May 31, 1920—Ellis Island, New York
She stood with her golden torch thrust skyward. Beneath her pedestal, a ferry glided by, on which Louis stood clutching a railing, staring up at her. She looked different than when he’d first seen her, seven years ago. On that cloud-smudged morning, he’d emerged from the steerage compartment of the S.S. Chemnitz too seasick to share the enthusiasm of his fellow passengers. Today, bright sunlight accentuated the folds in the statue’s gray-green robe, and when it momentarily set aglow the flame on her torch, Louis gasped out loud.
Three children ran past, waving miniature American flags. Their boots clattered on the deck. Their giggles clutched at the center of Louis’s chest. For the past seven years he had envisioned all four of his own children as being this small, but today he would witness the transformations they’d undergone in his absence. His older daughter had just turned eighteen—a woman now. The boys’ voices had no doubt changed; the chin of his older son was probably covered in tufts of hair. His thoughts kept returning to the fact that his younger daughter, who’d been a toddler in Dena’s arms when he left Turczyn, would no longer recognize him.
No one had called Louis “Tatti” in seven years. He sighed, taking in a lungful of smoky exhaust as he did so. A clean-shaven man stepped over to the railing. He gestured toward the children waving the flags. “Decoration Day,” he said. “They have quickly embraced all the American holidays.” His accent, though similar to Louis’s, originated from somewhere other than Russia. He extended a hand. “I’m Max,” he said.
“Louis.” After a moment’s hesitation, he asked a question whose answer he already knew. “Du redst eydish?” Do you speak Yiddish?
“Zikher.” Of course. Max continued in their shared native tongue. “You’re here to meet family?”
“My wife and children. By the time I’d saved up enough to send for them… six years ago—”
“Of course. The war.” Max nodded, then turned and briefly scolded his children for annoying other passengers with their flags. “You must be excited to see your family again,” he said, returning his attention to Louis.
“Yes.” The truth was that guilt overshadowed his excitement. His family had been forced to get by without him for seven years. They had faced the repeated attacks of the Cossacks on their own.
He knew he and Dena couldn’t pick up where they’d left off—outside the shack they’d called home, hugging, wiping away tears, reassuring one another they’d soon be reunited. Too much had happened since then. Dena had seen horrors, bloody battles. Her older sister had been among the casualties of a horrific pogrom. Louis had learned the news through a letter written by their son—one of the few pieces of mail to make it across the ocean. Perhaps he would start there, comforting his wife. Then he’d remind her of happier times—going to the marketplace every Monday to trade and kibbitz, celebrating weddings, bar mitzvahs, brisses and holidays with the community, or the simple pleasure of welcoming in each Shabbas over candlelight and glasses of wine.
Maybe he should instead focus on the life that awaited them here, in America.
Louis realized he’d been answering Max’s questions but had asked none of his own. “What about you?” he said. “Who are you here to collect?”
“My sister-in-law and her children.” Max stared down into the yellow-tinged water. “I lost my wife two years ago… the flu…”
“I’m so sorry.”
“The pandemic took over our lives. Took over all our lives. Completely upended mine.”
Louis flinched a little, unaccustomed to having a stranger open up to him like that. He flicked his eyes toward the children, who’d engaged in some sort of hide-and-seek game with their flags. “They seem to have adjusted.”
“They’ve been my biggest blessing. I can’t imagine life…” He swallowed. “Where have they been, all this time… your family?”
“Yes. A shtetl.”
“And what do you do, Louis?”
It was the question everyone asked here. In Turczyn, he was known as Louis the Carpenter. “I buy houses and fix them up, then sell them. And you?”
“I’m a furrier. For now, I work out of my home so I can be with the children.”
“Perhaps with your sister-in-law here, she’ll be able to help.”
Max shrugged, as if he was perfectly happy taking care of his own children. After a moment, he said, “I imagine life’s been difficult for your family in the shtetl.”
Louis swallowed, nodded.
“I’m from Romania… Iasi… It’s a fairly big city, but my family tells me we’re no more welcome there than anywhere else. There’ve been pogroms everywhere.”
“And this is where your sister-in-law is coming from? Romania?”
