They came to a sleepy, swampy Washington by the hundreds, some with little else but the clothes on their backs, others with a useful trade--and nearly all with memories of the brutal pogroms then sweeping 19th century Russia.
They were Jews, waves in the immigrant tide that also deposited Germans, Latvians and Poles up and down the eastern seaboard in the 100 years after 1820. They were the muscle and merchants for Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York--cities where vibrant Jewish neighborhoods survive to this day.
But little of that neighborhood legacy survived in the District, which as early as 1910 boasted three imposing synagogues and where a close-knit Jewish community was the bulwark of the city's commercial core for half a century. As the descendants of Washington's first Jews scattered to the suburbs and beyond, only a few have kept that local heritage alive.
This week's gathering of thousands of Holocaust survivors has become all the more poignant for District natives who recall Seventh Street NW humming with streetcars and hawkers or sweltering days in the Jewish tenements of Southwest.
"This is the nation's capital, but it's also a city with a lot of Jewish history," said Flora Atkin, 63, whose great-grandfather was one of the founders in 1869 of the Adas Israel congregation, now one of the District's largest. "In a lot of ways, Washington is a natural place to mark the Holocaust."
The roots of Washington's Jewish community stretch back to 1820, when German Jews settled along Seventh Street NW, building row upon row of small shops and rambling furniture stores. Later in the century, Jews from czarist Russia, Hungary and Poland converged on Southwest, in the District's swampy corner of elm-lined streets and squalid housing.
"Waves of immigrants hit every large city in the U.S., and Washington was no different," said David Altshuler, a professor of Judaic Studies at George Washington University. "Even in the days before the Civil War, the city had a small but substantial Jewish population."
But with few factories, Washington never drew the numbers of working-class Europeans who established whole enclaves in cities, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. By the 1850s, the District had fewer than 3,000 Jewish residents in a total population of 40,000.
The founders of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, the city's first Jewish place of worship, were typical of that emerging class of small-business owners. In 1852, 21 Germans, most of them merchants, founded the congregation in a home on Pennsylvania Avenue. A decade later, the congregation still had fewer than 100 members.
In 1869, 35 members resigned in a protest over liberal reforms. One of those unhappy with the new practice of seating men and women together, the English prayers and the organ music accompanying hymns was Edward Hartogensis, a Dutch immigrant and Flora Atkin's great-grandfather.
In 1876, the group built a home for a new Adas Israel congregation at Sixth and G streets NW. The small brick building, which now houses the museum of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, was the first synagogue built in the District.
By 1910, a short stretch of I Street NW--three blocks on the northern edge of today's Chinatown--boasted three large synagogues, all within walking distance of the Seventh Street commercial area: the Ohev Sholom synagogue at Fifth Street NW; the second Adas Israel synagogue at Seventh Street NW; and the twin-towered Washington Hebrew Congregation on Eighth Street NW. With their rugged stone exteriors, fat domes and intricate stained glass windows, the three buildings were grand in their day. Now, the Adas Israel building houses a Methodist church and the other two are Baptist churches.
By contrast, the Seventh Street blocks that rumbled with streetcars and horse-drawn wagons weathered the years poorly.
Several multistory furniture stores still dot Seventh Street's once-flourishing Furniture Row south of I Street, but there are few relics of the days when the strip was dominated by such businesses as Hecht's, Kann's, and Lansburgh's department stores; Sach's clothiers; Mayer's furniture store; and Rich's Shoes.
From D Street north to U Street NW, Seventh Street in the early 1900s was a mosaic of Jewish-owned stores, Irish saloons and black-owned businesses. "You could buy almost anything along here," Atkin said last week as she strolled along the riot-scarred block between S and T streets.
Standing across the street from the shop where her grandfather, Herman Blumenthal, lived and worked, Atkin saw only faint traces of the dry goods stores and notions shops of her childhood.
"My uncle had his shop over there, at 1814 Seventh Street, and next door here was a notions shop--a five-and-dime really," said Atkin, who now lives in Chevy Chase. "They had every kind of candy."
For the Jews whose businesses thrived on Seventh Street or further south on Pennsylvania Avenue, prosperity meant the chance to move from downtown to the northern and western edges of the District--a sylvan setting for a new elite and their families. Not so in poverty-riddled Southwest, where families had the determination to succeed but fewer chances to do so.
"It wasn't exactly the classiest neighborhood in the District," said Harry Wender, a 75-year-old Rockville resident who grew up on 4 1/2 Street SW.
"As a kid, I never minded growing up there," said Wender, whose career as a Washington lawyer has spanned 50 years. "But by the time I got to Central (now Cardozo) High School--the elite school for Jewish boys to attend--I was embarrassed about having grown up there.
"In a way, it was a ghetto, but mostly because of the low-cost housing available to the immigrants," Wender said. In wartime, servicemen from nearby Fort McNair were barred from the neighborhood's red-light district, he added.
Southwest's pervasive poverty did destroy one convention Jews carried over from Europe, Wender said.
Many German Jews, often members of Reform congregations, "thought of themselves as more intellectual than the East European Jews" who flocked to the Conservative or Orthodox synagogues, he said.
In Southwest, however, his father, a Latvian, was able to marry his mother, a native of Strasburg, Germany. The pair, who later ran a grocery store at 4 1/2 and N streets SW, were married by Rabbi Yoelson, the local rabbi and cantor. Yoelson's son, Asa, won fame in the 1920s as jazz singer Al Jolson.
The influx of Jewish immigrants to Washington subsided by the 1920s but was followed 15 years later by another sort of migration: the rush of young Jewish professionals to the District during the glory days of Preisdent Roosevelt's New Deal.
"The infusion of those Jewish professionals was as much a calling for them as it was a monetary consideration. Where else was there to work in those days?" said Hyman Bookbinder, the Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee who has lived in the city for 32 years.
Lured by Roosevelt's regulatory agencies, the District quickly became a mecca for lawyers, attracting the likes of Benjamin V. Cohen, the Indiana native who left a New York law practice to serve as a leading troubleshooter for the administration.
In the 20 years following World War II, Jews in Northwest left the city in droves, moving outward to southern Montgomery County, Prince George's County and Northern Virginia. Much of Seventh Street was a drab wasteland by 1968, but the neighborhood declined further after the riots that year. Meanwhile, in Southwest, urban renewal leveled all but a few of the old Jewish tenements.
"In spite of the exodus there was virtually no division between Jews in D.C. and those who took to the suburbs," Altshuler said. "Not only had the postwar years spawned a new network of Jews in the area, but a dozen or more Jewish organizations established Washington offices for lobbying and fund raising. International groups, including B'nai B'rith, also set up headquarters in the District.
Day schools for Jewish children sprang up in the suburbs; community groups and clubs, duplicating the philanthropic services of District Jews in the first half the century, started outreach agencies to serve the growing Jewish community.
"There was a sense--you saw it especially during the Six Day War--that Jews in and around Washington were all part of a larger community," said Elton Kerness, executive vice president of the United Jewish Appeal Federation of Greater Washington. "Like a lot of other people in this town, Jews in Washington have started feeling less like transients here.
"People are saying, this is where I make my home. This is where I'm raising my kids."
Unlike Detroit, Cleveland and other urban centers that have lost large numbers of Jewish residents in the past 10 years, the Washington area's Jewish population climbed from about 110,000 in 1970 to nearly 190,000 today, according to preliminary findings of a demographic study Kerness hopes to complete next year.
Montgomery County has the largest concentration, Kerness said, with about 90,000, followed by the District and Northern Virginia with 40,000 each, and about 20,000 Jewish residents in Prince George's County.
Drawn by nationally ranked Jewish studies programs at George Washington University and the University of Maryland, young students also are settling in Washington after college, Kerness said. The trend of young professional Jews settling in the District mirrors the national trend of young whites returning to the inner-city.
"I'm not plugged into the Jewish establishment," said Michael Strum, 30, "but I settled here because of the beauty of the city and the pace of life here. It's not as frenetic as it is in other parts of the country." Strum, a New York native and owner of a Washington tour company, lives near Dupont Circle.
Steve and Hasia Diner, teachers at the University of the District of Columbia and American University, respectively, settled in the District in 1972, first in Dupont Circle, then in Adams-Morgan and upper Wisconsin Avenue. While the mobility of the city's population has made it harder for them to form close ties with the Jewish community, "we hold on through new kinds of networks," Steve Diner said.
"In Washington, there are still some considerable divisions among Jews, mostly over tradition," Diner said. "But we've still kept the ties of individual Jewish identity and ties with the community.