Emma began writing as a young child. By her early twenties, her talent was recognized by other writers of the time. Emma’s poems and literary criticism often dealt with Jewish themes.
In 1883, Emma was asked to write a poem as part of an effort to raise money for the Statue of Liberty. She drew inspiration from her work with Jewish immigrants. Entitled “The New Colossus,” the poem conveys the hardships of the immigrant experience. In 1903, 16 years after Emma’s death, “The New Colossus” was inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty and remains there today.
“The New Colossus” By Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
By the late 1800s, tensions were rising in Russia and violence against Jews was common, leading many Eastern European Jews to immigrate to America. Emma became an advocate for the new immigrants, using her pen to call attention to their plight in Europe and volunteering her time to help those who had recently arrived in America.
Emma Lazarus never personally experienced the challenges faced by Jews who had immigrated to America to escape oppression and persecution in Eastern Europe. Yet the words she wrote—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”— captured the American immigrant experience so perfectly that they still inspire us today.