In 1883, Emma Lazarus, a descendant of wealthy Jewish immigrants, was asked to compose a sonnet to be sold at auction to raise money to pay for a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. An accomplished poet, well-connected with the elite and wealthy in New York, she wrote the beautiful and moving, “The New Colossus.” It was not discovered until 20 years after her death when the words were engraved on the pedestal. The words are simple and breathtaking, as anyone who has been to Ellis Island knows. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses ... yearning to be free.”
My Finnish ancestors, part of those “huddled masses” whose names are recorded at Ellis Island, surely read those words as they made their way to New York Harbor. They, too, were poor, afraid and dependent upon the generosity of others to realize their dream.
What is not well known is that Emma Lazarus spent her short life writing about anti-Semitism and ethnic prejudice. She was inspired by vicious pogroms that were causing almost 2,000 Russian Jews to move to America monthly. Her biographer called her a “fiery prophet of the American Jewish community.” She not only wrote about their plight; she also taught them English and became their advocate.
Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” defined what America’s vision of liberty has looked like for generations. My late friend and colleague, Bill Mills, an organist and choirmaster at Central United Methodist Church, regularly had his great choir sing these words on the Sunday closest to the 4th of July. I loved him for that. As a descendant of new Finnish immigrants, I had to memorize it. I am grateful for that prodding and fearful of a future without the stunning bravery and beauty of women like Emma Lazarus.
REV. TOM PIETILA