Ellis Island, 1923 Part 12

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.

Ja, Godspeed.”

Maybe tomorrow, he thought as he returned to his bunk. Maybe tomorrow.


Ellis Island, 1923 Part 11

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.

In the dining room for the noon meal, Lena couldn’t shake her unhappiness. “Here. Lizzie, eat,” she said, but Lizzie, her elbows on the table, her head resting in hands, shook her head. On the plates in front of them, stewed prunes swam in a pool of purple liquid that drifted toward a piece of white bread and a slice of bologna. Back home, we’d be eating green beans from the garden, paprika chicken, plum kuchen. Jacob would be making Lizzie laugh with silly stories.  Her appetite, like Lizzie’s dissolved.

“I want to go home,” Lizzie said. Lena, blinking back tears, picked her up and they left the room. So do I, little one. So do I.

The afternoon dragged on. Lena and Lizzie slumped on their cot.

“What do you think Grosmuter is doing right now?” Lena asked.

Lizzie shrugged. “Maybe she’s feeding the chickens.”

“I think you’re right. I wonder if the rooster is crowing at her like he sometimes does.”

A small smile crept onto Lizzie’s face. “Cock-a-doodle-do!”

“Can you pretend we’re with Grosmuter? Close your eyes, and think about it.” Lizzie obeyed, and Lena stroked the little girl’s perspiring forehead and twirled her damp brown curls with her fingers as she watched her drift off to sleep. Lena closed her eyes, too, but sleep didn’t come. If only, if only. She longed to escape the grating din of voices bouncing off the tile ceilings above and the biting, sour stench of unwashed bodies jostling for space in this nearly-airless room. She pictured her mother, stout, with cheeks pinked by the sun, graying hair tucked into her white cap, reaching into her apron pockets for the feed she sprinkled on the ground. The murmur of chickens clucking and Mama’s sing-song “Futterungszeit, Huhner!’ drifted around the barnyard, dappled with sunlight streaming through the alder trees that stood along the fence. A pig snorted, a cow lowed, and a light breeze stirred the earthy aromas of livestock and poultry. The sounds, the smells were gentle, and comforting, and Lena let her mind sink back and wallow in the homey comforts they’d left behind.

Eventually, a matron opened a door to the outside, allowing a breeze to cut through the stifling heat. “Come outside,” a matron urged, walking around the room. Lena woke Lizzie and joined the others drifting through the door, eager to get out into the fresh air. But, instead of being led to the grassy lawns they’d seen when they arrived, they walked into a fenced, paved area covered with wire caging. Like our chickens in a coop, or prisoners. The sun bore down on them, radiating from the concrete pavement, but at least they were outside. Off in the distance stood Lady Liberty, and across the bay was the city of New York.

“Look, Lizzie, at all the big buildings!” Would we ever get away from this island, and on to the city?

Lizzie grasped the chain links and stared at the vistas before her.  “Are there people in them?” she asked.

“Of course!”

“How do they get to the top? Can they fly?”

Lena chuckled. “No, they don’t fly. When we get to Chicago, maybe we can go to a big building like that and see how it works.” She felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned to face a woman wearing a black dress similar to her own.  Her blue eyes stared intently at Lena, and she tucked a wayward strand of acorn-colored hair under her flowered babushka. Two apple-cheeked little girls around Lizzie’s age stood next to her, wearing clothing that could have come from Lizzie’s folded pile in Lena’s valise. Both stared up at her with eyes like their mother’s, the younger one sucking her thumb.

“Deutch?” the woman asked.

“Ja.” Lena nodded.

The stranger sighed, then smiled. “I am so happy to hear someone speak German,” she said. “My name is Marion Zaengle. My husband Frank is with the men, detained. Was ist dein name, bitte?”

Lena reached out to clutch both of Marion’s hands. A landsfrau! Someone to speak to! “Lena Wolf. This is Lizzie. Mein gott!” Delight bloomed on her face. “I’m happy to hear German, too.” Both woman continued nodding and smiling at one another, then dropped their hands, suddenly self-conscious.

“Mama, who is this?” Lizzie asked. “Meine tante?

Marion bent over to face her. “I am Frau Zaengle. These are my daughters. Barbara, she is five; Rose is almost three.” The children stared at each other, and Rose, with a loud pop, removed her thumb from her mouth and pointed her fingers at Lizzie.

