1. Key to Golden Door
The decision for my emigration to the United States, on the steamship ticket sent by grandfather for my uncle Yisroel, was made, but its implementation was not just up to us. The year was 192O, we were a long way yet from a state of normalcy after five years of war and privation. We were no longer hungry, but many other of the usual amenities of life were woefully lacking. Mail to and from America took at least three weeks, so some months went by before grandpa arranged the transfer of the ticket to my name and sent me an affidavit for presentation to the American consul in Warsaw with my application for a visa. Other documents had to be obtained locally: a Polish passport; police certificate showing absence of criminal record; medical certificate of good health; and a permit to travel to Warsaw--there were still restrictions on travel even within the country. Additionally, father had to give a formal statement that he had no objection to my emigration. All these documents having been obtained and dispatched to the consulate, an official appointment finally arrived for my personal appearance there on February 18, 1921. Everything seemed to move along smoothly, but one essential item was still missing a suit.
The one and only suit I possessed was by then so threadbare that my elbows were about to poke through. It was unthinkable to present myself to the consulate and make the trip all the way to America in such a shabby state. But what to do? Cloth was still unavailable, no one else in the family had a decent suit that would fit me, and we did not know if ready made clothing could be gotten in Warsaw. The solution came from mother. One of her treasured possessions was an ample fur-trimmed cape of fine black worsted, part of the trousseau made for her wedding twenty years earlier. She had not worn it for years it was not a garment for everyday use though she was still hoping to enjoy the luxury of it on some future special occasion. A tailor gave assurance that there was enough fabric for a jacket and a pair of trousers for me, and the deed was done, leaving me with a feeling of guilt at having deprived mother of her cherished cape. The jacket was tailored in the military style, with a stand-up collar, and looked like my long-lamented school uniform, minus the shiny silver buttons.
Thus finally outfitted for the trip, the high expectations somewhat dampened by the ordeal of parting, I left for Warsaw. And an ordeal it was! In those days, when a person was leaving for America there was little likelihood that he and the family members left behind would ever see each other again. So when the time of parting arrived there was an orgy of embracing, kissing, blessings, and of course crying, not only by relatives but also by friends, neighbors and mere acquaintances. The wagon on which I rode out of the market place was escorted almost to the edge of town as if it were my funeral, and it was a relief when the driver whipped up the horses and the group was left behind to wave and call out farewells until we were out of sight. After an overnight train ride I arrived in Warsaw, wearing my new suit and carrying a small cardboard valise containing my worldly possessions: one extra shirt, two changes of underwear and socks, several books, and a little hand-embroidered velvet bag holding a set of phylacteries given me for my Bar Mitzvah at my thirteenth birthday, which I had not put on since then but took along at the insistence of mother.
These possessions, meager as they were, seemed quite sufficient to serve me through the five or six weeks which the entire journey was expected to last. But an asset of much greater value was part of my equipment for the New World I could read, write and speak English! To be sure, it was not quite the king's English, not even the knave's, but good enough to understand and make myself understood. It came about as follows:
Some three years previously I noticed my grandmother's neighboring storekeeper, Pelet Aprik, leafing through a fat volume. As was previously recorded, a book, any book, was a godsend in those years, so I of course became keenly interested, got permission to examine the volume, and then cajoled the man into lending it to me. It turned out to be Ollendorff's Method, a book for the self-study of English. It contained a large vocabulary, transliterated into Yiddish with special explanation of the position of tongue and lips for voicing the th; w; ng; wh; and other sounds which do not exist in Yiddish. It gave grammatical rules, sentence formation, idiomatic expressions everything necessary for a good understanding of the language. The interrupted studies at the school in Brisk left me with a craving for a further education, so I plunged into the intricacies of the English language with enthusiasm, although the thought or possibility of ever going to America or England did not even enter my mind at the time. If it were a book for the study of French, Italian, or even Greek or Latin my reaction would have been the same. Countless hours were spent by me on the exercises given in the book, memorization of the vocabulary, and efforts to follow the instructions for voicing those unpronounceable English sounds. The last was by far the most difficult, since without ever having heard those sounds I had no way of telling how close I came to reproducing them. My pronunciation was of course atrocious, but my spelling and grammar were quite acceptable, though the sentence structure often represented a verbatim translation of Yiddish phraseology. I have a letter written by me in 1919 to grandfather at the address of my American aunt in the Bronx, which she preserved because of her astonishment that it could have been written without the benefit of a teacher.
