For the past two thousand years, Jews have leapfrogged from Egypt to Egypt in search of better futures. Most massive of these emigrations, even more massive than the Spanish Expulsion of 5252/1492, was when almost three million Jews moved from Eastern Europe to the United States within the thirty-four years between 5640/1880 and 5674/1914.
Soon after her arrival in the US, eleven- year-old Maryashe Antin wrote one of the most vibrant accounts of the trip ever recorded, a trip that was doubly diffi cult due to a raging cholera epidemic and her family’s efforts to keep Pesach en route. Her book, From Plotzk to Boston, begins with an introduction she wrote four years later. “The emigration fever was at its height in Plotzk, my native town, in the central western part of Russia, on the Dvina River,” she writes. “‘America’ was in everybody’s mouth. Business men talked of it over their accounts; the market women made up their quarrels that they might discuss it from stall to stall; people who had relatives in the famous land went around reading their letters for the enlightenment of less fortunate folks; the one letter- carrier informed the public how many letters arrived from America, and who were the recipients; children played at emigrating; old folks shook their sage heads over the evening fire, and prophesied no good for those who braved the terrors of the sea and the foreign goal beyond it;— all talked of it, but scarcely anybody knew one true fact about this magic land… One sad fact threw a shadow over the splendor of the gold-paved, Paradise-like fairyland. The travelers all agreed that Jews lived there in the most shocking impiety.”
Maryashe’s father, a one-time wealthy baal bayis in Plotzk, had fallen on hard times after a long illness and left for America to rebuild his fortunes. Now, after three years his family received the yearned for message to join him. In those days, lifts did not exist; you took with you whatever you could carry. Everything else was sold or given away. After disposing of their treasured possessions, the Antins made their way to the station where half the town came to see them off. The year 5654/1894 was a particularly bad time to travel as two years earlier a cholera epidemic had broken out in the major emigrant port of Hamburg. Suspecting that Russian emigrants were responsible for the disease, the authorities had instated rules and regulations that almost aborted the Antins’ trip at the German border.
“A gendarme entered our car and said we were not to leave it…,” Maryashe recalls. “He shook his head with his shining helmet on it and said slowly, ‘With these third class tickets you cannot go to America now, because it is forbidden to admit emigrants into Germany who have not at least second class tickets. You will have to return to Russia unless you pay at the office here to have your tickets changed for second class ones… I find you will need two hundred rubles to get your tickets exchanged.”
The Antins had barely enough money for travel expenses; in response to their supplications and tears the gendarme informed them of a certain Herr Schidorsky who provided them with protekzia to proceed on the next leg of their voyage. More frightening was the family’s next experience when their train pulled up in a vast field near a large courtyard and a conductor commanded the passengers to evacuate. Glad to be free after long imprisonment in the uncomfortable train, everyone rushed to the door to breathe freely in the open field.
The conductor gathered them into the yard where a number of men and women dressed in white awaited them.
“This was another scene of bewildering confusion,” Maryashe recalls. “Parents losing their children, and little ones crying; baggage being thrown together in one corner of the yard, heedless of contents, which suffered in consequence; those white-clad Germans shouting commands always accompanied with ‘Quick! Quick!;’ the confused passengers obeying all orders like meek children, only questioning now and then what was going to be done with them.
“And no wonder if in some minds stories arose of people being captured by robbers, murderers, and the like. Here we had been taken to a lonely place where only that house was to be seen; our things were taken away, our friends separated from us; a man came to inspect us, as if to ascertain our full value; strange looking people driving us about like dumb animals, helpless and unresisting; children we could not see, crying in a way that suggested terrible things; ourselves driven into a little room where a great kettle was boiling on a little stove; our clothes taken off, our bodies rubbed with a slippery substance that might be any bad thing; a shower of warm water let down on us without warning; again driven to another little room where we sit, wrapped in woolen blankets till large, coarse bags are brought in, their contents turned out and we see only a cloud of steam, and hear the women’s orders to dress ourselves, quick, quick, or else we’ll miss—something we cannot hear.”