The women fell into conversation, showering one another with questions. What ship were you on? When did you arrive? Why are you and your husband detained? Where are you headed? Squinting in the August sun, they told their stories. After a few moments of staring at one another, the girls began talking, too. I’m three and a half. I’m bigger than you are. I have a dolly. I ate a banana.

“Mama,” Lizzie said. “”These girls know what I’m saying!”  She clapped her hands and hopped up and down. Lena felt like clapping herself. Ever since she’d been separated from Jacob, the minutes had dragged. Now she felt less fearful, less overcome with dread. Marion’s circumstances were not unlike her own, yet her new acquaintance was calm, almost relaxed.  The Zaengles were sponsored by Frank’s uncle in Ohio, and they too, were short of money. They’d been on Ellis Island for eight or nine days already. Marion seems hopeful, shouldn’t I feel the same?

“Each morning,” Marion said, “I hear an official announce names of those who may leave. Many people detained from our ship have already gone. I only hope that our name is called soon. And yours, too,” she added, patting Lena’s hand.

At dinnertime, the two new friends and their children crowded onto a bench together. This evening’s meal was the strangest they’d seen. Plates of fat white strands of something covered in a red sauce were placed in front of them. What on earth was this? In spite of the dish’s savory smell, Lena and Marion eyed their plates with revulsion, and when Barbara screeched, “Mama, it’s worms and blood!” Lena felt bile rise in her throat. Lizzie, unaffected by the murmurs of disgust around her, speared her fork into the white and red concoction and, with a slurp, sucked the food into her mouth. “Yum!” she pronounced, then helped herself to another bite, the red staining her chin as strands of white dangled from her lips.

“My goodness, Lizzie! Please try to be neat,” said Lena. She tentatively took a bite of her own and chewed slowly.  “Noodles! It’s just noodles! I think with a tomato sauce,” she explained. Around her, others who had hesitated were now bringing forks full of the novel concoction to their mouths.

“Spaghetti!” explained the server, the same one who’d taught them about the banana at breakfast. Marion shook her head in wonderment at Lena. “What weird foods these Americans eat,” she said.

“And what funny words… banana, spaghetti,’ replied Lena. “We’re learning some peculiar English.”

Ellis Island, 1923 Part 10

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.


Lena stared at the sagging canvas bunk overhead, weighed down by its occupant. She had been awake for what seemed like hours, succumbing to memories of home – Sunday Mass in the little church filled with everyone she knew, the sweet smell of steaming apples that she and Mama canned every autumn, the husky laughter of Jacob’s brothers as they tended to chores in the barn. We’ve closed the door on all of this and now we’re surrounded by strangers.   As daylight crept through the windows, the bed above creaked and groaned. Lena then watched as two feet hung over the side of the bunk and dangled near her face. Then, the feet’s owner plopped to the floor. The young woman ran her fingers over her tangled braids and yawned loudly, waking Lizzie. Lena sighed. “Good morning, little one,” she said to her daughter who rubbed her eyes and stretched.

Her bunkmate leaned over. “Good morning!” she chirped, wiggling her fingers at Lizzie. Lena muttered a hello, then sat up as the woman sauntered off toward the lavatory.  She’s so cheerful, with another day on Ellis Island. Will this be our last one here? She doubted it. It didn’t seem possible that Jacob could get the money from Andrew this quickly, and she steeled herself to more waiting, more hoping, more dread.

“Let’s get up, Lizzie. Breakfast.”

In the dining room, Lena scanned the rows until she spotted empty space at a long bench. She and Lizzie squeezed next to a mother scolding her two sullen-looking boys. The language was undecipherable, but Lena could guess the meaning. “Sit up straight! Stop bickering with one another! You’re giving me a headache!” The woman turned her attention to Lizzie, and her scowl transformed into a smile. She patted Lizzie’s head and nodded at Lena. Lena smiled in acknowledgement. Compared to many of the unruly children she’d seen here, Lizzie was easy. Thank God I don’t have surly, disobedient children to corral, along with everything else.

A server handed them bowls of oatmeal, glasses of milk, and a strange-looking curved yellow object tipped in black.

