In the summer of 1923 my grandparents Jacob and Magdalena Wolf and their daughter Elizabeth arrived in the United States, heading for Chicago. When they landed at Ellis Island, however, they were detained because they didn’t have the required amount of money. My grandparents never spoke about their detention, but my aunt Liz recalled that my grandmother cried a lot during the ordeal. What really happened before they were allowed to travel to Chicago? My story mixes fact with fiction to show what might have occurred.
Jacob paced around the exercise yard, clenching and unclenching his fists, scuffing the toes of his shoes into the gravel. This damned idleness! I’m not made for this. I only know work and here I’m trapped, nothing to do, stuck between two worlds. Earlier, he’d paced the bunk room inside, fruitlessly waiting to hear his name announced for release. When? When? Why aren’t we on their way? How is Lena fairing? And Lizzie? Are they frightened? Is Lena angry? And Andrew… what is he doing? Every scenario played out in Jacob’s mind as he squinted in the hot sun and stared through the chain link at the New York skyline. Andrew was rushing to acquire the extra money for the family, and it would be any minute now that it would arrive. Andrew had no money, was ignoring my request. Andrew was asking his friends for the money and he hadn’t convinced them to help. Andrew was disgusted with me for asking for more. As every possibility spun through Jacob’s imagination, his mood swung from despair to anger, hopelessness to determination. I will not go back, he told himself. We will get to Chicago somehow and I will make a new life.
His frustration and resolve brought him back to the end of the war, when he had ached to return home, to resume his life outside the military. If only I could take matters into my own hands, as I did then.
(Jacob in uniform during World War I)
The German train yard teemed with soldiers, all recently discharged and each one muscling his way toward the edge of the tracks. “Go home,” they’d been told, but transport, especially to far-away Romania, was scarce. When a train finally screeched into the station, the mob swarmed forward and men who’d fought side by side in the trenches grasped and clawed their way past one another to climb aboard. Jacob and his brother Tony, reunited after the German’s defeat, linked arms to present a stronger force. But as hordes of grizzled, war-weary men packed the train cars, the brothers were still feet away from the steps.
“Jacob, we’ll never get on this train. We’ll have to wait.”
“No! I’m going on this one, and so are you.” Jacob boosted himself up onto the shoulder of another man and lunged forward, grasping the frame of the open window. “Reach, Tony, reach!” he shouted to his brother. “We’ll hang on the outside.” With one arm wound through the window frame, Jacob clasped Tony’s outstretched hand. He yanked Tony forward, and the two brothers each held on to a window frame.
“We won’t last for two hundred miles,” Tony said, but Jacob shook his head. “Yes, we will!” With one hand, he jerked the canvas belt out of the loops on his coat, and then, as the train began to move, he lashed the belt through the open window and around his waist. He struggled to buckle the belt, strapping himself to the side of the train.
“Tony, get your belt and put it through the window. We can do it!”
Men in the train car hung out the window, urging them on. ”Come on, soldier! You can do this!” one landsman shouted, and grasped Tony’s shoulders as he secured his belt. The train built up speed.
“Home! We’re going home!” Jacob yelled as the wind whipped through his open coat, snapping it around him like the sails of a windjammer.
“Jacob, you’re crazy, but we’re going to get there!” Tony yelled back, struggled to be heard over the clamor of the train. Mile after mile, the brothers hung on, until the train arrived into the station in Timasoara.
Jacob chuckled to himself, recalling the many retellings of the strapped-to-the-train story. He and Tony had stretched the story over the years, adding outlandish details that garnered guffaws and jibes from the older brothers. “We hung on to the roof!” “We strapped ourselves to the undercarriage, and had to spit out the cinders that flew into our mouths!” Ah, Tony. How I’m going to miss him and the other brothers. Well, I can hardly push my way out of Ellis Island, or strap Lena and Lizzie to the side of a train. So, Jacob, think, and be patient and do what you can do.
