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Washington D.C., 1800

President Jefferson
in the White House

A Duel At Dawn, 1804

The Death of Lord Nelson, 1805

Fulton's First Steamboat Voyage, 1807

"Shanghaied," 1811

"Old Ironsides" Earns its Name, 1812

The British Burn Washington, 1814

Dolley Madison Flees the White House, 1814

The Battle of New Orleans, 1815

The Battle of Waterloo, 1815

Napoleon Exiled to St. Helena, 1815

The Inauguration of
President Andrew
Jackson, 1829

Aboard a Slave Ship, 1829

America's First Steam Locomotive, 1830

A Portrait of America, 1830

Traveling the National Road, 1833

A Slave's Life

Traveling the Erie Canal, 1836

Victoria Becomes Queen, 1837

Escape From Slavery, 1838

A Flogging at Sea, 1839

P.T. Barnum Discovers "Tom Thumb" 1842

Living among the Shakers, 1843

Visit to the "Red Light" District, 1843

The Irish Potato Famine, 1847

Aboard a Whaling Ship, 1850

the Forbidden City
of Mecca, 1853

Life on a Southern Plantation, 1854

Return of a Fugitive Slave, 1854

Charge of the Light Brigade, 1854

Livingstone Discovers Victoria Falls, 1855

Andrew Carnegie Becomes a Capitalist, 1856

Slave Auction, 1859

Good Manners for Young Ladies, 1859

The Trial of Andrew Johnson, 1868

The Ku Klux Klan, 1868

Building the Brooklyn Bridge, 1871

Stanley Finds Livingstone, 1871

The Baseball Glove
Comes to Baseball,

The Death of President
Garfield, 1881

A Portrait of Thomas Edison

College Football, 1884

Opulence in the Gilded Age, 1890

Death of a Child, 1890

Corbett Knocks Out Sullivan, 1892

Hobo, 1894

Leaving Home for the "Promised Land", 1894

America's First Auto Race, 1895

1st to Sail Around the World Alone, 1895

The United States Declares War on Spain, 1898

The Battle of Manila Bay, 1898

The Rough Riders Storm San Juan Hill, 1898

Leaving Home for

the "Promised Land", 1894

Mary Antin, 1915
In 1894 Mary Antin was a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl living with her family in the "Jewish Pale" of the Russian Empire. Jews within the Empire were required to live in this area that stretched from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and encompassed portions of the present-day states of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. Conditions were harsh and the population poverty-stricken. Mary and her family lived on the edge of starvation in the town of Polotzk north of Minsk in the modern state of Belarus.

Mary's father had emigrated to Boston in 1892 in search of a better life. A year and a half after his departure, the family received a letter from him that contained tickets that would transport them to America - to what Mary described as the "Promised Land."

"Half of Polotzk was at my uncle's gate in the morning, to conduct us to the railway station."

Mary kept a detailed journal of her experiences as she transitioned from life in Czarist Russia to American citizen. These observations were published as a book in 1912. We join her story after her family has received the tickets that will take them to America. She describes a bittersweet mixture of joy and sadness as the family prepares to leave for the "Promised Land:"

"Before sunset the news was all over Polotzk that Hannah Hayye had received a steamer ticket for America. Then they began to come. Friends and foes, distant relatives and new acquaintances, young and old, wise and foolish, debtors and creditors, and mere neighbors, - from every quarter of the city, from both sides of the Dvina, from over the Polota, from nowhere, - a steady stream of them poured into our street, both day and night, till the hour of our departure. And my mother gave audience. Her faded kerchief halfway off her head, her black ringlets straying, her apron often at her eyes, she received her guests in a rainbow of smiles and tears.

. . . The weeks skipped, the days took wing, an hour was a flash of thought; so brimful of events was the interval before our departure. And no one was more alive than I to the multiple significance of the daily drama. My mother, full of grief at the parting from home and family and all things dear, anxious about the journey, uncertain about the future, but ready, as ever, to take up what new burdens awaited her; my sister, one with our mother in every hope and apprehension; my brother, rejoicing in his sudden release from heder; [religious education classes] and the little sister, vaguely excited by mysteries afoot; the uncles and aunts and devoted neighbors, sad and solemn over their coming loss; and my father away over in Boston, eager and anxious about us in Polotzk, - an American citizen impatient to start his children on American careers, - I knew the minds of everyone of these, and I lived their days and nights with them after an apish fashion of my own.

But at bottom I was aloof from them all. What made me silent and big-eyed was the sense of being in the midst of a tremendous adventure. From morning till night I was all attention. I must credit myself with some pang of parting; I certainly felt the thrill of expectation; but keener than these was my delight in the progress of the great adventure. It was delightful just to be myself. I rejoiced, with the younger children, during the weeks of packing and preparation, in the relaxation of discipline and the general demoralization of our daily life. It was pleasant to be petted and spoiled by favorite cousins and stuffed with belated sweets by unfavorite ones. It was distinctly interesting to catch my mother weeping in corner cupboards over precious rubbish that could by no means be carried to America. . .

The last night in Polotzk we slept at my uncle's house, having disposed of all our belongings, to the last three legged stool, except such as we were taking with us. I could go straight to the room where I slept with my aunt that night. if I were suddenly set down in Polotzk. But I did not really sleep. Excitement kept me awake, and my aunt snored hideously. In the morning I was going away from Polotzk, forever and ever. I was going on a wonderful journey. I was going to America. How could I sleep?

A market in Polotzk
. . . Half of Polotzk was at my uncle's gate in the morning, to conduct us to the railway station, and the other half was already there before we arrived.

The procession resembled both a funeral and a triumph. The women wept over us, reminding us eloquently of the perils of the sea, of the bewilderment of a foreign land, of the torments of homesickness that awaited us. They bewailed my mother's lot, who had to tear herself away from blood relations to go among strangers; who had to face gendarmes, ticket agents, and sailors, unprotected by a masculine escort; who had to care for four young children in the confusion of travel, and very likely feed them trefah [food that is considered unfit because it is not prepared according to Jewish dietary law] or see them starve on the way. Or they praised her for a brave pilgrim, and expressed confidence in her ability to cope with gendarmes and ticket agents, and blessed her with every other word, and all but carried her in their arms.

At the station the procession disbanded and became a mob. My uncle and my tall cousins did their best to protect us, but we wanderers were almost torn to pieces. They did get us into a car at last, but the riot on the station platform continued unquelled. When the warning bell rang out, it was drowned in a confounding babel of voices, - fragments of the oft-repeated messages, admonitions, lamentations, blessings, farewells. 'Don't forget!' - 'Take care of - 'Keep your tickets' - 'Moshele - newspapers I 'Garlick is best!' 'Happy journey!' 'God help you!' 'Good-bye! Good-bye!' 'Remember - .

The last I saw of Polotzk was an agitated mass of people, waving colored handkerchiefs and other frantic bits of calico, madly gesticulating, faIling on each other's necks, gone wild altogether. Then the station became invisible, and the shining tracks spun out from sky to sky. I was in the middle of the great, great world, and the longest road was mine.

    Antin, Mary, The Promised Land (originally published, 1915, re-published 1969); Handlin, Oscar, The Uprooted (1951).

How To Cite This Article:
"Leaving Home for the 'Promised Land', 1894", EyeWitness to History, (2008).

Mary Antin was considered a child prodigy and published her first articles at the age of eighteen. She married a Columbia University professor in 1901 and attended the University until 1904. She became a popular writer and lecturer on immigration in America. She died in 1949.
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