Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,"
My visit to the Statue of Liberty earlier this week inspired me to learn more about the woman who wrote those famous words. They really struck me, almost to tears when I first heard them as a child. I marvel at them again now, and at the power of poetry to move people’s emotions and stir them to action.
Where does such power come from?
The author of the words, Emma Lazarus was born in New York in 1849 to a wealthy Jewish family. Her ancestors were Sephardic Jews who fled the Spanish
Inquisition for Colonial America. Emma was a curious, bright girl who loved reading, and started writing poetry at a young age.
Living in 19th Century America, she had at least two strikes against her. She was a woman, and she was Jewish. However, her father fully supported her writing, and self-published her first volume Poems and Translations: Written Between the Ages of Fourteen and Sixteen.
She’d been hearing news of the vicious anti-semitic pogroms in Russia, and as Jewish refugees streamed into the U.S. from Eastern Europe, Emma was shocked. Poor, sick, and uneducated, they were nothing like her upper class New York social circle.
Many well-established Jewish Americans feared these immigrants would reflect badly on them and didn’t want anything to do with the newcomers. But Emma take a break from writing to help the Russian Jewish immigrants, giving of her own money and helping raise funds to feed and clothe them. She set up job training in the industrial trades, which grew into the Hebrew Technical Institute. And, she wrote poems and essays about their plight. "Until we are all free, we are none of us free," she said.
Throughout the 1870s and early 1880s, many of Emma's poems appeared in American magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times. Her poetic dramatization of Richard Reinhard's 1877 Der Tanz zum Tode, celebrated the courage and faith of 600 Jews who were killed, many burned to death, in Nordhausen, Germany, in 1349. The massacre was one of hundreds throughout Europe during the plague, where Jews were accused of causing the Black Death.
Emma’s writings also spoke to the importance of literature to culture and the needs and rights of the artist.
But none of her work became as well-known as the poem which is engraved in bronze at the Statue of Liberty. Once posted at the foot of the statue, it has since been moved inside for protection against the elements.
The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus
With conquering limbs astride from land to land,
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Gloves world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin-cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!"
With silent lips.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
Emma's poem gives me the shivers! It's message was never more important than it is today. Does it have any special significance for you? If so, I'd love to hear your story.