He turned from the fence and shuffled back into the building, pulling folded pieces of paper from his pocket. Matthias and his sister, now recovered, had departed from the island a few days ago, but he’d left Jacob with a small understanding of English and a smattering of words and phrases. The two men had studied for hours during their two days together, and using Matthias’s dictionary, Jacob had looked up numerous words, copied them on paper, and carried the list with him.
Tuning out the drone of voices surrounding him, he huddled on his bunk, unfolded the paper, reading it and rereading it, forging the new words into his brain. “Good morning, sir. Good morning, missus. How are you today? May I help you? Car. House. Street. Beef. Pork. Chicken. Family. Wife. Daughter. Brother. Cold. Hot.” Jacob repeated the words over and over, stared at the ceiling.
Restless, he left his cot and hovered near the officials who conversed with immigrants, picking up more words to add to his vocabulary. “Money. Dollars. Relatives. Not permitted. Telegram. Regulations. Permission.” All part of the language of Ellis Island.
He looked around in vain for the German-speaking official, who seemed to have taken a liking to Jacob. Over the past several days, Jacob had inundated him with questions. “Excuse me, Herr Schultz, can you tell me how my wife and daughter are doing? Excuse me, Herr Schultz, can you tell me about Chicago? Excuse me, Herr Schultz, is it always this hot in America in the summer?”
“Herr Wolf, I am sure your wife and daughter are fine. They are getting good food.”
“Yes, it’s hot in New York in the summer.”
“I haven’t been to Chicago, but I hear that it is not much different from New York. Many, many people, and many Germans.”
He helped Jacob with his pronunciation: “Water, not vater. Walk, not valk.” He tossed out advice. “When you get there, be careful of those who would try to cheat you. Taxi drivers know you’re confused, so they go out of their way and charge you too much. Landlords overcharge you on rent. Don’t be gullible.”
But too often, Mr. Schultz was required to translate for other Germans who, like the Wolfs, were in some trouble, so he waved Jacob away. “Not now. Busy.” It appeared that Herr Schultz was busy elsewhere this afternoon. So, Jacob paced.
At dinner, a leathery-skinned man, eyes nearly hidden under the brim of a soiled cap, sat across from Jacob. He hunched over his food, shoveling in heaping forkfuls of meat and vegetables and mopping his plate with bread slices. What is it about him that reminds me of a guy from my platoon during the war? He leaned across the table, extending his hand in greeting. “Hello. Jacob Wolf.”
His gesture was met with a sneer, but he continued to reach forward until the man dropped his fork and took his hand.
“Deutch?” he asked. The man nodded, then mumbled, “Schneider.”
Jacob smiled, and tossed out questions. “You look familiar. Where are you from? Where are you headed? Are you alone?” But Schneider pulled his hand away, shook his head, and resumed eating. Jacob sighed, glanced at the man – Irish, I think— on his right who’d seen the exchange, and shrugged.
The Irishman, eyes twinkling, gave Jacob a sympathetic nod and commented. “A strange duck. I’m Tom Feeney. And you are Jacob Wolf?”
“Ja, Tom. Where are you going?” he asked in stilted English.
“Ahhh! Chicago!” Jacob pointed at himself. “Family?”
Tom nodded, then poured forth a stream of sentences that Jacob struggled to follow. Was he with a wife and children? Or were they back in Ireland? Tom stopped talking, chuckling at Jacob’s mystified expression. Through gestures and monosyllables, the two men pieced together information about each other. Tom was unmarried, joining two brothers and a sister in Chicago. He was the youngest sibling, and had left his parents back in Ireland.
Tom mimed hammering and sawing. “Carpenter.”
Jacob mooed like a cow and sawed. “Butcher!” laughed Tom.
“Ja, butcher.” It was one word that Jacob knew.
When the meal ended, Tom reached out once gain to shake Jacob’s hand. “Godspeed, friend,” he said.
Maybe tomorrow, he thought as he returned to his bunk. Maybe tomorrow.