return Return

The Historic New Orleans Collection presents :
The Alsace-Lorraine Jewish Experience in Louisiana and the Gulf South.

Paper presented by
Anny Bloch-Raymond
Friday, November 13, 2009

"Leaving Alsace Lorraine and Blending into Louisiana : The Issue of Belonging and Loyalty To Host and Home Countries"


The essentially rural, Jewish migration away from Alsace-Lorraine towards the United States has to be put into the context of the massive European nineteenth immigration to the United States, mainly Italian, German and Russian immigration. French immigration to America at the same period was of much less importance. The main departures were located in the Southwest (pays basque), southeast (Alps) and East of France (Alsace-Lorraine).

Hard cover

As far as the Alsace-Lorraine immigration is concerned, it is clearly divided into two main successive waves: 1815-1860 and 1880-1930. The French Jewish immigration along with the German Jewish one was undertaken for various reasons, demographic, social and political issues, and an anti-Semitism that turned into violent, anti-Jewish riots during the 1830s and again in 1848in the Easter part of France as well as in the Region of Bade on the right side of the Rhine. If the reasons for leaving are mainly economical for the first wave, it is more political, for the second wave. The immigration is clearly connected to the Alsace-Lorraine historical background, as a result of the treaty ending the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, which transferred the ownership of Alsace-Lorraine to Germany. Many Jews from Alsace Moselle feared that they would not be able to enjoy the same civil and political rights as their fellow citizens of other faiths in Germany. Many were also concerned about German anti-Semitism and felt reluctant to serve in the German army.

Their Patriotism and Chauvinism Strengthened.

Very briefly, let us remind you the status of the Jewish population in France:
1) The Jews benefited from the French revolutionary cry of “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” (Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood) and obtained citizenship after the Revolution in 1791 even though their full rights were not granted until 1827 after the Restoration.
2) France’s education policy also contributed to Jews identification with that country. The aim of schooling was to reinvent a poor agrarian population and to retrain them as skilled craftsmen, as well as to develop French patriotism and encourage civic duty. Trade schools were opened for the poorest in the country which allowed the young people to be trained and skilled in crafts such as tapestry, jewellery, etc, but not all of them were trained. Leon Godchaux who landed in 1837, was almost illiterate as the legend tells. In 1833, there also existed in excess of 52 small Jewish primary schools in the Alsace Moselle region where Hebrew, German and French were taught. That means that most of the immigrants not only knew how to speak, Judeo-Alsatian, Alsatian or Lorrainian dialects but talked also German and French. That does not mean they knew how to speak the four languages well but they were part of their background. The practice of German and French was going to be very useful to their accommodation to the new country.

A Few Figures about the Alsace-Lorraine Immigration

According to the historian Nicole Fouché, from 1815 to 1870 the first wave of Alsace immigrants to North America is numbered to 44 799 immigrants that amounts to one out of 5 inhabitants. From 1827 to 1869, up to their passports, more than 12% were Jewish. Therefore, the Jewish population was over-represented.

Two thirds of Jewish immigrants were willing to go to New York and their passports indicate that 8% to 12% chose New Orleans. If Jewish migrants chose New Orleans, it might be because the trip was less expensive than to New York, because New Orleans was a French-spoken city and because of French influence. It may be for the three reasons at the same time. It is very difficult to give figures of Jewish immigration from Alsace-Lorraine to New Orleans because the ship-lists are not complete. Going over the list established by Carl Brasseaux, I have only numbered 140 Jewish immigrants from 1829 to 1849, according to their names; after 1871, the census does not always make difference between the Alsace-Lorraine population and the German one. In 1871, there were 40 000 Jews in Alsace-Lorraine, roughly half of France's Jewish population. About 5 000 French Jews who now found themselves living in Germany immigrated west into France desirous of keeping their French citizenship. The same number of people left for America. In the town of Haguenau in Bas-Rhin, it was even more than 20% of Jewish migrants who chose New Orleans.

We figure out 10 000 left for North America and that a full one fifth of them settled mainly in Louisiana. Another indication helps us: 10 to 18 percent of the graves in Louisiana and the Delta are Alsace and Lorraine ones. In New Orleans, between 1830 and 1896, 285 French Jews coming from Alsace Lorraine, were buried in Gates of Prayer and in Hebrew Rest cemeteries. As far as the immigration process is concerned the French government legalized emigration in 1855 and set the price of the passport and the railway ticket. In 1866, after the government established emigration agencies, fifty seven official recruiting agents were located in the Bas-Rhin. Some agents were Jewish, such as Felix Klein of Niederrodern (Bas-Rhin) was extremely active between 1864 and 1869 organizing voyages for his fellow Jews to New Orleans.

Where did they come from?

As we said before, the immigration was mainly rural. A great many of them came from small villages, North of Alsace, lands of forest and of poor agriculture such as Saverne, Wissembourg, Soultz-sous-forêts, Lembach and from the textile district such as Habsheim, Sierentz, Cernay, Guebwiller. They also came from small towns in Lorraine, like Sarreguemines, Sarre Union, Herbéviller, Grosbliederstroff, Lixheim. A few of them were living in cities such as Strasbourg, Colmar, Haguenau, Belfort, Vesoul, Nancy. Alsatian Judaism remained rural up until the middle of the XIXth century. Beginning of the 1870ies, only 24% of Jews lived in the capital cities of their districts according to Vicki Caron. 63 % of them who left for America were living in the towns of less than 2 000 inhabitants.

Where did they settle?