“She’s coming from Russia… the Pale, like your family… by way of Le Havre.”
Dena and the children had departed from France’s northern port nearly two weeks ago. It still seemed impossible to imagine that soon they would all be in the same room, in one another’s arms.
As the ferry approached the dock, the children hovered around their father, asked questions, bounced with excitement. Louis said goodbye to Max and disembarked with the first outpouring of passengers onto the dock, imagining himself as one of the silvery smelts the fishmonger dumped onto a table each morning. He couldn’t wait to introduce Dena to the fishmonger, the greengrocer, the many pushcart vendors who lined the street outside his apartment. She would be impressed by the selection of fresh meats and produce available every day, clothing, shoes, even eyewear. She would be reminded of the marketplace back home, in its heyday, the heart of the shtetl. Louis had settled into a new life here, and in a matter of hours, his wife and children would be part of it.
Laughter and cheers echoed in the clouds.
Dena gazed past the yarmulke of a man who’d fallen to his knees and now wept uncontrollably, past a barricade of turbans and hats and babushkas, past ripples of sea and streaks of sunlight. There it was: a shadowy female form eclipsed by buildings taller than she’d ever seen. The torch at the top flickered like a beacon.
Dena placed her hands on the shoulders of her youngest daughter, inadvertently preventing Ida from securing a position closer to the railing. The eight-year-old began to struggle out of her grasp, then settled into her embrace. Not far from one of the two funnels that expelled smoke into the sky, her other three children stood side-by-side, gazing past the undulating waves at the statue, the symbol of liberty.
Her eyes stayed fixed on her firstborn, who used to help with the cooking, empty the slop bucket and fetch water from the well while the boys were in school. Fayga had been deprived of an education, yet she’d somehow taught herself to read and write in Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. Dena had never learned to read or write in any language. Knowing her oldest child, she would soon conquer English as well.
They’d finally reached America. Here, Ida would attend school. Dena kept reminding herself of this, that she had made the right decision in uprooting her family, bringing them hundreds of kilometers by foot and cart and train to the port of departure, and thousands more aboard the S.S. La Lorraine, two stories below deck, engulfed in the rumble and roar of engines and the stench of sweat. For Ida to have opportunities her older sister hadn’t had, for the boys to be able to attend the yeshiva that Louis had found for them, for her family to live free of fear, it would all be worth it.
Dena understood there’d be obstacles to overcome before her journey would be complete. Eidel, a woman who slept on a cot behind Dena’s, had warned her that once they reached Ellis Island, there’d be questions to answer and invasive medical tests to endure. But no fears that those prospects evoked could compare to the sound of horse hooves pounding outside her single-room wooden house, warning her that Cossacks would soon force their way inside and steal her few possessions, among them her father’s siddur and her mother’s goblets and candlestick holders. And nothing could compare to watching her sister savagely sliced by a sword at the marketplace while the vendor stalls around her burned.
Dena shuddered and Ida lifted her chin and smiled. “It looks like a palace,” the child said. Dena followed her daughter’s gaze toward a large building penned in by four towers.
“Where did you learn about palaces?” Dena asked her, though she could already guess the answer.
“From Fayga.” Her older sister must’ve shown her some of the sketches Louis had made for his children. At least these had remained safely hidden from the Cossacks and were now tucked away in the basket that held their belongings.
“That’s where we’re going,” said Eidel, the same woman who’d told her about the rigorous immigration process, gleaning the information from relatives who’d come here before her.
So, this was where it would all happen. Somewhere inside the walls of that “palace” Louis might already be waiting. She’d tried to picture it so many times, the moment they would fall into each other’s embrace. Every time she thought about it, she felt a flutter in her chest.
Dena’s sister and brother-in-law had been brought together by a matchmaker, but Dena and Louis had chosen one another. When they were children, they had swum together, had occasionally teamed up to play holiday games. Sometime in their teens, he began to draw pictures of her. She would find him seated on the other side of the marketplace, grinning at her each time he looked up from his sketchbook. She’d usually look away, embarrassed that she’d been caught noticing how handsome his face had become. It took her a while to realize his eyes kept meeting hers because she was the subject of his sketches.