The knowledge of English augmented my confidence and high spirits when I called at the consulate at ten in the morning on the appointed date. After a short wait I was ushered into a room before an examiner sitting behind a desk, and another man, an interpreter, on a chair beside the desk. Proud of my English and assuming that it would favorably impress the examiner, I began answering his questions in what I can only designate as my "Shershev English" without waiting for the interpreter, but the result, alas, was exactly the opposite. Realizing that I knew some English the examiner visibly stiffened, thrust grandfather's affidavit in front of me, and asked sternly: "Did you change this?" I looked, and was stunned by the implication of his question. The affidavit was a printed form with blank spaces to be filled in. One of these asked for the relationship of deponent to the potential immigrant, and bore the word "grandfather" written over a different word, apparently "brother" originally written there. The notary who prepared the affidavit obviously made the error and then corrected it, instead of preparing a new document. The alteration would probably have been accepted by the examiner without second thought had I not tried to show off with my English. Of course I denied the accusation, pointed to the similarity of the handwriting and the ink, but it was of no avail two heavy lines were drawn with a blue pencil on the affidavit, underlining the words "Word written over" in the same blue pencil, and a visa was refused me on the ground that the affidavit was invalid.
This totally unexpected shattering of all the great hopes and plans built up during the preceding months left me in a state of profound shock. Here I was all set to spread wings and take flight to the open spaces of the New World, only to have my wings clipped and sent back to the cage of the shtetl. How will I face all the people who had just given me such an emotional send off? How to compensate the family for all the trouble and sacrifice made for my sake? What sort of a future could I look forward to? And all because of a stupid mistake made in New York by a careless person, probably aggravated by my own cockiness in flaunting the English I was so proud of! This last point irked me more than anything else a valuable asset turned into a liability and being the cause of my downfall. And the shame of being suspected of falsification of a document! That rankled unbearably and aroused deep resentment.
As I pondered unhappily about these things, my black mood unrelieved by the brightness of the snow covered streets I was walking after leaving the consulate, a sudden thought struck me that all may not be lost. Since the refusal was based on an error, it has to be, and can be, corrected and the unjust accusation proven false. The best way of doing this is to go to the source of the error. I wasted no time. That same day, in Warsaw, I wrote to grandfather, explained what happened, and asked that he send at once a new affidavit, directly to the American consulate, with a duplicate to me in Shershev. I urged that if possible an official statement be obtained from the notaryacknowledging that he himself made the correction on the original affidavit. I also asked that uncle Philip too should send me an affidavit, to provide additional assurance of my not becoming a public charge in the United States. I then returned to the consulate, told them what I did, and asked for a new appointment. To my great relief they ware quite sympathetic, approved of my actions (perhaps even felt remorseful they knew what a terrible blow the refusal of a visa was), and gave me another appointment for May 12, the earliest date available. I returned home in a much more hopeful mood, waited restlessly for the almost three months to pass, during wnich time the two new affidavits arrived (nothing from the notary a keen disappointment), and once again traveled to Warsaw and went to the consulate on the scheduled date, May 12, 1921. This time things went off without a hitch, I was not even questioned, and my passport was stamped with that magical open sesame a visa for entry into the United States as an immigrant for permanent residence. And I got it just in the nick of time exactly one week before the first Quota Law was enacted on May 19, 1921, partially closing the theretofore wide open gates through which, so many millions had been welcomed by the Statue of Liberty.
During the few days I spent in Warsaw I stayed at the apartment of Elie Handelsaltz, grandma Peshe's nephew, where I was introduced to the famous "cabinet" which she found so indecent when she was there about twelve years earlier. Elie and his wife Braina W9re the first representatives of the intelligentsia I had ever encountered, unless I were to count Zhuk, that unforgettable teacher, whom incidentally Elie greately resembled the same ruddy complexion, walrus mustache, cheerful disposition, and ardent devotion to principles. Even their professions were the same Elie too was a teacher in a Hebrew high school, an impassioned Zionist, and a contributor of articles to Hebrew and Yiddish publications in which he propounded the cause of Zionism. The Handelsaltzes had a piano of their own, which to me was a symbol not only of culture but also of opulence. Their two lovely young children, a boy and a girl, took music lessons and already showed considerable progress. They were very hospitable, entertained frequent visitors, and treated me as a member of the family. In my eyes they epitomized the ideal intellectual elite which I theretofore had met only in books. I parted from them with a deep feeling of gratitude and admiration.
