The Borscht Belt was a well-known hub of summer resorts in New York’s Catskill Mountains that was very popular with Jewish vacationers from the region from the 1920s through 1970s.
You may not have heard of a similar, smaller resort hub along the northwestern Connecticut-New York border. It was called “the Gateway to the Berkshires,” and its evolution is a fascinating example of the immigrant experience in America.
Historian Carol Ascher documented this history in her book, "A Chance for Land and Fresh Air: Russian Jewish Immigrants in Sharon and Amenia from 1907 to 1940."
Ascher recently spoke with WSHU’s Morning Edition Host Tom Kuser about her work.
This story begins with a baron from Belgium. We’ll get to him in a minute. But first, what brought your attention to the resettlement of Russian-Jewish families in these two very rural communities?
I actually live in Sharon [in Litchfield County]. And not only do I live in Sharon, but I live in Ellsworth, in the hilly part outside of Sharon. And I kept hearing, “Oh this used to be a farm owned by a Jew,” or “this farm use to be owned by a Jew.” Jews are fairly rare in Sharon, even now. So I went to the town records and began to see the names of Russian-Jewish families. And not only that, I saw by the mortgages, because when you look at town records you see how the mortgage has been paid, the bank involved and so on, and it kept saying JAIAS. JAIAS, who could that possibly be? And that’s when I found out that was the Jewish Agricultural and Industrial Aid Society, the organization that Baron de Hirsch had funded.
Baron Maurice de Hirsch was devoted to and instrumental in resettling Russian-Jewish families in different countries? Why?
Yes, in different countries, but largely in the United States. A little bit in Canada, and he did do a big settlement in Argentina. He had been enormously wealthy. And one of the ways he became enormously wealthy was by building the railroad between Vienna and Constantinople. And as he built the railroad, he saw the dire shape the Jews were in, in the Balkans.
And then he became interested in the Jews in Russia. And it was a time of pogroms. He thought, because Jews had not been allowed to be farmers in Russia, and had only been allowed to have what the Russians considered parasitical professions, like being money lenders or just doing crafts and so on. And he thought, if I can find a country that will take Jews, and give them a chance, and I can get them help in becoming farmers, then they can become equal citizens and anti-Semitism would end.
How did that work out then in the Sharon area, setting up families to be farmers? Did that really work in that neck of the woods?
That’s of course the issue. If you go to areas where suddenly all the farms are for sale so you can have a community of new immigrants moving in, why are they all for sale, right? So the Ellsworth section above Sharon, most of the farmers had moved out. The Jews wanted to be dairy farmers, and it was very hard to get the milk down to the train lines. It was not easy to feed cows. You couldn’t feed them on the grain grown just on that land. You had to go out and buy grain. And you couldn’t sell your milk without great effort. So, being resourceful, the Jews who were up in Sharon began to offer room and Kosher board in their farmhouses to New York Jews wanting a vacation. By the way, it’s the same way Jews in the Catskills subsidized their dairy farms. And those much more famous resorts – Grossinger's and so on that everybody knows about – they too began as farms, whose mortgages came from Baron de Hirsch.
What about the attitudes of folks who were living there when these families came there? What was the nature of anti-Semitism? Was it a problem?
Yes, I think it really was. And it was more of a problem in Sharon than Amenia, which is why they ultimately moved.
When their first children hit high school age, and they were not really welcomed in Sharon’s high school. They looked across the New York border to Amenia. The first girl child, she was an Osofsky. And by the way, the Osofskys are still in the area running Ronnybrook Farms.
Freda Osofsky was ready to go to high school and she was really not allowed. So the Osofsky family went across to Amenia. And so more and more, as the farm families’ kids reached high school age, they went to Amenia and became hoteliers.
You mention a specific family name. And you use some very detailed family histories to illustrate this immigration experience, which brought me really close to the story. How did you find such detailed information about what these folks were doing more than 100 years ago?
I was amazingly lucky. One by one, descendants appeared. And as you saw in the book, it’s filled with photographs, too. The first time I would go to visit somebody they would say, “Oh, I don’t have anything.” And then I would get a phone call. “Actually, I found some photos,” or “Actually I found an old cow bell.” So the people I interviewed were grandchildren. And grandchildren still have a lot of history. And in one case, with Sam Gorkofsky, he was a son. He had grown up in Ellsworth. He had gone to the Ellsworth one-room school and he really remembered so much. He remembered who owned what farm. He died, actually, just before the book was published.
Back to the baron for a moment. Did the baron’s idea work? Did helping families become farmers in other nations help integration into the societies they were living in?
I think that the baron was wrong about farming becoming a cure for anti-Semitism. In fact, in America, farming was in a different stage than it was in Russia. The small one-family farms were dwindling already from the 19th century to the 20th century. So the Jewish families came a little bit late on that. But the thing that it really did is it gave these immigrants a leg up: first generation immigrants, after being here four, five years, owned property. That’s unheard of for any immigrant group. Usually it takes a generation. The Jewish families that lived in Sharon, their children became dentists, accountants, doctors, lawyers, and teachers. Its extraordinary how within one generation, you already have a professional class. And that wouldn’t have happened without them owning property.