Illustration Ragni Svensson

Reviews Exodus from Galicia. Inferno of the swindlers and the swindled

Martin Pollack, Kaiser von Amerika: Die grosse Flucht aus Galizien, Vienna: Paul Zsolnay Verlag 2010, 285 pages

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3 2011, p 34-35
Published on on October 3, 2011

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Philippe Halsmann (1906—1979) was one of the greatest photojournalists and portrait photographers of the 20th century. He took pictures for Life, Time, and Vogue; it was he who took the iconic photograph of the melancholy Einstein.

As a young man, he came very close to disaster. Together with his father, a wealthy dentist from Riga, he had gone hiking in the Austrian Zillertal Valley. His father fell down a cliff. Philippe ran immediately for help, and when help arrived, his father lay on the ground, robbed and murdered.

For some reason, suspicion fell on the son, Philippe. Despite a lack of evidence or motive, he was convicted of murder, later commuted to manslaughter. An international campaign was launched to have the conviction overturned, backed by luminaries including Sigmund Freud and Thomas Mann. It was suspected that local businessmen had reason to make what was probably the work of robbers look like a family conflict in order to prevent tourists from fleeing. Anti-Semitic attitudes were widespread in the Tyrol, and the Halsmanns were a Jewish family.

When Philippe was finally released, he himself fled, encouraged by lifetime banishment from Austria — first to France, and later, after the German invasion of France, across the Atlantic to America.

Many young Europeans had preceded him on this journey. The Halsmann affair took place in 1928 and the convict was released three years later at a point when Europe was on the brink of a new wave of Jewish persecution. Martin Pollack told the story with meticulous precision and literary brilliance in Anklage Vatermord: Der Fall Philipp Halsmann (2002). In his new book, Pollack limns the background to one of the major waves of emigration — the exodus from Galicia, the poorest of the Crown lands of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy —
which was most intense during the period of roughly 1880—1920.

This was an exodus in which the Jewish population was strongly overrepresented, among both the travelers and the businessmen and agents who made fortunes on ticket sales, swindles, and violence, as poor and ignorant Eastern Europeans ventured out into the great unknown. Pollack describes the process with great empathy, always on the microscopic level and with the people mentioned by name, in journalistically effective scenes based on source material taken directly from official archives. These are the people and the settings one encounters in Joseph Roth’s short stories. The economic deprivation was endemic, the precariousness of day-to-day life was interrupted only by failed harvests and pogroms (although not as murderous as those in Russia, on the other side of the border), and ordinary people were utterly lacking in education. The situation deteriorated drastically when this remote corner of a sprawling empire was dragged into the modernization process through the expansion of the railways and expanded markets for industrial goods. Village tailors and shoemakers lost markets. Prices for agricultural products dropped and field allotments shrank dramatically in size. Vodka sales were the only lucrative business in the villages and small towns. And almost all publicans were Jews (who often doubled as moneylenders), as were for that matter many stewards (Pächter) of large estates. Not a good mix.

But it was a splendid basis for enticing and fooling the most miserable of the miserable to sell what little they owned and make their way to a new country of infinite riches and enough milk and honey for everyone. Illiterate emigrants who crossed the ocean often had no idea where the new country was located, and perhaps not even what it was called, how far away it was, or in what direction it lay; they knew nothing of any exchange rate when they went to change their meager gold for marks or dollars; they had to pay for everything in advance, and if there was anything left over after they had received their tickets and other documents, that, too, was taken from them by force.

In often painful detail, Pollack describes this dirty, stinking racket, which played out in a corruptive black-market economy during the infancy of European-

Atlantic robber baron capitalism. The whole enterprise was perilous for most of those involved. The emigrants were not only robbed, fleeced, and sometimes beaten, they were also in danger of being arrested by the Austrian authorities who did not routinely permit emigration and often judged it as an attempt to evade military service and thus as a form of desertion and treason. (The majority of emigrants were men, either young or in early middle age; most of those arrested were sent back to their home districts, poorer than they were when they left.) And in steerage in the big ships (most sailed from Hamburg and Bremen, although traffic to South America also left from Trieste and Le Havre, where competition was cut-throat among the emigration agents in both ports) the food was poor, sanitation dreadful, and the death toll high. No jobs were waiting in the port on the other side.