“Was ist das?” Lizzie asked holding it out toward her mother. Lena had no idea, and looked around the table for clues. Everyone looked equally mystified. The two boys grabbed one apiece and guffawed, then held them like pistols and took aim at one another. “Pow! Pow! Pow!” Their mother swatted at them.

“Banana,” the server said. “Fruit. Look here.” She held one up and demonstrated, snapping the black top, then peeling the fruit to reveal its pale yellow insides. Then, she bit off a chunk, her eyes glowing with mirth. “Good! Good!”

“I want to try, Mama,” said Lizzie. She struggled to unpeel its thick outer layer, then handed it to her mother. Around the table, others were chattering and laughing as they too worked at revealing the fruit. Lena managed to unpeel hers, and as she and others succeeded, a sweet new smell drifted through the air. Lizzie took a tentative bite. “Mama, it’s good! You try!”

Amused by the hubbub along the table and at Lizzie’s delight, Lena nibbled the creamy yellow. It was good. Mushy, but tasty, satisfying. “Banana! Banana!” chanted the boys, and the words bounced along the table, a new Americanism now added to the vocabulary of everyone there. Lizzie ate hers in its entirety, giggling all the while. Lena caught the eyes of the mother next to her, sharing the unspoken delight in their children’s happiness.  A little something to laugh about, at last.

With nothing else to do after breakfast, Lena tried to keep Lizzie occupied with her rag doll. But Lizzie was restless, her eyes on other children scattered around the room. A matron led a new detainee, a grim-faced woman with two little boys, to the nearby cot where the Italian with the baby had been. The boys plucked at their mother’s sleeves and besieged her with questions, and she quietly answered them in monosyllables, ringing her hands and picking at her fingernails. Lena wanted to comfort her, but had no way of communicating. Besides, what could I say to her? We’re all hanging by a thread, it seems.

“Mama, what do those boys say? I don’t know those words,” Lizzie asked.

“I don’t know those words either. Maybe they speak French. ”
Lizzie scowled. “Why? I don’t like that.”

“Well, in America, we need to learn new words. Just like we learned banana this morning.”

“That’s a good word. Bananas are good.” Lizzie said, hopping off the bunk. “Let’s go over there.” She pointed to a group of children gathering at the end of the room.

Lena hesitated, then took her daughter’s hand. Maybe we can find something to distract her from asking so many questions.

In the back of the room, children of all ages sat cross-legged on the floor. Mothers hovered nearby, lined along the wall. On a chair facing the children was a willowy woman in soft rose-colored dress and a matching hat trimmed with pale blue. Her wavy chestnut hair barely reached her chin, and her black leather shoes gleamed. She smiled at Lizzie and Lena and motioned them forward in a graceful motion. “Come, come,” she said. Lizzie looked up at her mother questioningly, and Lena nodded.

“Go ahead,” she said. “You can sit down.” Lizzie sat, and Lena stepped back with the other mothers. Was this a kind of school?

“Now, children,” the woman began, “repeat after me.” She held up an alphabet chart and began to sing. “A B C D E F G…” Most of the children simply stared, but a few joined in, their voices hesitant and tremulous. When the song ended, the woman clapped her hands. “Good! Again!” This time the singing grew louder, less tentative. Lizzie looked back at her mother, and Lena nodded to her.

Lizzie smiled, then joined in. “H I J K L M N O P…”

The singers grew more confident, their song more boisterous, and their leader clapped her hands to the beat of the tune. Lena shared smiles with the mothers next to her. I’ve even learned the song now! Next, the teacher began a new tune, pointing to placards with words and pictures on them. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star…” she sang. Soon, the children and their mothers had learned this tune as well as some English words – star, little, sky.

The morning passed quickly, and Lena had temporarily forgotten her worries. When the session ended. Lizzie turned to another little girl next to her, and Lena watched as she chattered, “My name is Lizzie. What’s your name? I’m going to Chicago on the train.” The other child scowled at Lizzie, then turned her back on her. Lizzie’s face crumpled and Lena reached out for her hand. “Mama, that girl doesn’t like me.”

“No, liebchen, she just doesn’t speak German like you do. She didn’t know what you were saying to her.”