This beautiful family did not escape the carnage wreaked upon European Jewry by the Hitlerite hordes. Braina was killed by a bomb that struck their building during the massive air attack on Warsaw on the first day of the German onslaught on Poland in September 1939. Elie with the three children (another girl was born subsequent to my stay with them in 1921) somehow managed to get to the part of Poland occupied by the Russians pursuant to the Hitler-Stalin pact which sparked the outbreak of the war. The son, Abrasha (Abraham), then a medical student, was taken into the Red Army and later served as an officer with the Polish armed forces. After the war he completed his studies and became a doctor of medicine. He is the sole survivor, and now lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and their two children. Elie and the two girls vanished during the German occupation of Eastern Poland after the attack on their former ally, the Soviet Union, in 1941. Their ultimate fate cannot be in doubt.
During my stay in Warsaw I went to the opera for the first time in my life, for a performance of Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin's epic poem of the same name, many passages of which I knew by heart. The impression made on me was overwhelming.
The magnificent State Opera House, the elegant attire of the gentlemen and especially of the ladies, the realistic scenery on stage, the power of the full orchestra rendering Tchaikovsky's romantic music, and the glorious voices of the soloists and chorus all this experienced for the first time by a sensitive eighteen year old boy put me into a state of rapture. My heart beat in unison with Tatiana's as she was writing her letter to Onegin by the light of a midnight candle. I shared the jealousy of Lensky when Olga danced and flirted with Onegin. I cried with him when he bemoaned the lost "golden days" of his youth. And then the duel, the crack of the pistol which shattered the tense stillness of the snow covered glade and put an end to the agony, and to the life, of the doomed hero these impressions are as vivid now as when I experienced them more than fifty years ago. Lest anyone should think that my described reactions are exaggerated, I will mention one additional factorI was at the time spellbound by the ecstasy of my first love; and my own "Olga" was sitting by my side in the opera house. Anyone who ever was in love at eighteen will understand.
2. On the Way
Although when I went to Warsaw the second time it was expected that I would return home for the traditional formal leave taking, I had decided even before I left not to do so, mainly to spare everybody the agony associated with it. The farewell given me in February was enough. Furthermore, the impending restrictions on immigration which all the newspapers were reporting about made a postponement inadvisable. And finally, America had already gotten into my blood and I was in no mood for further delay.
Accordingly, upon receipt of the coveted visa I said good-by to my hosts, the Handelsaltzes, repaired to the Cunard Line offices in Warsaw, presented my ticket and was sent off by rail to the Free City of Danzig, together with a group of other emigrants. There we were quarantined in a barracklike compound for two weeks, showered, disinfected, and medically examined each day for any contagious disease, especially trachoma, even though we had already presented medical certificates to the American consulate with the visa applications. During the last couple of days we were allowed to leave the compound, so I took the opportunity of walking about the streets of this old Hanseatic town. The Gothic churches, the forbiddinglooking castle up on the hill, the medieval gabled houses around the tree-shaded squares and narrow side streets -all brought to life some of the scenes I had theretofore seen only in book illustrations. The spotlessly clean pavements were thronged with pedestrians, bicycles, and horse drawn traffic, and German was being spoken all around in an accent quite distinct from the one of my Swabian friends in Shershev during the war. It was my first glimpse of Europe beyond the confines of the former Russian Empire.
