It’s 85 degrees; I’m gripping a banister and taking deep breaths while looking out at the Hudson with my mother. The hazel hued water is choppy, and the sun glaring at 9 a.m. in July. I glance over at my water-bottle sipping mother who is also trying to fight nausea, and I’m coated with shame over our motion sickness that came on within 60 seconds. We are spoiled by our landlocked past.
We’re on a statue cruise, as they’re called, departing the southern tip of Manhattan in Battery Park for Ellis Island, and together we paid $30 for this experience. Our ancestors – my mother’s aunt, grandmother, great-aunt and great grandmother –
paid $30 per person for crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1907, leaving Southampton, England for New York City. That was the year that over one million people landed in New York. They saved this money for more than five years, taking up odd jobs in London so they would have enough to board the St. Louis ship in steerage class. I wonder about their experience. Did they turn to prayer on the boat? When it was sunny, did they stand on the deck?
We are making this 3-day trip from the Midwest to New York for several reasons. My 64-year old mother has never seen New York City, and she and I haven’t travelled together in 12 years, long before I married and had two children. We hope seeing Ellis Island will reveal something to us about ourselves or the strength of the women in our family, women who left their native land of Poland in 1902 for America, by way of England. My mother, she said, has been saying this to herself, a mantra, her entire life when facing any personal crisis or dilemma: if they can do that, then you can do this.
We seek to learn a few truths about our family, objective facts instead of hazy outlines or half-truths. We know that 46-year old Rachel brought her daughters Fanny, 18, and Esther, 21, along with Esther’s husband, Barnett, to New York in 1907, but we don’t know if Esther and Barnett’s baby, my great aunt Mary, was also there. Esther was my mother’s very beloved grandmother; they shared a bedroom for 12 years. Until recently, when we started digging around the Ellis Island online directory, we didn’t know the name of Esther’s first husband since he left her and their baby shortly after they arrived in America. When I do see his name, I awkwardly email my older cousin the name of his grandfather. Thank you, he writes back.
We go to Ellis armed with questions: Did my mother’s aunt indeed come over on the boat, or was she born on American soil? When the White House mailed my cousins a postcard in 2006 wishing her happy 100th birthday, this was an immense surprise to them, since she had just died, and also because they had no idea how old she had lived to be.
The women in my family, you see, bended facts. They omitted or misrepresented information about birth dates, names, ages, places of birth, causes of death, biological fathers, and first husbands. Why, I used to wonder. Now I think I understand better – these omissions of truths protected them from judgment in a new land where they didn’t yet know English. If they pretended to be younger or single, their value as women may have been reconsidered. Avoiding or evading may have helped them protect one another. Therefore, my great aunt Mary stretched the truth about her own age for most of her life. These misrepresentations of fact may have even started with her mother, Esther, and may have helped her mother obtain a Get, or Jewish divorce, when Mary was still an infant. And was Mary even her birth name? A likelier candidate is Miriam. Her fabricated age may have helped when she was of dating age. I see her in my memory, barely 5 feet tall with a long slender neck and romantic, wispy tendrils framing her face.
When the ferry stopped and my mother and I shuffle off arm in arm, we find a lone bench outside of the Immigration Museum. We are the only two passengers waiting for a moment to get our bearings and revive ourselves from nausea. Again, I feel self-loathing. The two of us sitting here, I think. Same brown waves, green eyes, narrow shoulders. Frailty. And sometimes strength.
“I’m going to be okay,” my mother tells me, and I wonder if she is reassuring herself. If I close my eyes when hearing her voice, I can almost hear the Polish and Polish-American women generation upon generation who all birthed women, a line of high voices that anchored every moment with their travails. The women in my family live forever, but the last fifty years are rough. If it is the slightest bit hot or even sunny, my mother will wilt from heat exhaustion. In fact, on this trip to New York she felt sick from heat one morning and treated herself with Dasani water bottle-soaked napkins applied to her forehead, arms and ankles in the lobby of our hotel. Salvador Dali’s 1929 painting, “The Enigma of Desire” was dedicated to Dali’s mother. A large yellow rock with many holes has the phrase “ma mere” in it; I find myself thinking this often, a chant of sorts – ma mere ma mere ma mere – when my mom is gripped with pain or anxiety.
We regain composure and enter the building, soon to gaze at the eerily empty registry room, a large hall where at times 5,000 new immigrants walked through in one day. My mother stands in the now empty space, listening for ghosts. We know this room used to be packed with crying children and infants, families in anguish when one was forced back home, and men and women enduring gruesome medical inspections at the top of a staircase. Were our relatives detained? Was Esther taken to a temporary dormitory brimming with triple-tiered bunk beds due to her beginning blindness? Or if she had to stay overnight, would she have been one of the unluckier ones who slept on benches since the island could not accommodate all the detainees?
Not only had our ancestors passed through these grounds, millions had. Did the passage transform them, and did they no longer think of themselves as Polish women, I wonder, upon seeing the empty space. “I didn’t think it would look this this,” my mother says, standing in the middle of the room.
