year-old Jewish child had
to answer questions that a thirteen-year-old Gentile was hardly expected
to answer. But that did not matter so much; you had been prepared
for the thirteen-year-old test. You found the questions quite easy.
You wrote your answers triumphantly - and you received a low rating,
and there was no appeal.
I used to stand in the doorway of my father's store munching an apple
that did not taste good any more, and watch the pupils going home
from school in twos and threes; the girls in neat brown dresses and
black aprons and little stiff hats, the boys in trim uniforms with
many buttons. They had ever so many books in the satchels on their
backs. They would take them out at home, and read and write, and learn
all sorts of interesting things. They looked to me like beings from
another world than mine. But those whom I envied had their troubles,
as I often heard. Their school life was one struggle against injustice
from instructors, spiteful treatment from fellow students, and insults
from everybody. They were rejected at the universities, where they
were admitted in the ratio of three Jews to a hundred Gentiles, under
the same debarring entrance conditions as at the high school: especially
rigorous examinations, dishonest marking, or arbitrary rulings without
disguise. No, the czar did not want us in the schools.
In her book Promised Land, Mary Antin
described what it was like to be Jewish in Russia during the 1880s.
remember a time when I thought a pogrom had broken out in our street,
and I wonder that I did not die of fear. It was some Christian holiday,
and we had been warned by the police to keep indoors. Gates were locked;
shutters were barred. Fearful and yet curious, we looked through the
cracks in the shutters. We saw a procession of peasants and townspeople,
led by priests, carrying crosses and banners and images. We lived
in fear till the end of the day, knowing that the least disturbance
might start a riot, and a riot led to a pogrom.
Mary Antin arrived in the United States in 1894. She wrote about her
early experiences in her book, Promised Land, that was published
first meal was an object lesson of much variety. My father produced
several kinds of food, ready to eat, without any cooking, from little
tin cans that had printing all over them. He attempted to introduce
us to a queer, slippery kind of fruit, which he called banana but
had to give it up for the time being. After the meal, he had better
luck with a curious piece of furniture on runners, which he called
a rocking chair.
In the evening of the first day my father conducted us to the public
baths. As we moved along in a little procession, I was delighted with
the illumination of the streets. So many lamps, and they burned until
morning, my father said, and so people did not need to carry lanterns.
In America everything was free. Light was free; the streets were as
bright as a synagogue on a holy day. Music was free; we had been serenaded,
to our gaping delight, by a brass band of many pieces.
Education was free. The subject my father had written about repeatedly,
as comprising his chief hope for us children, the essence of American
opportunity, the treasure that no thief could touch, not even misfortune
or poverty. It was the one thing that he was able to promise us when
he sent for us; surer, safer than bread or shelter.
The apex of my civic pride and personal contentment was reached on
the bright September morning when I entered the public school. That
day I must always remember, even if I live to be too old that I cannot
tell my name. Father himself conducted as to school. He would not
have delegated that mission to the President of the United States.
He had very little opportunity to prosecute his education, which,
in truth, had never been begun. His struggle for a bare living left
him no time to take advantage of the public evening school. In time
he learned to read, to follow a conversation or lecture; but he never
learned to write correctly; and his pronunciation remains extremely
foreign to this day.
If education, culture, the higher life were shining things to be worshiped
from afar, he had still a means left whereby he could draw one step
nearer to them. He could send his children to school, to learn all
those things that he knew by fame to be desirable. His children should
be students, should fill his house with books and intellectual company.
As for the children themselves, he knew no surer way to their advancement
Almost his first act on landing on American soil, three years before,
had been his application for naturalization. He had taken the remaining
steps in the process with eager promptness, and at the earliest moment
allowed by the law, he became a citizen of the United States. The
boasted freedom of the New World meant to him far more than the right
to reside, travel, and work wherever he pleased; it meant the freedom
to speak his thoughts, to throw off the shackles of superstition,
to test his own fate, unhindered by political or religious tyranny.
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