B. Brilling, 1939 news article


English Translation by Irene Newhouse, January 1996 from Rabbi Bernhard Brilling, "Die ersten Juden in USA," in Juedisches Nachrichtenblatt, (a Jewish newspaper published in Berlin), 24 March 1939.

Maintained by ACLR.  Please e-mail any comments or suggestions to wyancey@aclrsbs.com


[ Return to Silesian family index page at famhist.htm ]


The First Jews in America

History of a Family by Rabbi Bernhard Israel Brilling, Breslau

The main stream of Jewish emigration to the United States began in the 19th. & 20th. centuries, and the memory of Jewish families for their emigrated members does not in general go back any further than this.

But already in the 18th century, while North America was still a colony, in that time woven about with the romance of the Leather-Stocking Tales and the winning of the Wild West, there were already Jews there, if only a few. [In 1783 there were about 2000 Jews in North America].

Only rarely do can the threads of those who emigrated to America then be tied to their homeland. Although [except for Sephardic Jews who already appeared in the 17th century], most of the Jews settling in the English North American colonies were understandably English, a few immigrants from Germany can nonetheless be identified among them, of which the Gratz family, which I consider here, can even be traced back to their origins around 1700. They belonged among the generally English or German travelers of Pennsylvania, particularly to the company of traders & explorers who were active in the settlement of the states west of Pennsylvania [Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia & Kentucky], who not only had a material interest in these significant undertakings, but were also courageous explorers & pioneers, who left many traces of their stay in this at the time largely unknown & dangerous wilderness.

From London to Philadelphia

The family Gratz [whose branch in Germany adopted the surname Graetzer in 1812] does not derive their name from the well-known little city in Posen, but from the little town of Graetz in Upper Silesia, which lies near Troppau. Their oldest known ancestor is Solomon, who moved from Graetz in the first half of the 18th century, where he'd probably been Arendator , to his wife's hometown, the hamlet Langendorf near Tost in Upper Silesia and died there, leaving his children. Because of the early death of father & mother, who soon followed him [1748] the orphaned children became independent early, upon which came that the law only permitted residence rights to the oldest son in the town itself, so that the other sons were forced to leave the town or even to emigrate. So several children settled in upper Silesian villages, but two decided to venture to go abroad. And so they went by way of Breslau and Amsterdam to London, where already two of their relatives, the brothers Solomon & Jakob Bloch [or, as they were called in London, Henry] had emigrated, to try their luck there. Solomon had actually succeeded in founding a larger business in London, whose affairs extended over Europe not only to the English colony in North America, but also to the West Indies & India. Michael Gratz went to this Solomon as apprentice, and there the drive toward America probably originated within him, which surely offered him great opportunity. Shortly after 1750 Michael and his older brother Barnard therefore emigrated to North America.

The fur trade

Barnard Gratz arrived in Philadelphia, which was then a large trading center, in 1754, and entered into the business of David Frank, through whom he entered into a relationship with the Jewish fur traders of Lancaster, among whom Joseph Simon was apparently the most prominent. In that year the North Americans, under the leadership of George Washington, had been defeated in their push into the rich tracts of Ohio by the French, who at that time were still contesting the domination of North America with the British, so that the trade of the settlers there had a boundary set to it. The fur traders of Lancaster [west of Philadelphia, on the Susquehanna River], with whom the Gratz brothers had already entered into business relations, were cut off from their sources in Kentucky, on the far side of the Alleghenies by this, as they could no longer use the Ohio River way. The only route left them was through the Virginia Valley , where the Jew Levy, a stepson of Joseph Simon from Lancaster settled in 1759 in Winchester; it's said of him that he appeared wherever there were beaver pelts to be obtained in that region between Winchester & Detroit, which was teeming with Redskins & wild animals. Although during this period the fur trade was only a sideline for the Gratz brothers, of whom the younger brother Michael appeared in Philadelphia in 1759. Then they dreamed of their own fleet, which they could use for their own business & with which they wanted to make their own deliveries to clients & vendors. They therefore began coastal runs from New Orleans & Mobile [east of New Orleans] in the south to Halifax & Quebec [now in Canada] in the north. Naturally the sea trade was not exactly risk free and safe in those days [even in relatively peaceful times]. They had, for example, to consider privateers capturing their ships [as, for instance, one of their captains, Isaac Martin, was taken by a privateer in 1760, and taken to Europe, from where he could return to America after his ransom], as well as with shipwrecks. In 1765 Michael Gratz was shipwrecked on a trip on which he intended to lay the foundation for trade with the West Indies. All their plans for their own fleet became moot when, on October 25, 1765, they, with their in-law Matthias Busch, signed the Non-Importation Resolution, in which the signers agreed not to import any British wares, a demonstration that helped lead to independence. Only once could they return to shipping. During the Revolution, in 1777, Michael Gratz took part in outfitting a privateer that went after British shipping.

