Seattle Adapts to ‘a Bolt from the Blue’

Local businessman Leo Schwabacher served as the first president of the Seattle branch of HIAS. Photo courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW33538

HIAS Home Manager Abe Spring

Abe Spring (right) was the longtime manager of the HIAS home in Seattle. Photo courtesy University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW33539

Eastern European immigration to Seattle, fairly insignificant before World War I, suddenly spiked in late 1915, “like a bolt from the blue,” as described in the Jewish Immigration Bulletin of 1916-17. Instead of less than a dozen immigrants every month, the Jewish community of only 6,000 suddenly found itself trying to provide for the needs of almost 200 every month.

Realizing the magnitude of the challenge before them, local Jewish leaders appealed to the national organization of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society to establish a Seattle branch in early 1916. The branch would be called upon to intervene with the U.S. government to facilitate admittance to the country, provide temporary care and shelter, offer “Americanization” classes in the English language and other subjects, find employment, and arrange transportation to other destinations for the growing number of arriving immigrants.

As the Seattle branch became established within the community, it would make continuous improvements to its facilities to manage the influx. From an initial temporary home at 811 Yesler Way, an “old house poorly situated and badly equipped to handle a large number of immigrants,” the group moved within several months to a new quarters about a mile away at 512 18th Avenue that could accommodate up to 120 people, according to the Jewish Immigration Bulletin of 1916-17, as cited in a January 1990 newsletter of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society. The president of the branch, Leo Schwabacher, a prominent Seattle businessman, led this effort, which included addressing concerns voiced by some community residents who worried about the presence of an “immigrant station” in their neighborhood, as described in an April 20, 1916, article in The Seattle Daily Times.

The Society also would formalize the procedures of the home, “bringing order out of chaos,” according to an Oct. 7, 1917, article in the Seattle Sunday Times. After years suffering under czarist rule and, more recently, being exploited by factory owners, many of the early immigrants to Seattle had become involved in the revolutionary movement in Russia. Suspicious of any authority figures, the refugees — almost all men — initially refused to work. In time, however, the manager of the home, Abe Spring, would gain their trust. “It was when Spring took charge [in February 1916] that they soon were made to realize that in America everyone must work,” the Seattle Sunday Times article stated.

Another obstacle the organization would overcome in its first years of operation were new government restrictions on entry to the United States. In late January 1916, U.S. immigration authorities began refusing admission to anyone without adequate funds or who was not joining a relative already in the country — which could affect up to half of all arrivals, as recorded in the May 1916 Presidents Report Address and Minutes of the HIAS Seattle branch. The branch had to prepare appeals, pay for additional medical treatment caused by stress from prolonged detention, and ultimately furnish individual bonds — using tens of thousands of dollars in personal property from the branch directors as security — to allow the immigrants to enter the country. By April 1916, the government determined that instead of detaining the immigrants it would start releasing them to the HIAS Seattle branch with the expectation that the organization would care for them and ensure they would not become public charges — a promise that had to be guaranteed through an official letter from the branch president.

This challenge may have become even more difficult the following year, when the U.S. Congress passed sweeping legislation preventing broad categories of people from entering the country. The 1917 Immigration Act barred immigrants from Asia and many adjacent regions as well as those with mental and physical limitations, including illiterates and the poor. It also increased the head tax on adult immigrants to $8 and added new enforcement provisions. With widespread public hostility toward certain classes of immigrants, Congress was able to override a presidential veto. The new law, which took effect May 1, 1917, certainly broadened the scope of the authority of U.S. immigration officials, medical examiners and boards of special inquiry, but it’s not clear whether it derailed the agreement that already had been struck between government officials and HIAS.

After two turbulent years adapting to changing U.S. policies and adjusting to the needs of the many newcomers, the Seattle branch of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society likely had most of its systems in place to provide for the Naginskys when they were officially admitted to the United States in early 1918.

One comment on “Seattle Adapts to ‘a Bolt from the Blue’

  1. […] and Immigrant Aid Society began. A representative of the organization, perhaps Seattle home manager Abe Spring, would be at the steamer dock to meet arriving ships. His task there would be to identify those […]

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