Petitions in Portsmouth: The Story of the Jewish Community, the Russo-Japanese War and The Portsmouth Peace Treaty

In 2005, research in local newspapers found references to conversations between Russian Jewish shopkeepers in downtown Portsmouth and members of the Russian delegation who had arrived on August 9, 1905 for negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War. Senior diplomat Witte, his secretary Korostovetz and other members of the delegation heard from their former countrymen, in Russian, about the much better conditions Jews enjoyed in America while Jews were still suffering pogroms and other persecutions in Russia.

In 1905 there were just 26 Jewish households in Portsmouth, living and working in a population of 14,000. Yet for 30 days the eyes of the world, especially the Jewish world, were upon the seacoast city. Temple Israel itself was founded as a congregation shortly after the negotiations between Russia and Japan had produced the Portsmouth Peace Treaty.

Although the first Jewish family in the area arrived in New Castle from Palestine in 1693, the  great wave of Russian Jewish immigration came in 1880-1914, when 3.2 million Russians (90 percent Jewish) arrived in the US. At the time Jews were outcasts in Russia – literally confined to an area of Poland and the Ukraine called “The Pale” – and deprived of most rights – they could not own land, they could not hold government or professional jobs, and only 10 percent were allowed to attend school.

When Bernard Michaelson told Korostovetz that “his family were all educated” it was the contrast to what he had known at home that made this fact so important. Michaelson also said, “A man with five cents in his pocket in this country is better off than a millionaire in Russia.”  When Korostovetz asked Nathan Raymond from Max Goodman’s store on Market Street, “You are both American citizens?” and Mr. Raymond and Louis Slosburg replied “Yes, we are voters and honor the flag of America,” one might read something extra in Korostovetz’ reply, “You could do nothing better and I am pleased that you can say so.” 

Temple Israel’s historical documents at the Portsmouth Athenaeum list these families living in Portsmouth in 1905, the year the Temple was organized: Mayer Alkon, Harry Cohen, Philip Cohen, Abram Dreller, John Dreller, Lois Gerber, Max Gilman, Max Goodman, Moses Goodman, Jacob Gouse, Julius Gouse, Abraham Halprin, Sam Katz, David Levi, Nathan Levine, Joseph Polimer, Samuel Polimer, Morris Port, Nathan Raymond, Reverend Jacob Segal, Samuel Shapiro, Meyer Siegel, Harry Sussman (whose business was the Dye House of Bernard Michaelson) Bell Sussman, Louis Slosburg. Wolf Weinstein, Samuel Yoffee, Harry Zeidman and Julius Zeidman.

The Russian diplomats also received two important delegations arguing for an end to the pogroms and other persecutions Jews were then suffering in Russia: international banker Jacob Schiff on August 19 and representatives from the Lawrence MA Jewish community on August 21. Jacob Schiff was the head of the international banking concern Kuhn, Loeb & Co. in New York. To protest the pogroms and other outrages the Russian government was wielding against Russian Jews, he had convinced fellow American bankers not to fund Russian war bonds. He had been less successful in Europe where the Rothschilds, for example, feared that such actions would make it harder on their Jewish countrymen at home. With Schiff at Wentworth were Oscar Strauss (whom TR later made Secretary of Commerce – the first Jewish Cabinet member), the industrialist Adolph Lewisohn, Adolph Kraus of Chicago (later president of the executive committee of the national B’nai B’rith) and Isaac Seligman of J&W Seligman & Co. an international banker with offices in New York and London.




It may be that the encounters between the Russian delegation and the various Jewish communities who expressed their feelings about the Russian government’s treatment of Jews to Witte were in some ways as pivotal as the formal Treaty negotiations that had brought Russia and Japan to Portsmouth. While the Treaty addressed a redistribution of the balance of power in Asia and established President Theodore Roosevelt as a Nobel Peace Prize winning diplomat, the Jewish influence may have affected how Sergius Witte as Russian Prime Minister later helped modify the attitude of the Czar towards the oppressed – Russian workers and Jews alike.

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