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Melting Point by Rachel Cockerell: A sobering history of Jewish refugees routed through Texas

Cockerell’s unique approach raises questions about the role of the biographer or historian

Melting Point
Melting Point
Author: Rachel Cockerell
ISBN-13: 978-1035408917
Publisher: Wildfire Books
Guideline Price: £25

On July 1st, 1907, the SS Cassel, a steamship carrying Russian Jews docked in Galveston, Texas. They were the first of 10,000 refugees fleeing pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe routed through Texas, about a third of the number that emigrated to Palestine during the same period. The now little-known Galveston Plan, which ran until 1914, aimed to divert immigrants away from New York towards the more sparsely populated interior of the US. (“Who knew?” writes an Angeleno of their grandparents who, it turns out, had come to America through Galveston rather than Ellis Island.)

David Jochelmann, Rachel Cockerell’s great-grandfather, helped recruit Russian Jews to participate in the Plan, led by his best friend Israel Zangwill, a charismatic novelist dubbed “The Dickens of the Ghetto”. [The project was financed with a $500,000 investment by New York philanthropist Jacob Schiff.]

Before the Balfour Declaration supporting a Jewish state in 1917 and the mandate for Palestine at the end of the First World War, Zionists had scoured the globe for a temporary refuge – a search that included Kenya (mistakenly identified at the time as Uganda), Angola, Australia, Canada, Mexico and even Antarctica. “If we cannot get the Holy Land, we can make another land holy,” Zangwill wrote in 1906. They selected the American West reluctantly, fearing the melting pot would subsume the immigrants’ Jewish identity.

In a highly unusual choice, Cockerell collates fragments from source materials – newspaper articles, letters, diaries, memoirs and oral histories – without any additional authorial comment. As she shares in a preface, she was inspired by George Saunders’s 2017 Booker-winning novel Lincoln in the Bardo, which combined 19th-century accounts with fictionalised historical passages. But Cockerell bypasses any fictionalisation. Having begun the family history with a standard approach, she found herself annoyed by her interjections and decided to let the voices speak for themselves.


The book is split into three distinct (and rather disparate) parts: the first covering Zionism and Galveston; the second recounting the life of David Jochelmann’s first son, known as Emjo Basshe, who emigrated to New York aged 14 and later founded the New Playwrights Theater. The third part starts with Jochelmann’s arrival in London from Kyiv at the outbreak of the first World War, at which point he “removed the extra ‘n’ from the family surname, for fear of sounding German”. It carries through his anti-Nazi activism and the family’s life during the second World, War and ends with one of his sons leaving with his family for Israel in 1949.

The mission gets murkier at times when Cockerell stretches beyond the family history to address history with a capital H

When Jochelman died in 1941, his New York Times obituary hailed him as a “household word in Jewish homes throughout Eastern Europe because of the important help he provided ... to masses of destitute Jews”. He was, however, a “mysteriously (and deliberately) unpublicized personage” as one of Cockerell’s sources put it. Because he never wrote about himself, the image that forms of the man who has fallen into obscurity since his death emerges as if from negative space.

At its best, Melting Point succeeds in Cockerell’s aim of getting the historical backstory “into the reader’s head the way it got into [her] head”. We vicariously experience the delight of discovery amid archival material as she was granted access to libraries around the world post-pandemic. Some of the book’s characters spring to life: Zangwill, the novelist and playwright John Dos Passos (who collaborated with Emjo), and Emjo’s daughter Jo, whose recollections are replete with details of daily life in a bygone era. “I think how little we can hold in mind,” Cockerell quotes WG Sebald, “how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself.”

The mission gets murkier at times when Cockerell stretches beyond the family history to address history with a capital H. Although Jochelman doesn’t appear until a quarter of the way through the book, the background on pogroms and Zionism are relevant as they explain the impetus behind the Galveston Plan. In light of the recent rise in anti-Semitic attacks, it is sobering to read Theodor Herzl’s comment over a century ago that “in these times, so progressive in most respects, we know ourselves to be surrounded by the old, old hatred”. A chapter on the debate about Zionism after Jochelman’s death, however – whether intentionally or not – invariably reads as political.

Cockerell’s unique approach raises questions about the role of the biographer or historian, grappling with sifting what’s important in an already selective record. “Biographies never feel as real as the best fiction,” Janet Malcolm once wrote. “There is such a discontinuity between the narrative and the material it comes from, which is always such a mixed bag of letters, recollections and other data.”

Having been let down by historical fictionalisation of late, I was relieved that Cockerell abstained. Her voice in the few pages we do get of it (preface, afterword, even the acknowledgments) is compelling. I look forward to seeing where curiosity will take this debut author next.

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin

Mia Levitin, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a cultural and literary critic