Lena stood on the bow of the ship, wedged into place by the crowd of crying, singing, shouting, and cheering people. They gazed in wonder at the Statue of Liberty, and New York Harbor.
It was 1897 and they were a small group compared to the half million people, most from Eastern Europe, who would pass by this way throughout the year. Most were fleeing poverty and political unrest. They were anxious to step on those golden streets of America.
This journey had taken her over a month, with Lena traveling from her home in Kovna, Lithuania, then a part of the Russian Empire, by carriage and train to Brendan, Germany, where she boarded the Sustaneau to sail to New York. She had traveled basically alone, though there were others from Kovna on the ship. She had to lie about her age in order to be allowed to travel alone. One had to be at least 16, and she was only 13, but mature for her age.
When her mother died, Lena became an orphan, with siblings in South Africa, Australia, and America. Being the youngest and the last of the five brothers and sisters to leave home, she gathered the little money her mother had hidden, packed two garment bags, and started on her journey to Chicago where her sister Rachel lived. Traveling second class made the journey tolerable.
It took hours before the immigrants were allowed off the ship. Finally, small ferryboats took them to Ellis Island where they reluctantly left their luggage in a baggage room and each person’s identity was reduced to a card with a number on it. The already tired but anxious immigrants then were forced to stand in lines for hours while doctors examined them, and American officials asked questions. Lena answered politely, even though she had trouble understanding the interpreter.
Finally she was waved free, handed a landing card and sent to a ferryboat that would take her to the mainland. She was lucky her two suitcases still were in the baggage room. Some people had had their luggage stolen. Weary, exhausted, unfamiliar with the language, Lena lugged her suitcases, dodging people, horses, carriages, and garbage to her destination. She was able to make it to Grand Central Station because she was smart enough to have the interpreter write directions in Yiddish and in English.
Lena sat in the station for 14 hours before her train left for Chicago. Twenty-four hours later a tearful and happy duo, Rachel and Lena, were united after a five-year and 8,000-mile separation. The sisters chatted non-stop as they headed for Rachel’s home near Maxwell Street, the area where most of the new Jewish immigrants lived.
Granted, Maxwell Street was not great, with its tenements, push carts, and crowded dirty streets, but there one could always find someone who spoke your mother tongue, and offered a helping hand. Anyway, in America you were free to move out of Maxwell Street, to a nearby better neighborhood or as far as the White House. Try that in Russia!
Chicago was an exciting place to be in the 1890s. The city was still basking in the glory of the Colombian Exposition. It was a city of lakes; rivers; straight, large, well-paved streets; bridges; and new buildings. Chicago loved to brag about her Auditorium, the largest building in America if you didn’t count the Capitol itself.
The Union Stock Yards gave the city a nasty odor, but it also gave it the distinction of being the Hog Butcher to the World.” Along with this, Chicago was the railroad capital of the United States, serving a country that was moving westward.
Because Lena and Rachel took that lonely and brave step to migrate to America the United States has been blessed through their descendants with lawyers, doctors, scientists, dentists, pharmacists, psychologists, teachers, writers, designers, nurses, businessmen, and even a Supreme Court Justice. Besides those special relatives, I have been blessed with three beautiful granddaughters who will carry on the Glovitz, Teiman, Packer, Wexler, Marovitz, tradition of strong women.
Lady Liberty lifted her lamp beside the golden door, and the women of my family are all-too-happy to continue carrying the torch.