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Supporting Statue of Liberty poet Lazarus' distant cousin from Derby to introduce her at Hall of Fame honors

The verse is among the most recognizable in American culture: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore."

Far less familiar is the author, Emma Lazarus, a late 19th century poet who penned the words at the base of the Statue of Liberty that have ushered generations of immigrants into the United States.

But Lazarus' legacy will get a major boost in October, when she is scheduled to be inducted along with nine other women into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls.

And Emily Doumaux Newell couldn't be happier about the honor.

Newell, of Derby, is Lazarus' closet known living relative -- a first cousin, three generations removed -- and was tapped to introduce the poet during an induction ceremony on Oct. 11.

Newell, 68, plans to attend with her daughter, Lisa Garvey, and sister, Frances Anna Doumaux Switzer.

Lazarus died in 1887 at the age of 38. Newell has known that the writer was part of her family's colorful history for as long as she can remember.

"We've always just known it because my mother told the family stories," said Newell. "We've just known it and been extremely proud of it."

Lazarus was a first cousin of Newell's maternal great-grandmother, Frances Nathan Wolff.

Wolff's father, Benjamin Nathan, was the brother of Lazarus' mother, Esther Nathan Lazarus, according to family genealogy records.

Newell had no idea, however, that Lazarus had been nominated for the National Women's Hall of Fame, until she read a story in The Buffalo News last March about the upcoming inductions.

Newell immediately contacted the Hall of Fame to find out more details, and the organization's executive director, Christine M. Moulton, was grateful for the call.

At that point, Moulton was not sure who should introduce Lazarus, who never married and had no children.

Newell, it turns out, was just the person.

"She is the closest relative we were able find and it's always our intention to do that,"said Moulton.

Newell accepted the offer to introduce her cousin -- although she now admits to second thoughts about it because of a fear of public speaking.

"I get stage fright," she said.

Garvey has agreed to help out in a pinch. "She's going to do it if I can't," said Newell.

Lazarus was born in New York City, the daughter of a wealthy sugar-refining merchant, and began writing poems at a young age. She was mentored by Ralph Waldo Emerson and novelist Henry James.

In 1865, at age 16, she visited the Canadian side of Niagara Falls and wrote a short poem entitled "Niagara," opening with the words, "Thou art a giant altar. . . ."

The tone of Lazarus' poetry took a dramatic turn following the violent anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and Germany during the early 1880s. Lazarus soon began identifying herself as a Jewish American writer and wrote intensely and passionately in defense of Judaism.

She even argued for the creation of a Jewish homeland more than a decade before the term "Zionist" was coined.

"She actually has a much broader body of work as an author, poet and translator. That's often the case with many of our inductees," said Moulton. "In many cases, there's so much more to the stories of these women that we should know."

Lazarus wrote the Statue of Liberty sonnet -- entitled "The New Colossus" -- in 1883 as part of an effort to raise money for the statue's pedestal.

The poem wasn't engraved in bronze and placed at the base of the statue until 1903, 16 years after Lazarus' death.

The power of Lazarus' words and the symbolism of the giant woman in New York Harbor have always resonated with Newell, who grew up on Long Island.

"We must have gone to the Statue of Liberty I don't know how many times," she said.

Newell attended Cornell University and, after graduating, moved with her husband to Findley Lake in Chautauqua County, where they operated a dairy farm for 34 years.

She moved to Derby in 1997.

Lazarus' poem still is frequently referenced -- particularly in debates among Americans about immigration policy -- even if the author remains a relative unknown.

"The verse is used all the time by people, but I don't think they have a clue as to what she was all about," said Newell.

Nonetheless, she added, the words of the sonnet apply now "as well as when she wrote it."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com