I heard one story alone about my ancestors when I was growing up: that Rachel, my great-great grandmother, a 46-year old widow and Yiddish speaking peasant from outside Warsaw, argued intensely with immigration officials for her daughter, Esther, to be let into the country despite Esther’s eye condition, the start of blindness. I once saw a photograph of Rachel seated, facing the camera, a vague smile on her mouth. “I doubt this happened,” I had said to my mother. She quickly retorted: “You didn’t know Rachel.” Neither did she; Rachel died before my mother’s birth. Yet the story remains strong for my mother, perhaps a symbol of what we once were, what we could still become.
So did it really happen, or was it just another story we kept alive for the women in my family, passed down from one Polish woman (Esther) to another Polish American woman (Rose) to my mother (Sherry) and now me. And was it a slice of my family’s collective memory repeated so often to construct a meaningful depiction of strong Jewish women? Instead of passing on stories of hardship and loss, death and men repeatedly leaving, we passed on stories of Jewish womanly courage and bravery. Would I ever tell this story to my own daughters, Rebecca and Madeline?
And could it have even been true? Esther did go blind, and we know that she certainly entered the country. We think progressive glaucoma led to her blindness, but my family was not hung up on facts. The eye examinations on Ellis Island at this time were legendary – public health examiners, referred to by some as “eye men,” turned people’s eyelids inside out to look for trachoma. According to the National Archives, they would either use their own hands or sometimes a buttonhook, a tool intended for fastening small buttons on shoes and clothing. President Roosevelt, who toured the island in 1906, wondered if the ungloved probing would infect people.
Our relatives came in early August; they surely faced poor air quality and living conditions. In fact, in a report for President William Taft in 1911, the U.S. Immigration Commission said this about the experience of steerage passengers:
“The open deck space reserved for steerage passengers is usually very limited, and situated in the worst part of the ship, subject to the most violent motion, to the dirt from the stacks and the odors from the hold and galleys… Toilets and washrooms are completely inadequate; saltwater only is available. The ventilation is almost always inadequate, and the air soon becomes foul. The unattended vomit of the seasick, the odors of not too clean bodies, the reek of food and the awful stench of the nearby toilet rooms make the atmosphere of the steerage such that it is a marvel that human flesh can endure it… Most immigrants lie in their berths for most of the voyage, in a stupor caused by the foul air.”
I try to imagine my great aunt as a baby being passed between her mother, aunt, and grandmother. Were they literally huddled together, holding one another up? Did they hold one another’s hair when one vomited, or did they feel together yet alone, in charge of caring only for one’s self? Was Esther breastfeeding a baby? Had they any idea of what they would endure, day after day?
As we take in the giant, quiet hall, I say to my mother: “I’m embarrassed that we are so seasick today after being on a boat for just 30 minutes and just think of what they endured. And here we can take care of each other, and they probably couldn’t.”
My mom turns to me at this point in the expansive empty hall and gives me a strange stare. “Jamie,” she says, “they took care of each other the best they could” as though she has some kind of direct vision into the past. I don’t say anything for a minute, and it dawns on me that what she is really saying is that she took care of me the best she could, which I already know. While it will only be a sentence here, my father’s absence in my life had affected us both greatly, the reason we look to Rachel and Esther for strength.
When my mother and I enter the museum’s Family Archive, we pay $7 to have access to the electronic ship manifest, which provides a bit more detail than I was able to access online from my home computer. We chat with an employee about whether my aunt was truly on board – her name is nowhere to be found on the list of passengers. The woman tells us that historical records are messy. This I know.
Later from home, I take my time with the manifest and learn the following: Esther and Barnett had no money in their pockets; “nil” as it was written. They were planning to stay with someone in Brooklyn. They had dark hair and eyes. They had no markings under health conditions. And that is all there is.
This is the end of the road now for us. The General Register Office in the United Kingdom already confirmed there is no record of my great aunt’s birth in England, and the manifest has no record of her either. Was Esther pregnant instead? Perhaps nine months? Would my great Aunt Mary, who took me to the Nutcracker when I was 5, be born in New York or Chicago? We do not know, and no archivist or agency can confirm facts.
Perhaps the facts do not matter. Perhaps the accuracy of the stories will remain unknown of the women in our family, mainly short, Yiddish-speaking and shouting, able cooks and bakers, cryptic at times and verbose at others, depending on whether one was explaining a recipe or encounter at a market or being asked to tell the stories of their lives. Perhaps it is the memory, half true or not, of Rachel arguing that Esther be let in, the force of her love and her sharp-tongue, that remains most compelling. Will I allow it to be told and participate in passing it on? I will; stories are just stories anyway.
My mother needs this story, and perhaps my daughter does too. When she feels Christmas envy for the first time since she is the only Jew in her first grade class, I tell her the story of how we came to be in America and she listens intently with wide brown eyes. “They saved up all of their money for five years before crossing the ocean,” I begin.
Jamie Wagman teaches Gender Studies and U.S. History at Saint Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana. Her creative work has also been published in “The Adirondack Review”, “Newfound”, and “Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies & Gender Issues”, among other places.