Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) was born in New York City. Her father came from a Jewish family that immigrated from Germany, while her mother was from an illustrious Sephardic-Portuguese family that settled in America before the Revolution. Lazarus studied literature and language, speaking German, French, and Italian. She became a famous poet, novelist, and playwright; one of the first successful Jewish-American authors. Her first book of poetry was published when she was just 17 years old, and she went on to collaborate with such great writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lazarus was also an influential social activist. Her first cause was fighting for tax reform and fairer distribution of land. After hearing of the violent pogroms in Russia, she advocated strongly on behalf of Russian Jews and helped settle Jewish refugees in New York. Lazarus worked for the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, training impoverished immigrants and helping them find work. She also co-founded the Hebrew Technical Institute to educate Jewish refugees. Meanwhile, Lazarus argued passionately for the creation of a Jewish state in Israel – thirteen years before Theodor Herzl arrived on the scene! (For this, among other reasons, she was once described as the “fiery prophet of the American Jewish community.”) Lazarus is undoubtedly most famous for her poem “The New Colossus”, which she wrote to raise money for the construction of the Statue of Liberty. The sonnet’s powerful words – familiar to most Americans – have inspired many, and have been quoted by leaders like John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. Two decades after she first wrote it, the poem was etched onto a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue. It has been said that the poem transformed the Statue into a symbol of immigration and freedom, and defined “the American vision of liberty”. Sadly, Lazarus did not live to see this day. She tragically died at the young age of 38, from lymphoma. She has since been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Words of the Week
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
– From “The New Colossus”, by Emma Lazarus
Plaque of the “The New Colossus” in the Statue of Liberty
Feigele Peltel (1921-2012) was born in Warsaw, Poland. At 21 she joined the Jewish Combat Organization. Using her “Aryan” looks and fluency in Polish, she was able to pose as a Pole and come in and out of the Warsaw Ghetto. Through this, she smuggled weapons and supplies in, while saving countless children (and adults) by bringing them out of the ghetto. Her code name was ‘Vladka’, which she later adopted as her legal name. She also worked as a recruiting agent to bring more people into the resistance. One of these was Benjamin Meed, whom she would later marry in the U.S. Together they were among the key organizers of the infamous Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Vladka wrote a popular book about her experiences, and along with her husband, continued to work in Holocaust education for the rest of her life.
Meanwhile, Viktor Emil Frankl (1905-1997) was a distinguished psychiatrist and neurologist in Austria. He showed a talent for psychology at an early age, and provided psychoanalysis for high school students free of charge while in med school. He later worked in the dreaded “Suicide Pavilion” where he treated over 30,000 women at risk for suicide. After the Nazi takeover, Frankl was first demoted, then imprisoned, and spent three years in concentration camps. He used these experiences to develop a new philosophy of psychology, described in his world-famous book Man’s Search for Meaning (originally titled Saying Yes to Life in Spite of Everything). Frankl founded logotherapy, based on the belief that the central motivating force in humans is to find meaning in life, and most problems stem from this deficiency. Frankl revolutionized the field of psychology, wrote several highly-acclaimed books, and won multiple prestigious awards. Interestingly, he proposed that just as there is a Statue of Liberty on the East Coast, there should be a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast. Plans are now in the works to build such a statue.
Words of the Week
Don’t argue with an idiot – they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. – Mark Twain