A Poem for Humanity

Emma Lazarus was born into a Sephardic Jewish family who immigrated to what was to become the United States of America prior to the American Revolution. Emma’s family was wealthy allowing her to be educated by private tutors. She was especially interested in poetry and composed her first poem when she was 11.

Emma’s poetry spoke mostly of love, nature, and the senseless deaths from the Civil War. It was the Russian treatment of Jews that awakened her to the immigration challenges facing Jews as they came to America. She began to teach immigrant children and help them make the transition to American society.

She was asked to write a poem to raise funds for the base of a statue to be sent to America from France. She was reluctant, but decided to help in the fund raising effort in order to create a welcoming image for Russian refugees as they came to America. The base of the Statue of Liberty gave it visibility for miles.

Emma’s poem was soon forgotten until one of her friends had the poem inscribed on a bronze plaque. The plaque was placed inside the Statue of Liberty where it was rarely seen.

Eventually resentment over the flood of immigrants grew and restrictions were put into place to slow down the process of coming to America. Anticipating the 50th anniversary of the Statue, the New York Times posed the question: “If she had a tongue, what could she tell?” One letter quoted Emma’s poem. It was a movie by Alfred Hitchcock during World War II that gave the statue her voice. The movie ended with a woman standing in the crown of Lady Liberty citing Emma’s poem. At the end of the war, the plaque with Emma’s poem was placed on the outside of the statue.

The poem eventually came to define America for its generosity of spirit to those looking for a new beginning. The voice of Lady Liberty has remained strong, even as the issue of immigration has become divisive. When there was an attempt to rewrite the poem in 2019 with the words “the poor who can stand on their own two feet”, there was outrage and the poem was restored to its original words.

Hidden heroes often find their efforts becoming heroic beyond their imagination. Emma Lazarus had no idea that her poem would take on such significance to America. It’s also doubtful whether a poem written by another person would have had the same impact. Fate often intervenes when the right person, does the right thing, at the right moment to create a searing image.

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“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! ” – (the second half of the poem The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus)


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