Eyewitness Accounts of Anti-Jewish Persecution in Russia in the Early 20th Century: The Cowen Report

A newly digitized immigration file can help students learn about persecution against Jewish people in Russia in the early 1900s, and how it caused a spike in Jewish immigration to the United States.

plunder and murder were the order of the dayToday’s post comes from classroom teacher Amanda Hatch, writing about the Cowen Report that she digitized and described as a National Archives intern. Please note that this primary source document contains descriptions of disturbing events.

What at first boded to be a lengthy, dry immigration report, soon revealed itself as one of the hidden treasures of the National Archives. Writing in a gripping, first-person narrative, immigration inspector Philip Cowen gives an eyewitness report of anti-Jewish persecution in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century.

Sent by the U.S. Government on an undercover mission, Cowen traveled to the Pale of Settlement in Russia (St. Petersburg, Kief, and Odessa) in order to discover the cause of increased Jewish immigration from Russia to the United States. His findings revealed appalling and unremitting persecution of Russian Jews.

Through a tale of political intrigue, radical revolutionaries, and rampant corruption, Cowen tells of the Russian government’s persecution of Jews. Since 1882, the May Laws forced Jews out of their homes and required them all to live in the Pale of Settlement.

Diagram of HomeCrowded into such a small area, the Jews struggled to find jobs and pay rising rent prices. In poignant pictures and narration, Cowen tells of when he saw eight Jews living in one small room with children sleeping on top of the stove in order to stay warm. Speaking with one such family, Cowen thought he heard the wife say her husband earned 3 roubles a week:

‘What!’ cried she, ‘3 roubles? No, 2 roubles. How happy would we be if he earned three.’…Never in my life did a half dollar seem so large to me.

Yet most tragic of all is Cowen’s description of the 637 pogroms, targeted attacks on Jews, committed against Jewish communities in Russia. During these pogroms, entire Jewish cities were ransacked and destroyed while hundreds of Jews were brutally murdered.

Cowen Report ExcerptCowen writes of these attacks through the stories of eyewitnesses who survived the pogroms. He writes of the Bialystok pogrom: “It lasted from 11 to 6:30PM. The police stood by but sought not to check the awful work, rather encouraging it… The killing was barbarous; nails were driven into the heads of people, their bones were broken in their hands and bodies, and then they were clubbed to death with rifles.”

Photos of homes riddled with gun shots provide a further insight into these terrible events. “The houses looked as if an enemy had gone through the town, its way fought step by step. Scarcely a house occupied by a Jew escaped riddling…”

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In order to escape such persecution, Jews sought to immigrate to America. But by accompanying Jewish immigrants on their journey to escape Russia, Cowen was able to report that Jewish persecution did not end with their departure. Jews were repeatedly charged double or triple the cost of passports and boat tickets to America. Cowen’s report includes details of the immigrants’ voyage as well as photos of Jewish immigrants and a luggage tag.

Luggage tag and immigrants

Cowen’s immigration report truly creates a window into history for students and teachers alike. Through an intriguing first-person narrative, eyewitness accounts and photographs, this document helps students understand the anti-Jewish persecution that existed at the beginning of the 20th century, and explains the spike in Jewish immigration to the United States at that time.

You can read and teach with excerpts of the Cowen Report on DocsTeach, our online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives.

Find the entire Cowen Report in our main online catalog. Parts of the report were originally digitized by teachers in our Primarily Teaching 2014 summer workshop in Washington, DC.

All images in this post come from the Cowen Report. The full citation is:

Cowen Report – European Investigation Entry No. 9; 1906 – 1907; File No. 51411/056; Subject and Policy Files, 1893 – 1957; Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Record Group 85; National Archives Building, Washington, DC.

7 thoughts on “Eyewitness Accounts of Anti-Jewish Persecution in Russia in the Early 20th Century: The Cowen Report

  1. Is there a photographic record submitted along with Cowen’s report? Stephanie included a few pictures and a graph. I’d like to see more.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Robert,

      No, there’s not a separate photographic record. The photographs and diagram are included right in the report (affixed to the paper). You can see the photographs of the damaged buildings in Cowen’s description of the Siedlce pogrom. The section “Life and Wages in Russia” includes the diagram of the cramped living quarters, as well as a table showing wages and rent. I included most of the visuals from the report in the blog post.

  2. I was reading the Philip Cowen “Immigration from Russia” 1906 investigative report, which I learned of through a genealogy website. In the pdf of his report, which you link to in this blog post, he refers to having included exhibits in his submission to the gov’t. Unfortunately, the exhibits are not included in the pdf scan via the link.

    One exhibit that he refers to is a hand-drawn map of the buildings destroyed in the 1905 pogrom in Bogopol, in the region he had traveled through. The map isn’t included in the pdf. Do the archives include the other materials he had included in his report, namely the exhibits?

    The reason I’m asking is that my maternal great grandparents survived the 1905 Bogopol pogrom, with their children (including my grandmother), and their home and my great grandfather’s tobacco business (a warehouse) were destroyed as they escaped (ultimately to Odessa, I believe, before emigrating to the US in 1906.). It’s possible (though not certain) that the building is on the map.

    On page 13, he wrote:
    ”I went to a number of cities and towns where there had been pogroms. In most of them all outward signs (insertion: “of them”) had been obliterated. One of them, however, Kalarash, already referred to, was still a mass of ruins and one-story buildings were being erected to do temporary service, while Siedlce, where I was a few weeks after the pogrom of September last, looked as though an enemy had entered the city and fought its way through the place from house to house.

    “I submit as Exhibit 3 a diagram of another town, Bogopol, in the Government of Podolia, which likewise was largely in ruins. I had planned to see this place, wherein of 6,020 people 6,000 were Jews, but time forbade it. This map was prepared by Mr. Paul Bloch of Odessa. Every house in the town is set down. Those houses colored red were burned; the green shows those that were plundered; (handwritten insertion: “the blue, the non-Jewish section.”) Across the river from Bogopol, on two sides of the apex formed by it, are two villages in the Government of Kherson, Golta and Olviopol, both of which were practically ruined.”

    Cowen also lists the map in the list of exhibits on page 190 of the document:

    ”3. Map of the town of Bogopol, Government of Podolia, showing houses burnt and plundered in the riots of November, December, 1905.”

    Therefore I’d be very interested in seeing the map that Cowen included with his report. Can you check the archives to see if these papers are included?

    1. Hi Stephanie. Apologies for the delay in responding. I appreciate the info.
      I went through the finding aid, but it looks like a long shot. I don’t see anything referring to reports he submitted, with the exception of the town emigration surveys, That does include the survey report for Bogopol (in German), but it’s the same info that he used for the charts in the report. There’s no indication of additional materials. I’ll mine further to see if there might be anything in the “oversized” files or in the map folders, though from the title those seem to be overall areas rather than individual towns. If he was submitting materials, and it wasn’t printed, he may not have had the means to keep a copy.
      In the lists of correspondence, I don’t see Frank Sargent, not of the person who drew the Bogopol map for him, identified as Paul Bloch in Odessa.
      But I’ll ask them to look in those folders for any supplementary materials, and will cross my fingers.
      Many thanks again.

      1. Hi Rick – Best of luck! Archival research can be interesting and often tests our expectations of what “should be there,” “should have been kept,” etc.!

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