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Originally produced in: France
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1. An extract from Mary Antin’s From Plotzk to Boston, an autobiographical story written in 1894 and published in 1899

“The morning was glorious. It was the eighth of May, the seventeenth day after we left Hamburg. (...) Before the ship had fully stopped, the climax of our joy was reached. One of us espied the figure and face we had longed to see for three long years. In a moment five passengers on the "Polynesia" were crying, "Papa," (...) What followed was a slow torture (...) Oh, dear! Why can't we get off the hateful ship? Why can't papa come to us?

Each person was asked a hundred or so stupid questions, and all their answers were written down by a very slow man. The baggage had to be examined, the tickets, and a hundred other things done before anyone was allowed to step ashore (...) Now imagine yourself parting with all you love, believing it to be a parting for life; breaking up your home, selling the things that years have made dear to you; starting on a journey without the least experience in travelling, in the face of many inconveniences on account of the want of sufficient money; being met with disappointment where it was not to be expected; (...) being mistrusted and searched, then half starved, and lodged in common with a multitude of strangers; suffering the miseries of seasickness, the disturbances and alarms of a stormy sea for sixteen days; and then stand within, a few yards of him for whom you did all this, unable to even speak to him easily. How do you feel?

Oh, it's our turn at last! We are questioned, examined, and dismissed! A rush over the planks on one side, over the ground on the other, six wild beings cling to each other, bound by a common bond of tender joy, and the long parting is at an END.”

Source: An extract from Mary Antin’s From Plotzk to Boston, 1899.


Mary Antin (1881-1949) in 1894 left the city of Plotzk where Jews are persecuted. She joined with his family, his father installed in Boston, but after long and arduous journey before landing, she must suffer the paperwork.

This text was written by Mary Antin when she was thirteen. It was published in 1899 in the United States.


  1. What do we learn about Mary Antin and her migration to the US (age, family, country of origin and social background, departure harbour, destination, travel difficulties...)?
  2. What does this extract teach us about immigrants’ motivation?
  3. How does Mary Antin see the compulsory search of incoming migrants by the American administration?

Display teacher's view to find the answers.

Presentation and analysis of the historical context

This text is an autobiographical story written by Mary Antin. It was published in 1899 in the US.

At the age of 13, Mary Antin (1881-1949) left her native town of Plotzk in 1894 with her mother, her two sisters and her brother, to meet her father who immigrated three years earlier to Boston. She tells us about misadventures that happened to her during her travel (crowded cabins, corruption of state officials, humiliation, hunger...) from Plotzk to Boston. She went through Vilnius and Hamburg where she boarded a ship and then crossed Atlantic in hard conditions. The story ends with the reunion of the family in New York (Question 1).

After having learned English, Mary Antin wrote texts for the press on the living conditions of immigrants and a book The promised land (1912) which reported a huge success. During the interwar period, she fought against hostile American laws which were against immigrants and she supported F.D. Roosevelt. She made an academic career. Mary Antin died in New York in 1949.

After the annexation of Ukraine, Crimea, Belarus, Baltic territories and a part of Poland, the most important Jewish community of the world in the 19th century was in the Russian Empire where five millions Jews lived. Most of them led miserable lives and they suffered from various forms of discrimination reinforced by the law which restricted their liberties and rights. It was abolished in 1917...

With Tsar Alexander III (1881-1894), who came to power after the murder of Alexander II, “the anti-Semitism took on wild forms” (Josy Eisenberg, Une histoire de Juifs, Livre de Poche, 1970). The laws of May 1882 reinforced the anti-Semitism of the state: Jews were banned from rural zones and towns under ten thousand inhabitants, the number of Jews attending secondary schools and colleges was severely restricted, and their access to certain professions was greatly reduced. “From 1881 to the Great War, the story of Russian Jews was an uninterrupted succession of discriminatory laws...and popular violence. Pogroms were organised with the consent, sometimes participation, of governmental authorities... These horrifying pogroms were uncountable. The one that took place in Odessa 1871 set the tone for the next years; 1881 was another terrible year...” (Josy Eisenberg, op. cit.). This violence carried on in the first years of the 20th century; what should be mentioned, in particular, is the terrible pogrom of Kishinev in 1903.

Constantin Pobiedonostev (1827-1907), who was the “eminence grise” of Alexander III, declared to a Jewish delegation that the Tsarist regime wished that a third of Russians Jews would emigrate, a third would convert and the other third would die. It’s in this context that Mary Antin’s family emigrated to the US as two million Jews of the Russian Empire did between 1881 and 1914.

This extract presented to the students shows the motivation of the migrants who were ready for sacrifices for a better future: to abandon, without any chance of returning, their lands where they lived, to leave their relatives, to sell their goods to cover the cost of the travel, to face the fear of the unknown, and choose migration during which they suffered from discomfort, privation, overcrowding, humiliations and bad treatment... (Question 2).

Mary Antin describes the forced waiting for administrative formalities to be completed as “slow turtle”. It was for her, as for others immigrants, the first confrontation between the dream of the American “promised land” and the reality of border control by the administration of the US. The waiting was more unbearable as it delayed the so long-awaited moment of the reunion with her father she hadn’t seen for three years.