The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World, by Tara Zahra

Millions went West for a better life, but there were casualties in the human traffic, says Hester Vaizey

March 31, 2016
Flock of flying birds migrating

“Evidently you don’t wish to care for me anymore…Nothing more is left for me except to stretch out my hand and beg on the street, or to take my life away.” These were the desperate words of an Eastern European woman who was abandoned by her husband when he emigrated to the US. America’s great story of immigration has traditionally focused on both its scale and its success, but as Tara Zahra’s vivid and meticulously researched work shows, this success was only part of the story.

At the turn of the 20th century, mass migration from Eastern Europe hollowed out whole villages, transforming the lives of those who stayed behind as well as those who left. While Polish and Hungarian nobles bemoaned the loss of cheap agricultural labour, even the possibility of immigration threatened to break up families, as one contemporary Polish magazine explained: “Entire villages have been ruined to such an extent that fathers can no longer say a sharp word to their sons, or else he immediately gets the response ‘Give me my inheritance and I will emigrate to Canada’.” This was the other side of “America fever”, which promised departing Eastern Europeans freedom and social mobility.

For all those who found an American El Dorado in the Land of the Free, others did not. One migrant quoted by Zahra recalled of her feelings on arrival: “It wasn’t the America we knew from movies and books…I was deeply, deeply disappointed.” Indeed, many of those labouring in US factories and mines found their standards of living plummeting, and some returned home. But this, Zahra shows, was also not unproblematic. Returnees experienced reverse culture shock, finding themselves to have been more Americanised than they realised. In some cases, “failed” migrants became a burden on their families, returning like “beggars and tramps, in a state of great poverty”. Stories of those desperate to return stand in stark contrast to the more familiar picture of migrants setting off, buoyed by dreams of a better future.

The Great Departure charts the ebb and flow of migration from Eastern Europe throughout the 20th century. At the start of the century mobility was at its peak, but half a century later the Iron Curtain would restrict migration dramatically. In the Cold War context, the West sought to make much of the limitations on freedom of movement in the East, but as Zahra’s research shows, Eastern Europe’s battle against emigration began much earlier. Although the migration of workers brought the prospect of remittances to families left behind, and although at various points Soviet bloc governments were keen to encourage ethnic and religious minorities to leave, ultimately people were a valuable resource, whether for labour or battle, that they were loath to lose.

Shining a spotlight on oft-overlooked aspects of immigration, Zahra’s valuable research highlights the casualties among those drawn to the New World, and explores how policymakers in both the US and in Eastern Europe sought to manipulate cross-Atlantic human traffic to their own advantage. By delving into its less positive consequences, The Great Departure offers a deep, multifaceted understanding of mass migration.

Hester Vaizey is college lecturer, Clare College, Cambridge, and author, most recently, of Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall (2014).

The Great Departure: Mass Migration from Eastern Europe and the Making of the Free World
By Tara Zahra
W. W. Norton, 400pp, £18.99
ISBN 9780393078015
Published 19 April 2016

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