Phyllis Swerdlow was a young Russian girl of 7 when her family emigrated to the United States.
After three weeks at sea, she emerged from the steerage of a ship named Estonia to lay her eyes on the Statue of Liberty, engraved with the lines of the famous poem, The New Colossus.
It was Aug. 9, 1921.
Ninety years later, Swerdlow’s daughter, June Kunkel, will share her mother’s immigration story at the Augusta Jewish Community Center.
Emma Lazarus: Voice of Liberty, Voice of Conscience is a three-week series of events celebrating the life and work of Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, who penned the famous lines inscribed on a plaque at the base of the statue.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” recited Leah Ronen, the executive director of the Augusta Jewish Federation and Community Center.
The center was chosen by the American Library Association Public Programs Office as one of 18 sites across the country to hold the traveling exhibit.
The program is presented in partnership with Netbook Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to supporting Jewish literature and art.
Events include an ongoing exhibit, the evening of immigration stories, in which Kunkle and others who have emigrated to the U.S. will participate, a poetry contest, a panel discussion on the causes and results of immigration, and a community-wide book discussion.
Members of the public are invited to pick up a copy of the book Emma Lazarus, by Esther Schor, to participate in the discussion, Ronen said. Copies are available at The Book Tavern in downtown Augusta.
“We want to encourage participation,” Ronen said. “We want people to ask questions. I hope this gives people the opportunity to think about what freedom is. Do you think differently about immigration or immigrants? What does it mean for an immigrant to come here wanting to be free?”
The exhibit is suited to school groups and people of all ages, but large groups should call ahead, Ronen said.
“The whole issue of immigration is very topical right now,” she said. “We think people are going to be interested in this, in who Emma Lazarus was and what she had to say.”
“She worked tirelessly for the rights of immigrants,” Ronen said. “She believed very firmly in liberty and justice for all.”