A few days after arrival in Danzig I had my first encounter with Big Business. About forty or fifty of us were told to assemble in the compound yard. A man got up on a chair, introduced himself as a Cunard Line representative, and announced that all those whose names he was about to call have to pay an additional twenty five dollars because the price of passage has gone up since our tickets were purchased. He graciously offered to telegraph to our relatives in America for the money, if we did not have it, emphasizing that anyone wha does not pay will not be allowed to board the ship. Angry exclamations and complaints broke out from the crowd, but the man paid no attention and began calling out the names from his list. Mine was among the first, since it begins with A. I went over to him and stated that I consider my steamship ticket to be a contract for passage that had been entered into and fully paid for; that his company was not entitled to additional money iust because the price was later changed; and that I therefore will neither pay nor telegraph to my relatives. He repeated the threat that I will not be allowed to embark, to which I replied that if this is done I will see to it that every newspaper and every Jewish organization in Warsaw and in New York is informed of Cunard's disreputable action in trying to extort money from poor and supposedly ignorant emigrants, and that this publicity will surely bring unpleasant consequences to his company. Others around me raised their voices in support, and such an uproar arose that the man got off his chair and disappeared, without reading any more names. I doubt if anyone paid the additional twanty-five dollars I did not but no one was left behind when we boarded the ship.
We left Danzig on a rather small boat, the name of which I do not recall. The weather was beautiful, the Baltic calm, and the novelty of the sea voyage exhilarating. After passing through the Kiel Canal the rough North Sea gave us quite a tossing, and most of us spent the rest of the trip bending over the rail. We disembarked at Hull, England and entrained at once for Glasgow, Scotland. The train ride through the trim countryside was another revelation in its contrast to the land we knew. The gently rolling hills, partitioned off by endless stone fences, the peacefully browsing cattle, the cheerful cottages with their flowers and neatly cl}pped lawns this panorama made me realize that the people here worked hard and with a system to get the most out of their land, and to improve and embellish their lives. Upon arrival in Glasgow we were held at the railroad station for some hours before being taken to board our trans-Atlantic liner, the S.S.Algeria, which was towering like a mountain over the dockside. We walked up a ramp into an opening in the side of the ship and were swallowed in its bowels like Jonah inside the whale.
The twelve days spent aboard were uniformly drab and uneventful. I was assigned a bunk in the crowded section for single men somewhere deep inside, probably below the water line since I recall no portholes. The food was atrocious, the most revolting being the greasy cold beef and very salty herring, the latter raising a thirst that forced us to drink the foul bilge that passed for drinking water. I subsisted on bread, of which there was enough, and kept sucking sparingly at the lemons brought along as an antidote to seasickness. In fact, I suffered little from it, whether due to abstention from food, the lemons, or some other reason. I spent most of the time lying in my bunk and found no interest in the other men and boys around me, most of whom wore the earlocks and the long black garb of the ultraorthodox. They looked askance at me too because I did not join in their daily prayers. Towards the end of voyage I became friendly with a young fellow, a Litvak and nonbeliever like myself, and found some relief from boredom in his company, mainly during the hours we were allowed up on deck. He grew up in a small village among the peasants, spoke Russian better than Yiddish, and knew some bawdy little ditties which both abashed and titillated me. I tried to explore the ship, but our movements were restricted because of the overcrowding. The one feature I found impressive was the ample size of the stalls in the lavatories and showers they seemed to have been designed for a race of giants. It was also surprising that the metal signs affixed in many places were in German, not English. A sailor told me that the ship formerly belonged to Germany and was taken over by the British as part of the war reparations.
The only interesting events during the trip were the appearance of a school of "jumping fish," probably porpoises; and the passing of the Gulf Stream, which we could distinguish by the different coloration of its waters. The real excitement came with the sighting of land, the progress through New York Harbor past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island towards the towering skyscrapers of the city, which seemed to rise straight out of the water. In the late afternoon of June 21 the ship docked at the Cunard Line pier in the Hudson, and we were in America.
3. Writing on the Sky
As soon as the ship docked the American citizens and the first class passengers went ashore, having been cleared by the Immigration officers while the boat was in transit from the quarantine station near Staten Island to the pier. We, the steerage passengers, remained aboard overnight, and were taken to Ellis Island by tugs on the following morning. My shipboard friend and I spent most of the night on deck, which we were now free to roam at will. Of the city proper we could see only the darkened warehouses and factory buildings near the waterfront, but the New Jersey shore across the Hudson and the river itself were mysterious with phantom moving shapes and red, green and white lights blinking in the distance. But one marvel especially held our attention-- giant golden letters flashing on and off against the pitch-black sky, spelling out in turn: LIPTONS COFFEE -LlPTONS COCOA LlPTONS TEA. It made me think of the MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN on the wall at Belshazzar's feast. Strange indeed was this land to which we came from our shtetl where the only artificial illumination was a crackling wood fire or a stinking kerosene lamp.
