by Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr
“Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” The words inscribed at the base of the statue of Liberty are famous, and yet hardly anyone knows that they are from a sonnet called “The New Colossus” and hardly anyone could name the poet, Emma Lazarus. She shares the fate of almost all women before and since: her work is essential, yet her name is unknown.
But Lazarus’s place in American literature does not rest on only one poem. Her best works are a prose poem, “By the Waters of Babylon,” and a play, The Dance to Death, about the pogroms of 1348–1349 that accompanied the Black Death, written because “the wrongs of her people filled her with indignation and brought her forward as the champion of an oppressed race.” Her people were the Jews.
Although the Black Death of 1347–1350 was only one of the many epidemics to hit Europe, it was certainly the most lethal. The cause of the plague, unknown until about 1890, was the Yersinia pestis bacillus, carried by fleas. In any outbreak, twenty to twenty-five percent of a town might die, most within a day or two of catching it. In many cases, whole households were wiped out. By 1400, the population of Western Europe had declined by half.
Terror of the plague was, therefore, understandable and many were caught up in the web of blame and hysteria, including dogs, cats, witches, pilgrims, lepers, the poor, Arabs, and especially the Jews. A rumour that the Jews were responsible for the plague by poisoning wells and rivers in a plot to overthrow all of Christendom tore through Europe.
Although many believed these charges, some did not but saw it as a useful weapon against the Jews for other reasons. In hundreds of towns across Europe, countless thousands of Jews were executed en masse by burning. Neither the aristocracy, which often owed vast sums of money to Jewish bankers, nor the mob were alone responsible for these Black Death pogroms; generally, they were ordered by city councils.
The pope, for one, defended the Jews, energetically if not kindly, writing, “Even though we justly detest the perfidy of the Jews […] we are nevertheless mindful of our duty […] by reason of the fact that our Savior, when he assumed mortal flesh for the salvation of the human race, deemed it worthy to be born of Jewish stock, and for the sake of humanity in that the Jews have called upon the assistance of our protection and the clemency of Christian piety.”
The civic response to plague was not all hysteria. Cities set up boards of public health, often for the first time, and attempted to deal with the problem using what knowledge was available to them. The most knowledgeable physicians of the time, actually, were Arab. The second most knowledgeable were Jewish, in large part because some could read Arabic. The Jewish avoidance of public wells was most likely linked to this superior medical knowledge, but this too aroused the suspicions of ignorant people.
The pogroms that accompanied the Black Death were certainly not the first that the Jews had suffered nor, obviously, would they be the last. And, while the accusations of well poisoning were unfounded, pogroms had been perpetrated on even flimsier pretexts.
As a Jew who lamented the general ignorance about Jewish history, Lazarus no doubt felt compelled to provide an historically accurate version of the persecution of the Jews in the 1348–1349 era of Black Death hysteria. She was certainly aware of the Russian pogroms of the late nineteenth century, beginning in Odessa in 1859. These caused a wave of Jewish refugee migration — often unwelcome — to Western Europe, the United States, and Canada, among other countries.
In our present era where racism is the knee-jerk response to terrorism, Lazarus’ play The Dance to Death reminds us of the dangers of such hysteria and blame. Her sonnet, “The New Colossus,” could have been written for today’s Syrian refugees, reminding us too that exclusion on the basis of race was considered backward even in 1886 when the Statue of Liberty was officially dedicated:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
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 lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
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-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Ruth Bradley-St-Cyr is CIPS’s Senior Editor. With Master’s degree in hand in 1988, her first move was to join a coffee picking brigade in Nicaragua. She then built her career in book publishing, working at Prentice-Hall, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, the United Church Publishing House, Between the Lines, Canadian Scholars’ Press, Stoddart, Stewart House, and the University of Ottawa Press, where she was Director. She did her PhD at the University of Ottawa, graduating in 2014, and is currently a part-time professor in the English Department and a freelance writer and editor with several long-term clients, including two academic journals.