Or else they were waiting. On Brazilian plantations, where working days were unbearably long, slavery widespread (legal until 1888 but still practiced there-after), and wages never paid. And there were jobs, of a sort, at the brothels in Constantinople, Bombay, and Rio de Janeiro. Human trafficking constituted a special trade, organized mainly by Jewish madams who offered mainly Jewish beauties to brothel owners of mainly Eastern European origins. (The first shipment of 67 young Jewish girls had been sent to Brazil in 1867.) These people had no future, whether in the new country or in the old: for the vast majority, returning was out of the question. Naturally, there are counterexamples, even among the “Galicians” (whether Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Germans, Slovaks, or even so-called “Northern Hungarians”), and the society that seems to have been the most welcoming to the new arrivals was Canada, discovered as a destination in the 1890s by Ruthenians or Galician Germans (sometimes called “Swabians”). These people never had a choice to voluntarily move eastward toward Russia like 19th century Finns, for example, who had been subjects of the Tsar since 1809, and a number of enterprising Swedes who were happy to settle temporarily or for good in the world city of Saint Petersburg and other parts of the vast Russian Empire. A group of humble, land-hungry people from Podolia, the most wretched district in all of wretched Galicia, who left in 1892 for the paradise of “Rozalya” on utterly false premises, returned disappointed to a brutal homecoming. In point of fact, horrible stories had been told about life under the Tsar and the whip by fleeing Jews who had become the targets of state terror and officially sanctioned pogroms after the anarchist assassination of the “reformist” Emperor Alexander II in 1881. Russian Jews came over the border to Brody on the Austrian side, the town where Joseph Roth was to grow up. From there, they journeyed to gather in places with subsequently fateful names like Auschwitz and Birkenau. These were destinations for not only Russian Jews, but also Jews from Romania, a country afflicted since the early 1870s by officially staged anti-Semitism.

And it is now that things begin to happen in the demographics. In the 1880s, sixty percent of all Galician emigrants were Jews, although they made up only ten percent of the population. During the thirty years from 1881 to 1910, no less than forty percent of the Jews of Galicia chose to call on the United States. The Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City then became in reality a Jewish city.

There were other reasons beyond the economic and cultural that set these human masses in motion. The social structure in Galicia, controlled by landowners, guaranteed backwardness and stasis. Opportunities for advancement for the ambitious subsistence farmer, the day laborer, the peddler, and the tradesman, were marginal at best. Poverty was so close to the limit of prostration that people simply did not have the strength to work, and since they were unable to work, they lost the opportunity to support themselves. Or it wasn’t permitted. Pollack states that in Galicia in the 1870s, there were 100—120 established religious holidays in thirty-four districts of the province, 120—150 in twenty-two districts, and 150—200 in the remaining six districts, according to a report by a government authority. Lethargy was chronic and the Crown land was bleeding economically. The only thing that increased was the population. Actually, one other thing increased: antagonisms between population groups through the national unification movements. All of these had one thing in common: they regarded Jews as a foreign species. This was an inferno where both the swindled and the swindlers were victims, each in their own way. These districts would later endure the worst suffering of all in the murders of the second world war.

Kaiser von Amerika? One of the many legends that swept through the anguished Galician countryside around 1900 is the one about Emperor Franz Joseph’s son, Crown Prince Rudolf. According to the story, Rudolf had not committed suicide along with his lover, seventeen-year-old Baroness Mary Vetsera in 1889, but had actually traveled to Brazil and become the ruler of this remote kingdom. Now he received all Galicians who went there with open arms. This wild imagination, this singular belief in completely unexpected everyday miracles, is another thing one constantly encounters in the works of Joseph Roth. And it certainly was a miracle that so many managed to survive nonetheless, at home and in foreign lands. Galicians were also a prime commodity close to home — as seasonal labor on the East Elbian latifundia (and yes, on manor farms in Denmark and southern Sweden, where they worked picking and cleaning beets for several months until winter arrived). For a liberal like Max Weber, in the 1890s, these “Poles” were a veritable national scourge, since they were willing to work for less than the wage German subsistence farmers had previously been able to count on as day laborers — and thus hastened the emigration of ethnic Germans!

But the biggest emigration shipping king of them all, Albert Ballin, must also be counted as a Kaiser of America. His agency in Hamburg, Hapag, went under as a direct consequence of the outcome of the Great War, the defeat of Germany, and the decline in transatlantic travel. Ballin, son of an insignificant Jewish emigration agent, head of the world’s largest shipping line, was taken away by revolutionary sailors and died on November 9, 1918, the same day the republic was proclaimed in Germany. With the German defeat and the simultaneous dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy, the contemporary equivalent of the “Fall of the Wall,” all Galicians had become Poles. But that is another story altogether.

The former Spiegel reporter Pollack’s book is a first-rate work and a worthy successor to his breakthrough Galizien: Eine Reise durch die verschwundene Welt Ostgaliziens und der Bukowina (2001), although there are no references to the literature and source material he made use of, which makes the book less useful in scholarly contexts. What Pollack so clearly shows is how societies under great duress and distress can react en masse and utterly lose their bearings. Many of the phenomena he addresses, such as human trafficking of various types and forced mass emigration, are not entirely things of the past. ≈

Martin Pollack, Kaiser von Amerika: Die grosse Flucht aus Galizien, Vienna: Paul Zsolnay Verlag 2010, 285 pages