At Ellis Island I met with no difficulty. When my turn came to be examined I answered the questions in my best "Shershev English"; my papers were stamped with that longed-for word ADMITTED; and I became a legal resident of the United States. Together with a group of other lucky ones I was taken in tow by a representative of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, universally known by Jews as HIAS, placed on board the official ferryboat Ellis Island, and brought to South Ferry at the tip of Manhattan where my feet touched the asphalt of New York. The odyssey was over, and I reached my haven in the "Golden land" as a free man.
Incidentally, among East European Jews of that period Ellis Island as a place of entry for immigrants was generally referred to as Castle Garden, harking back to the days when the building so named, located at the tip of Manhattan, was the place of inspection for aliens arriving at the port of New York. Castle Garden was originally a military fort, which was subsequently converted into an opera and concert hall. It was there that Jenny Lind made her appearance in 1850 and was acclaimed by all America as the "Swedish Nightingale". It became an immigration station in 1855, and about eight million immigrants passed through its doors before it was closed in 1890. No wonder the name Castle Garden remained alive in Europe long after its demise. Now in Yiddish this name is spelled and pronounced Kessel Garten, the word kessel meaning kettle or cauldron. Since the designation of America as the "Melting Pot" was well known by the shtetl, population, some astute people surmised that this was the origin of the name. What other reason could there be for naming a garden or an island "Kessel"?
At the ferry landing in Manhattan I was met by uncle Philip who had been notified by telegram from shipboard about my arrival. We made a long trip by subway (another marvel) to his residence at 911 Longwood Avenue in the Bronx. There I met aunt Esther (the one who preserved my previously mentioned English letter), my three cousins Grace, Milton and Lenny, as well as aunt's widowed mother and her younger brother, who all lived in that five room apartment which also became my home for the next five years.
The telegram to my uncle brings to mind one of the countless stories about the ignorance of the newcomers, the "greenhorns", and their ineptitude in adapting themselves to the new environment. A young girl who was coming to join her married sister also sent a telegram from shipboard. The man who wrote down the necessary information obtained from her and other passengers sat down on a rocking chair on deck and began examining his notes while rocking himself. Having never before seen a rocking chair the girl concluded that its motion somehow transmits the message. Upon arrival at her sister's home she noticed an identical rocking chair in the living room. Already quite impressed by the, to her, opulence of the apartment and furnishings, she decided that her sister must be very rich indeed to have her own "telegram machine". She was anxious to notify her mother in the old country of her safe arrival, but was too shy to ask. During the night she bethought herself that her sister would not mind the little expense of just one telegram, so she quietly sat down in the "machine", began rocking and reciting: "Dear mama, I want to let you know that I arrived safely in America; that Rivka and her family are all in good health, thank God; that I am sending you this telegram from Rivka's parlor because she is, kinanoreh, so rich that she even has her own machine for...." At this point Rivka, awakened by the creaking of the floor, came in to investigate, whereupon the poor girl burst into tears, begging forgiveness for not having asked permission. "I thought that you wouldn't mind the little cost of only one telegram I just wanted to make mama happy".
Disabused of the "telegram machine" notion, our girl settled for a letter to her mother, and was told to put it in a metal box hanging on a lamppost at the street corner. She found the metal box, opened the small door, but saw no proper slot to put the letter in. She pulled on a handle inside but there was still no place for the letter. Suddenly there was heard a ringing and clanging, two galloping horses brought up a peculiar big wagon with ladders on the sides, and men in queer red hats ran up to her and began talking excitedly in English which she did not understand. She spread her hands in puzzlement, showed them the letter, and with a bashful smile tried to explain by gestures her predicament-- she could not find the slot for posting it.
Self deprecating as these anecdotes may be, they nevertheless highlight the real situation in which most immigrants found themselves upon arrival. Not only did the language barrier have to be overcome, but new customs, attitudes, habits, trades and human relationships had to be learned and adapted to. The New World meant a new way of life, and much embarrassment, humiliation, frustration, and mainly hard work had to be endured before one could find a niche of his own in the multifarious American social and economic structure. Some never quite made it, especially if they came here at a mature age, and remained on the side lines for the rest of their lives.