On June 12, 1909, my grandfather, Morris Burgen, arrived at the Port of New York on the SS Amerika. Two years later, on September 17, 1911, his wife, my Grandma Clara, arrived with their 5-year-old son, my Uncle Phil. Around the same time, my paternal grandparents, Hyman and Esther Kissen, arrived from Poland, fleeing a wave of pogroms and leaving behind a score of relatives, many of whom would later perish in the Holocaust.
Like the millions of other Jews who came to America in the early-20th century wave of immigration, my grandparents never forgot their first sight of America. Many years later, my father imagined that moment in a verse play, “A Citizen of the Country.” Arriving in the harbor, Esther (modeled on his own mother), cries to her husband,
“Joseph, look, oh look! We’re passing her This very minute; How straight and strong she stands Holding high her lamp—lighting us into a new and better life.”
A few moments later, Esther quotes the poem at the base of the statue, “Give me your tired your poor,” and adds,
“’Tis you and I she means, my dear, and all Of us; thank you, gracious lady, thank you.”
The lines Esther recites, which have provoked much discussion in recent weeks, form the conclusion to a poem written in 1883 for an arts exhibition organized to raise funds for a pedestal for Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi’s statue Liberty Enlightening the World, a gift from the people of France to the United States. A 34-year-old poet named Emma Lazarus had been approached by writer Constance Cary Harrison, who urged her to draw on her experiences advocating for Russian Jewish refugees and write a poem for the exhibit. The result was “The New Colossus,” a sonnet contrasting the “mighty woman with a torch” to the Colossus of Rhodes, “the Brazen giant of Greek fame/ with conquering limbs astride from land to land.” The statue in Lazarus’s poem sends “world-wide welcome” and, in the most famous words of the poem, welcomes the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, / The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
“The New Colossus” was the first entry of the exhibition and was read at the opening ceremony. It was published in an exhibit catalog, but after the pedestal was fully funded it was generally forgotten and was never mentioned at the 1886 dedication ceremony. It was not until 1901 that Lazarus’s friend Georgina Schuyler lobbied for recognition of the poet, and in 1903, a plaque bearing the text of the poem was installed on the pedestal.
Emma Lazarus never lived to see her poem on the Statue of Liberty. She died of cancer at the age of 38, just a year after the dedication ceremony, and though she was mourned by the Jewish and wider community and memorialized in the New York Times as “an American Poet of Uncommon talent,” no mention was made of “The New Colossus” or her role in helping to fund the pedestal. She could not have known that her poem would become familiar to millions of Americans and reprinted in countless poetry anthologies and history texts. In 1949, Irving Berlin set it to music as the concluding number of “Miss Liberty,” a Broadway show based on the story of the Statue of Liberty. Though the musical took great liberties with history and received mediocre reviews, its four-week run was a sellout and several of the songs became popular hits.
Among them was Berlin’s setting of the famous lines from Lazarus’s poem, which have been performed by soloists and choruses ever since—including my 8th grade choir at the Brandeis School, the Jewish Day School I attended in the 1950’s. The links below connect to two versions of the song—one by the Zamir Chorale of Boston and the other by Irving Berlin himself.
Today, 130 years after her death, what would Emma Lazarus make of the current administration’s attempt to rewrite her poem as an invitation limited to those “who can stand on their own two feet and who will not become a public charge”? To suggest an answer, I turn to the words of Esther Schor, Emma Lazarus’s award-winning biographer:
“With every new statute, restriction and act designed to thwart immigration to this country, Ms. Lazarus’s words leap into view. Thanks to Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty can stand on her own two feet, and we — Americans and aspiring Americans alike — are her public charge.”
For further reading:
Esther Schor, Emma Lazarus, NY: Schocken Books, 2006, 2017
—–“ What the Trump Administration Gets wrong About the Statue of Liberty,” The New York Times online, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/opinion/ken-cuccinelli-emma-lazarus.html?searchResultPosition=1
“October 28, 1886 – Statue of Liberty is Unveiled,” The Learning Network, https://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/28/oct-28-1886-statue-of-liberty-unveiled
“Emma Lazarus dies at age 38,” Jewish Women’s Archive, https://jwa.org/thisweek/nov/19/1887/emma-lazarus
“Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor” performed by the Zamir Chorale
“Give Me York Tired Your Poor performed by Irving Berlin