The fur trade increased in importance for them only after 1763. In that year the French were finally driven out of North America, while England, that is, their North American colonies, now reached to the Mississippi, on whose further shore the Spanish ruled. Under the protection of the British flag the fur trade could now extend further over every feasible route. And again beaver pelts were exported to London from the fur trading capital of Lancaster by way of Philadelphia. Michael Gratz joined the fur trading company of Lancaster & bound himself to one of their most prominent members, Joseph Simon from Lancaster, by marrying his daughter Miriam on 20 June 1769.

En Route to the Mississippi

The fur traders and trappers were only the outposts of colonization. After 1763 [? the '3' is on a fold. Could be 5] the Ohio company of Virginia resumed its westward march to the Mississippi, to introduce colonization there & to organize new governments on the Ohio, Mississippi, & Great Lakes. Because of their business connections, the brothers Gratz were involved in the colonization movement in Illinois and Indiana, as well as in Kentucky. Already in 1768 they had dealings on the Kaskaskia River [a tributary of the Mississippi, east of St. Louis], whereby they furnished the new settlers as well as the new government with wares of all sorts.

In the last quarter of the 18th century the brothers Gratz were even more strongly interwoven with settlement. Because of ties with Virginia dating back to the period of rebellion, Bernard Gratz was involved in the proposed project to drain the Dismal Swamp [Virginia, south of Norfolk]. Michael Gratz was active in the planning of a new settlement in the region of today's West Virginia & northeast Kentucky. He also participated with Col. Pentecost in outfitting an expedition which left Pittsburg in 1781, which was to support Virginia's proposed annexation of the Wild West. Thus they were also involved in all attempts to found daughter colonies of Virginia in Kentucky [1792]. When the future president of the US, William Henry Harrison founded the state of Indiana, the Gratz brothers had to deliver the wares he needed from Philadelphia.

When one considers the business activities of the Brothers Gratz [whose firm was taken over in 1798 by Simon & Heymann, the sons of Michael Gratz, & carried on] in the third quarter of the 18th century, one finds that: while originally only purely mercantile goals, especially ship ownership in order to supply North America with all sorts of wares were considered, they were forced by political events that led to the Revolution to break off trade with England and to limit themselves to internal American markets. The fur trade, to which they came through business & family ties was not at that time a purely business activity, but was tied to the opening & settlement of the Wild West, whose original inhabitants were gradually forced to give way before the European settlers, whose entry had been made possible by the activity of the trappers & fur traders.

The activity of the brothers Gratz has not left traces only in literature. The map also shows their trading & colonization activities. Thus, there's a town Gratz, Kentucky on the Kentucky River [Owen County], which recalls the time when goods were shipped down the Ohio River & when Lexington [Kentucky, where Benjamin, son of Michael Gratz, the 2nd president of the First Kentucky Railroad settled] was still the capital of the middle West. Also, south of Pittsburg a town named Gratztown recalls the family [on the Youghioghany River].

But this Jewish family was not only involved in colonization & trade. They also pioneered for Jewish culture in America. Heymann Gratz [son of Michael] was the founder of [the still extant] Gratz College in Philadelphia, an institution of higher education for Jewish teachers that was associated with Dropsie College, while his sister Rebecca, who is said to be the model for the Rebecca in the well-known Scott novel "Ivanhoe", was founder of the Hebrew Sunday School Society in Philadelphia, which was able to celebrate its centennial on February 4, 1938 with great participation.

[Irene's Comments: James Fenimore Cooper's books were a mega-hit in German translation: best-sellers even in my mother's childhood; she read them all.