Emma Lazarus medal designed by Gerta Ries Wiener, struck by Johnson Matthey in quantities of 450 bronze, 55 pewter, 135 pure silver and 26 10kt gold. Obverse: Portrait, 1849-1887, surrounded by name and quote in Lazarus’ own handwriting, Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor … yearning to breathe free.” Reverse: New immigrants passing by the Statue of Liberty, Gerta Wiener. 47 x 45 mm.

In 1883, a Pedestal Art Loan Exhibition was held to raise funds for the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and others contributed original manuscripts, but the highest bid of $1,500 was received for a sonnet “The New Colossus” written just a few days earlier. The immortal words were written by young Emma Lazarus, soon after her return from a European trip, where she had seen the persecution of Jews and others first hand:

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-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

It was not until 1888 that the Statue of Liberty assumed her majestic place in New York’s harbor. Sadly, Emma Lazarus didn’t witness this historical event since she died of cancer a year earlier, when she was only 38 years old.

Actually, Emma’s poem might have been forgotten, but for the efforts of Georgiana Schuyler, who had the words inscribed on a tablet and affixed inside the Statue of Liberty in 1903. In 1945, the tablet was moved from the second story landing to the Statue’s entrance, where it can be seen today.

In addition to her own writings, Lazarus — who hadn’t studied Hebrew until her 34th year — made scholarly translations of Ben Ezra, Gabirol and Halevi. She even found time to help establish the Hebrew Technical Institute of New York.

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