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  • Heimat and Home: Mobility Among Jews in Quincy, Illinois1
  • Cynthia Francis Gensheimer (bio) and Anton Hieke (bio)

The study of Jewish migration is often marked by an artificial barrier: historians of Europe have typically followed Jews to their ports of departure and their scholarly counterparts in America have only focused on their lives after disembarkation. Both groups of historians have tended to present the nineteenth-century Atlantic Ocean as a one-way passage, rather than as a pathway traversed in both directions. This view, however, is at odds with more recent research that points to how Jews maintained ties on both continents and returned to Europe more often than hitherto thought. Far from presenting the picture of Jewish migration as merely channeling people from one continent to another, this work illustrates the rise and rapid intensification of contact between Europe and the countries in which Jews found new homes.2 Rather than limit their investigations to the United States or Europe, the authors rightfully place America’s Jewish communities into their transnational context. Thus, migration should be viewed as an ongoing process transcending national boundaries.

This article demonstrates the extent to which there was interconnectivity among American and European communities during the nineteenth century. This nexus stemmed from reverence for German culture and science as well as ties connecting individuals in communities from across the United States to Central Europe. The interior community Quincy, Illinois, serves as its case study. The authors compiled a census of Jews who lived in Quincy during the nineteenth century. Evaluating their comings [End Page 255] and goings, the authors discovered that though Quincy’s Jewish population was extremely transient—including travel back to Europe—the rate of permanent return migration was very low. The richness of Quincy’s source material provides context for much of the movement—internal and transnational—including that of the least affluent. This article distills statistics summarizing the migrations of Quincy’s Jews and provides illustrative examples of their European connections throughout the nineteenth century. Quincy was neither the first nor the last American home of most of its Jewish residents. Immigrants often settled temporarily in the port city of first arrival, be it New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or New Orleans. It was not unusual for a young, newly arrived Jew to be a peddler for several years, without leaving any trace, and then live in several cities before marrying.3 Most settled down after marriage, but those who reached Quincy usually moved on eventually. Rather than leave for a European destination, they went elsewhere within the US. These departures speak to a level of discontent with Quincy as a place to live but not with America as a whole. The low rate at which Quincy’s immigrants left America permanently did not reflect disdain for Europe; many retained strong ties to the continent. This micro history of Quincy immigrants’ migration patterns—permanent and temporary—demonstrates the complex dynamism of Jewish migration, revealing high levels of transience, travel back to the Heimat (homeland), and other communication with relatives and friends from home.

The story of Quincy’s Jews is but a small part of a much larger story. Jewish migration increased exponentially in the mid-nineteenth century when improvements in transportation opened new options. The introduction of steamship travel around 1850 sparked the century’s mass migration from Europe to America. The annual European migration to the US jumped from about 78,000 in the decade of 1836–1845 to some 315,000 the following decade (1846–1854).4 Similarly, Jewish migration surged between 1840 and 1860, with the estimated Jewish population in the United States increasing from 15,000 to 150,000.5 [End Page 256]

Far from simply transporting Jewish immigrants from Europe to America, steamers interconnected Jewish communities within the two continents in a variety of new ways. Inland waterways and eventually railroad networks linked large cities to smaller ones, drawing together Jews from one continent’s hinterland to another. Whatever the size, Jewish communities on both sides of the Atlantic formed a two-way European-American nexus through which flowed information, ideas, commodities, financial capital, and, of course, people.6 Quincy, Illinois, was but one...


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