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Recognizing the Contributions of Early Texas Jewish Settlers during a Decade of Turmoil

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The United Nations General Assembly has designated January 27 as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. This day marks the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp, in Poland. The day is set aside to remember the six million Jews and other victims murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust..

In 1937, in the midst of the rise of Adolph Hitler in Germany, the February issue of the Frontier Times magazine published an article by J. M. Woods entitled The Jews’ Early Contributions to Texas. In his introduction, Woods wrote of the importance of recognizing the contributions of all of Texas’ diverse population, “The Centennial Year of 1936 is a period in the history of our state when due credit should be given to the various types of our cosmopolitan population for the respective contributions to the development of Texas. If this is to be done, we will find that Texas as it exists in its pride and glory is not the product of the courage, fortitude, sacrifices, and tenacity of any one type or class of people, but that virtually every strain of the human family found within the borders today were represented upon the battle fields, around the council tables and in the forums of a hundred years ago; we will find that men and women of all the different races living here made their sacrifices, dared the tyrant, assisted in establishing and maintaining law and order; that they practiced charity and benevolence, and that they laid the foundation for the eleemosynary institutions, the churches, and schools, which bless our land today. If we do this in a fair and generous spirit, we will develop a greater pride in the patriotism of the whole body of our people and we will strengthen the bonds which bind us together and fortify ourselves against the political, economic and social evils which constantly beset organized society.” In making his case that all groups should be recognized for their contributions, Woods went on to extol the military and civic contributions of Jewish settlers in the fight for Texas independence through the establishment of the Republic of Texas, and through statehood.

Woods not only writes of the fallen Jewish soldiers who fought at the Alamo and San Jacinto, but he points out that among the earliest pioneers who settled in places like San Augustine and Nacogdoches were settlers of the Jewish faith who, through their businesses, aided the cause for liberty and independence. After Texas became a republic, Jewish immigration increased and many of these immigrants proved to be essential to the newly formed government. Jacob de Cordova initiated very important and needed trade between Galveston and New Orleans. He established the first cotton factory in Texas which led the young republic into international trade with England. De Cordova would become a founder of the city of Waco. Perhaps the most prominent Jewish settler to help build Texas was Henri Castro who was instrumental in bringing numerous immigrants to Texas and establishing Castroville.

Woods summarizes by stating Jewish settlers “helped win the independence of Texas, organize her courts of justice, finance her earliest charitable institutions, establish proper relations with the outer world, organize her fraternal societies, establish her schools and colleges and bring (through mercantile establishments) the comforts of life to countless thousands. By his patriotism, generosity and forethought, he has earned the respect and gratitude of all patriots.”

During this horrific time of Jewish persecution in Europe, Woods asked what of the future? He chose to close his article with an excerpt of a speech delivered at the Alamo by the rabbi of San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El, Dr. Ephraim Frisch. Frisch was known as the “Radical” Rabbi for his outspoken political views, including his desire for the United States to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Rabbi Frisch was also a popular hero to many young San Antonio Jews who recognized the need for Americans to speak out against the atrocities that were being committed against their European brethren. Woods, an obvious admirer of the rabbi, quoted this portion of the speech: “With our fellow citizens of our sister faiths, we now unite to thank Providence that He has enabled us to settle in this great commonwealth, to free it and expand it, a commonwealth so full of promise, and that this our beloved state in its infant years was privileged to become an integral part of the American Republic. Here, may we all under God, Catholic, Protestant and Jew, many of all faiths and lineages, continue to live and prosper, cherishing our precious American traditions and ideals of liberty, of brotherhood, of justice and of peace; everyone - in the words of Scripture – ‘sitting under his own vine and fig tree, with none to make him afraid;’ each one eager to be his brother’s keeper.”

Written just a year before the Nazi’s Kristallnacht in 1938 in which hundreds of synagogues and Jewish owned businesses in Austria and Germany were burned and 30,000 Jewish men were taken to the concentration camps, this article elevated and recognized the Jewish contribution to our state’s greatness. The words that were written and spoken during this time are especially poignant as we remember the Holocaust that would follow their publication.