While the immigrants landed for the most part in New Orleans, the majority of them first settled in small towns along the Mississippi River. According to my survey (and to the sociologist Ben Kaplan and his book The Eternal Stranger), here are the names of the towns and cities where a number of them lived : New Orleans, Lafayette (close to New Orleans), Klotzville, Napoleonville, Donaldsonville, Thibodaux, Raceland, up North, Geismar, Baton Rouge, Saint Gabriel, Washington, Plaguemine, New Iberia, Opelousas, Alexandria, Saint Francisville, Clinton, Mansura, Marksville, Shreveport, Monroe, in the Mississippi state, Lorman, Port Gibson, Vicksburg, Natchez, Brookhaven, Jackson. We also can name plantations: Bunkie Plantation, Livonia, Cora Texas Plantation.

They felt very much attached to their native countries at first. Even if they chose to become American, they could feel closer to France in 1871, because they were not witnesses to the existing German occupation. Flo Geismar, second generation, whose father came to America in 1907, told me: “My father never felt German. Alsatian, French but never German but he came with a German passport.” Charles Dennery coming from Wissembourg, Alsace, when he had to opt (to choose) after the treaty of Frankfort between France and Germany in 1872, chose to be French in the Saint Louis Consulate but joined Germania Lodge in 1903. Many French Jewish families intermarried with German Jews and later on, on the fourth generation with the Eastern Jews. Lee Shai Weisbach has shown that Jews often married Christians as there was just a handful in small towns. However the French culture deeply influenced them even though, in the end, they became American citizens. Ruth Dreyfous whose grand-father Abel came from Belfort Upper-Rhine, in 1838, to live in New Orleans gives evidence of this attachment to France in her biography, “It’s interesting my life” she signed her autobiography: “That part of me, the French part is very important and I want the people in France to know something about this family that is so proud of their French ancestors and many others had that same feeling.”

We can try to give a few features of the Alsace Lorraine population: close family ties, hard-working, a crave for comfortable homes as Alphonse Levy has illustrated, a special taste for popular religious art : mizrah, shabbath and hanuccah lamps, mappoth(bendele), torah rolls added to very specific cooking foodways, the Jewish Alsatian cuisine (green carp, kugel, chaleth).

The American Experience

The majority of the Alsace-Lorraine population belonged to the service sector in various areas of commerce and craft. Developing commerce allowed the newly arrived to find intermediary positions between wholesale merchants in important cities and consumers in small rural villages. Their mobility was a guarantee of success; they were peddlers or birds of passage. Once settled, thanks to an ethic of frugality they could adapt to their new environment and become cotton and sugar planters, cotton factors and brokers, and owners of general stores in small rural areas. The success of the immigrants was closely connected to their mobility. They had but a little capital to invest; they usually took a partner, often a member of their family, often also an in-law. But most of all them were respectful toward the laws of the new country. We can name well-known Alsatian-Lorrainian families also called the "Peddlar Aristocracy" such as the Godchaux, the Kahns, the Newmanns, the Geismars, the Klotzes, the Wolbrettes, the Waldhorns, the Lemanns, the Fraenkels, the Dennerys, the Dreyfous, the Steeg family and Beulah Ledner.

All of them were very much involved in the city through clubs, unions such as the famous Harmony Club, Progressive Union, Union Française, and free mason lodges such as Foyer Maçonnique, Harmony Lodge, French lodges or Germania Lodge, a German lodge. This involvement was the sign of their desire of assimilation to their new land in spite of some prejudices toward them: “We are assimilated in many ways but still there is an old separation between Jews and Gentiles. There was a border line as far as the admission to the country clubs or to carnival kews were concerned.” My interviewees call it “the old money” or the “old business.”

For some of them, Abel Dreyfous or Leon Godchaux, religion was none of their priorities even if they considered themselves as Jews all their lives long. Jews call themselves “Southern religious”, that means not so religious. Five main places illustrated their attachment to their customs and rites: Port Gibson, Alexandria, Opelousas, Donaldsonville and Lafayette near New Orleans. The town of Port Gibson provided a nurturing environment for a vital community along the Mississippi consisting of Jews from Lorraine and Alsace, and later from East Europe. In 1859, twenty-two charter members formed Chassed Congregation (House of Kindness). Many congregants including the Klotz, Mayer Levy, Marx, Unger and Ullmann families were Alsatian or married to Alsatians. In1871, twenty years later, they held services in a newly-built Byzantine revival synagogue. Nearly 18 percent of the people buried in the Port Gibson cemetery were from Alsace-Lorraine. Alexandria, a Louisiana’s congregation was founded in 1861. A few Jewish Alsatian families still remain in Opelousas, founded in 1877. One of the most flourishing communities in late nineteenth century Louisiana was Donaldsonville. More than forty immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine descent were buried in its cemetery, Bikur Shalom, established there in 1868.

The Immigrant Paradox

At last, the booklet commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Congregation Gates of Prayer, in New Orleans in the 1900, as well as the minutes of the congregation, emphasized the essential immigrant paradox: remaining patriotic to France and being truthful to the religious customs and rites learned in Alsace-Lorraine, while adjusting to a new and tolerant country by being the early founders of the Reform temples in New Orleans and in Louisiana. It is this paradox that we can question during that conference. How long did they continue to speak French? What types of religious social and cooking habits did they preserve? What style of synagogues did they build and what ties did they maintain with their natives lands ? These are some of the issues to be explored today.

Listen to two presentations I gave during these days :