The Huddled Masses: Emma Lazarus and the many meanings of the Statue of Liberty

PODCAST The words of “The New Colossus,” written 135 years ago by Jewish poet Emma Lazarus in tribute to the Statue of Liberty, have never been more relevant — or as hotly debated — as they are today.

What do they mean to you? “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

In this episode, Tom and Greg look at the backstory of these verses — considered sacred by many — and the woman who created them.

Emma Lazarus was an exceptional writer and a unique personality who embraced her Jewish heritage even while befriending some of the greatest writers of the 19th century. When the French decided to bestow the gift of Liberty Enlightening the World to the United States, many Americans were uninterested in donating money to its installation in New York Harbor. Lazarus was convinced to write a poem about the statue but she decided to infuse her own meaning into it.

This icon of republican government — and friendship between France and America — would soon come to mean safe harbor and welcome to millions of new immigrants coming to America. But are Lazarus’ words still relevant in the 21st century?

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A group of fifty Jewish children, en route to Philadelphia in 1939, were placed into foster homes.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Anita Willens

 

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887), a woman of exceptional writing skills who eventually embraced her Jewish heritage and worked to bridge the divide between settled Americans and newly arriving immigrants in need of assistance.

New Yorkers first saw a small portion of Lady Liberty — her arm and torch, displayed in Madison Square Park in an effort to raise money for her installation in New York Harbor.

Museum of City of New York

Liberty in 1890, prepared to welcome millions of new immigrants in the harbor. She’s actually copper at this time, not green.

Library of Congress/Detroit Publishing Co

From a 1946 newspaper:

From our recent trip to the statue:

A waxen replica of Bartholdi in the gift shop:

The words of Emma Lazarus, at gift shop checkout:

A statue of Lazarus herself, in the shadow of Lady Liberty:

The statue’s original torch, which leaked and had to be replaced:

Tom enjoying the museum audio tour:

 

The original Emma Lazarus plaque which once sat just inside the pedestal. Today its home is in the Statue of Liberty museum:

At the American Jewish Historical Society, a peak into Lazarus’ handwritten journal, piecing together some of her favorite poems. She placed “The New Colossus” in the very front:

Emma’s Greenwich Village home on West 10th Street:

 

EXHIBITIONS
American Jewish Historical Society — Our BIG thanks to Annie Polland, executive director at AJHS, for showing us some of the astonishing artifacts in their collection. Visit their rotating exhibition of objects from their collection and check out their list of programs and events.

FURTHER READING
Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty by Yasmin Sabina Khan
Liberty’s Torch: The Great Adventure to Build the Statue of Liberty by Elizabeth Mitchell
Emma Lazarus by Esther Schor
Emma Lazarus in Her World: Life and Letters by Bette Roth Young

FURTHER LISTENING
After listening to our show Mother of Exiles, check out these podcasts from our back catalog with similar themes:

For more information on Wards Island: