Chicken farming to the strains of string quartets in New Jersey

When in Vienna, my grandparents had been middle-class intellectuals; my grandfather a well-paid lawyer, my grandmother a socialist and music-lover. The Second World War put their life into a tailspin. After a desperate year as new immigrants in New York, they leapt at the opportunity of becoming chicken farmers.

They were by then in their fifties, had very little money and had recently discovered the appalling death-toll among family and friends in Europe. My elegant grandfather Arthur was packing crates in a bookshop. My grandmother Emma made hats, and they lived in the Upper East Side in a cockroach-infested flat.

Then they heard of the fund started by 19th-century German philanthropist and financier Maurice de Hirsch, conceived to help central European Jews resettle in North and South America. In the US, the Jewish Agricultural Society (JAS), an offshoot of the Baron Hirsch Fund, offered loans and technical assistance to immigrants seeking new livelihoods in farming. Poultry farming was thought well suited to middle-aged refugees because the work was not too onerous and start-up costs were low.

I remember trips with my American father to visit Emma in her white bungalow at Vineland in southern New Jersey. I would feed the chickens when I was little and later, when there were no more chickens, I can remember the piano in the living room, a wooden-shelved kitchen and an attic where I slept with my American boy cousins.

Russian Jewish immigrants had first farmed in communities close to Vineland in the 1880s. They tried to grow crops on the unrewarding sandy soil that is ill-suited to agriculture. Some sought inspiration in the Am Olam movement started in 1881 in Odessa, which encouraged Jews to form socialist farming communities.

By the early 20th-century, egg production had taken hold there, with the aid of federal grants. New Jersey became the “egg basket of America”. The immigrant profile had changed too, with an influx of Jews from Germany and Austria in the 1930s followed at the end of the Second World War by Holocaust survivors from central Europe. In the 1950s, New Jersey had become the boom state for eggs and poultry, with Vineland’s Egg Auction peaking on a million eggs a day.

My grandparents had started farming there in 1946, and it was there that my uncle John met his future wife, Hilda. She was the daughter of temporary Jewish farmers who had been prominent in business in Germany before the war. Hilda’s brother, also called John, remembered my grandfather “as always elegantly dressed in coat and tie, speaking with the charm and wit of a successful cosmopolitan.”

He enjoyed playing classical music on the piano for Vineland’s own highbrow radio station, listeners calling up to request favourite pieces. My grandmother, a musician too, was an earthier type, and John recalled her “dressed like a farmer’s wife cheerfully doing her down-to-earth tasks.”

On weekends, the two would get together with friends and play music while reminiscing about old times. Many had been prosperous; many were to move on to other jobs and cities. Most of the chicken farmers’ children studied at universities in nearby Philadelphia or New York and went into the liberal professions.

After the mid-1950s, the poultry and egg industry was in decline. Federal subsidies had stopped, and in 1957 Hurricane Hazel badly damaged many chicken farms. Automation and competition from the South dealt the final death blow.

By then, Arthur had long left Vineland. Unable to adapt to his straitened circumstances, he was haunted by the ghosts of his siblings transported from Prague to Nazi death camps. He ended his days back in Vienna, decreeing when he was nearing his end that my grandmother should come to nurse him. Emma refused to return to Vienna and soldiered on by giving piano and singing lessons. 

Vineland today still has a Jewish population, and young Jewish members of Occupy and other progressive movements even have plans to revive farming in the area, growing sorghum and other heritage grains.