Dena began to live for each Sabbath when she would run into Louis at shul. They would briefly talk before she was relegated upstairs with the rest of the females. Months after they finally acknowledged their attraction to one another, Louis confessed he had lived for the Sabbath as well. “Every time I know I’m going to see you, I tremble with anticipation,” he had told her. She’d never met a man so sensitive. Dena decided right then and there that this was the person with whom she wanted to raise a family.
It was finally sinking in, how long they had been apart, a good portion of her older children’s lifetimes and nearly the entirety of her youngest child’s. She’d answered Ida’s countless questions to the best of her ability, but it was difficult to convincingly describe Louis as someone who loved all four of his children when one of them had no memory of him.
Overhead, a foghorn sounded. The S.S. La Lorraine was entering port. “They’re sending third-class passengers down,” Eidel said. “They’ll examine us at our cots before they let us board a barge to take us to the island.” Dena hadn’t heard the directive, nor had she noticed, until now, that people were heading toward the steps to descend to the boughs of the ship.
She sent Ida a reassuring smile. “We’re almost there, mein kind,” she said. “In just a little while, we’ll all be together again.”
A man in uniform had enough experience to differentiate weary travelers from anxious family members, and when he saw Louis approaching, he said, “Family that way. Wait in a room at the back.” He pointed to a long, peaked canopy through which a mob was shuffling. Louis entered the center of three arched doorways and looked around.
There was the registry room, where he’d spent the better part of his first day in the United States. There were the high windows shaped like the holy ark, through which he’d watched daylight gradually dim and then vanish altogether. He strained to catch a glimpse of his family, but there were hundreds huddled between the iron gates and another man in uniform was directing him to the end of a long hallway.
He passed a wide staircase divided by two rails into three sections. A fellow immigrant had told him, “Those are the stairs of separation. If you’re staying in New York City, they put you on the left. If you’re going elsewhere, they put you on the right. If they put you to the center, that means they’re sending you back.” Throughout the interminable day of his arrival, he’d planned what he would say if he were to be sent to the center. “I can’t go back,” he would tell them. He couldn’t return to the perils from which he had escaped, the constant attacks on his home and community, perpetual threats of annihilation, the loss of income, of dignity, of basic human rights. He had determined he had no choice but to find a livelihood in this country and bring his family here, not knowing seven years would pass before he’d be able to do so.
He couldn’t find his wife and children among any of those who populated the stairway now—not the frightened passengers who filled the center steps nor the wide-eyed ones to either side of them.
He proceeded to the back room. Here too were weary passengers seated on luggage, and others throwing their arms out in animated and impassioned reunions. He searched the crowd for a familiar face, then made his way to the corner and waited.
After several hours, he heard a young voice cry out, “Tatti!”
He snapped his body around toward the sound and nearly collided with a man squatting low to the floor. Into his outstretched arms ran a little girl, quite a bit smaller than Ida would be. The man held onto the little girl for so long, she began to struggle away, laughing.
When Louis looked up, he saw a perfect likeness of the teenager he’d fallen in love with many years ago, the same soft curls spilling from a widow’s peak, the same wide-set eyes. Her hands were on the shoulders of a small girl. They were flanked by a young, bearded man and a tall boy, who was looking around in all directions. The bearded man tapped the boy on the shoulder, then bent down and whispered something in the ear of the little girl. Her eyes widened. All four young people looked straight ahead at Louis.
A woman who’d been standing nearby, with her back turned, spun around. Dena’s curls had turned gray, there were a few new lines around her eyes, but to Louis, she was as beautiful as she had been when he would sketch her likeness in the marketplace. Even from this distance, he could see tears glistening in her eyes.
Louis spread his arms and walked toward his family, trembling with anticipation.
Despite her lack of a formal education, Fayga would indeed master English and become an avid reader. Many years later, she would take her young granddaughter, Bari Lynn, on daily walks to the library. Bari Lynn Hein’s stories are published or forthcoming in The Saturday Evening Post, CALYX, Mslexia, Vestal Review, Jewish Fiction, decomp, Verdad, The Ilanot Review, and elsewhere. Her prose has been awarded finalist placement in many national and international writing competitions. Her debut novel is on submission. Learn more at barilynnhein.com.