Then came a happy conclusion. “We are forced to pick out our clothes from among all the others. With the steam blinding us; we choke, cough, entreat the women to give us time; they persist, ‘Quick, quick, or you’ll miss the train!’ Oh, so we really won’t be murdered! They are only making us ready for the continuing of our journey, cleaning us of all suspicions of dangerous germs. Thank G-d!”
NUMBER FIVE SHED
New Cholera regulations forbade emigrants from stopping in Hamburg, the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, they were generally whisked straight through the city and quarantined for a few days at the America Quay where the Hamburg-America shipping line had erected eight giant sheds with room for 1,400 people. This is where the Antins were imprisoned for the next few days with Pesach just round the corner: “The doors of the prison were never unlocked except when new passengers arrived or others left for their ships,” Maryashe writes. “The fences—they really were solid walls—had wires and nails on top, so that one couldn’t even climb to get a look at the sea.” Pesach was imminent and the Jews began worrying what food would be available.
“All day long there was talking and questioning and debating and threatening that ‘we would rather starve than touch anything we were not sure of,’ and we meant it. So some men and women went to the overseer to let him know what he had to look out for… There was not a crumb anywhere to be found, because what bread we received was too precious for any of it to be wasted; but the women made a great show of cleaning up Number Five [the Jewish barracks], while they sighed and looked sad and told one another of the good hard times they had at home getting ready for Passover… At night we were called by the overseer… to the feast spread in one of the unoccupied rooms… We now found everything really prepared… Soon the cook came in and filled some glasses with wine from two bottles,—one yellow, one red.
Then she gave to each person—exactly one and a half matzos; also some cold meat, burned almost to a coal for the occasion… When we came to the place where you have to drink the wine, we found it tasted like good vinegar, which made us all choke and gasp, and one little girl screamed ‘Poison!’ so that all laughed.”
Then the Antins were notified that their ship, the Polynesia, was ready to leave. With many others they rushed through the barred door they had been waiting to exit for over a week. But suddenly, an old woman stopped and called on the rest to wait. “We haven’t any matzo!” she cried in alarm. “Where’s the overseer?” They refused to go on, calling for the overseer who had promised to supply them, while the man in charge grew angry, saying he wouldn’t wait and they could go and get their matzo, but the boat wouldn’t wait for them. With that, he walked off followed by the Polish people only.
“We had to decide at once,” Maryashe writes. “We looked at the old woman. She said she wasn’t going to start on a dangerous journey with such a sin on her soul. Then the children decided. They understood the matter. They cried and begged to follow the party. And we did. Just when we reached the shore, the cook came up panting hard. She brought us matzo. How relieved we were then!”
In the end the fuss was mainly for nothing as most of the passengers came down with nauseating seasickness and lived on water for most of Pesach. “For six days longer we remain in our berths, miserable and unable to eat,” she recalls. “It is a long fast, hardly interrupted, during which we know that the weather is unchanged, the sky dark, the sea stormy.”
Sixteen days after leaving Hamburg, passengers spotted the tops of two trees and the passengers rejoiced. “Before the ship had fully stopped, the climax of our joy was reached,” Maryashe recalls. “One of us espied the fi gure and face we had longed to see for three long years.
In a moment five passengers on the ‘Polynesia’ were crying, ‘Papa,’ and gesticulating, and laughing, and hugging one another, and going wild altogether. All the rest were roused by our excitement, and came to see our father. He recognized us as soon as we him, and stood apart on the wharf not knowing what to do, I thought. What followed was slow torture. Like mad things we ran about where there was room, unable to stand still as long as we were on the ship and he on shore.
To have crossed the ocean only to come within a few yards of him, unable to get nearer till all the fuss was over, was dreadful enough. But to hear other passengers called who had no reason for hurry, while we were left among the last, was unendurable.” “Oh, it’s our turn at last! We are questioned, examined, and dismissed!
A rush over the planks on one side, over the ground on the other, six wild beings cling to each other, bound by a common bond of tender joy, and the long parting is at an end.”