“I don’t like her,” Lizzie said, wiping away tears. A lump formed in Lena’s throat. The morning’s joy floated away like a soap bubble. Was it only a few weeks ago that Lizzie and Eva’s little Barbara were chasing baby chicks around the barnyard, plucking pink hollyhock blossoms to put in their hair, twirling around in circles and giggling?  Oh, to hear their chattering and screeching again! Now we are captives with no one to speak to.

Ellis Island, 1923 Part 9

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.

Perched on the edge of his bunk, he studied his surroundings. Heinz leaned on a wall across the room, smoking a cigarette and staring off into the distance. What a fool. God help him.

In the next row, three Jewish men wearing wide-brimmed black hats, shawls, and belts made of knotted rope were in deep conversation, one he could not decipher. Polish? Russian? Were they praying? How do they not melt under those heavy hats? Angry shouts burst forth behind him, interrupting his thoughts, and he swung around to see two dark-haired shirtless teenagers standing nearly chin-to-chin and spewing insults.  The taller one, red-faced, grabbed the other’s shoulder and shook his fist, but before any blows could land, two guards materialized and dragged off the combatants. “Dummkopf,” Jacob muttered.

A man with a tangle of blond curly hair two bunks over caught his eye and smiled, shrugging his shoulders. ”Ja, dummkopf,” he said, chuckling. “Wollen sie zuruckesschickt werden?”

Jacob laughed and hopped to the floor, reaching out to shake his hand. “Ja, ja. They could end up on the next boat to Europe. Jacob Wolf. From Neu Banat. And you?”

“Matthias Bitner, Hamburg.” He wove his way through the narrow aisle towards Jacob. “It’s good to hear someone speak German. I don’t know what those two Italians were saying, but I can guess.” His eyes twinkled, and Jacob barked a guffaw.

“So, Herr Wolf. Why are you detained?” he asked, his voice softening with concern.

Jacob leaned against a bunk and told his story, then steeled himself for Matthias’s response. I don’t need to hear “Oh, you should have known…”

“Well, that doesn’t seem to be too bad. You said your brother has already sponsored you, so he’ll get you the money you need.”

Jacob nodded. I like this guy. He isn’t so pessimistic. And, he’s not trying to fill my head with advice, like so many older men.

“But why are you here?” he asked.

Matthias waved his hand dismissively. “Just a little problem. My younger sister Ada – she’s nineteen– and I are going to a city called St. Louis. My older sister Maria and her husband are there. I’m a wood worker, going to work with my brother-in-law at a factory. Anyway, I’m not answering your question! I talk too much.” He grinned. “So, Ada —  she came down with the grippe on board ship. She’s in the sick ward for a few days. Nothing serious. She’s strong as an ox. So, here I am.” He shrugged and rolled his eyes. “So, more waiting.”

“Ah, so you’ll be on your way soon. I don’t like waiting either. And my wife and little girl are in the women’s section. I’m worried about them.”

Ja, ich verstehe. Well, they’re feeding us pretty well here, so I think they are feeding your frau und tochter okay, too. Cheer up. I bet they are being treated like queens.” Matthias smiled and patted Jacob’s forearm. His eyebrows shot up. “Say, I have an idea. Do you speak English?”

“Hardly any. Chicago…train… butcher… Calvin Coolidge,” he laughed. “This is not enough. I need to learn.”

“Same for me. But look.’ He walked over to his cot and dug through his valise. “I have this.” He pulled out a battered book. “An English—German dictionary. I try to read it, but I don’t remember what I read. Maybe we could work on this together.”

Jacob took the book and thumbed through it. How will I ever learn every word I need? “Andrew says I must know how to talk to customers in his store. Ja, I want to learn. Let’s see if we can help each other.” He handed the book back to Matthias.

Matthias beamed and reached out to shake Jacob’s hand. “Einverstanden! Tomorrow we begin!”

“Ja, ja. Maybe I can learn to say “Madam, what kind of meat do you like today?’ So, tomorrow morning, school begins.”

Ellis Island, 1923 Part 8

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.

Around him, men stirred, heading toward a doorway. Dinner, he thought. He stood up and searched the crowd for a familiar face. Maybe I can find another landsman, he thought. Was that Heinz over there? Why is he here?

Jacob had met Heinz, a fellow German from north of Timasoara, at the ship’s rail, as they gazed at the roiling ocean below them. Heinz, a decade older than Jacob, had a hearty laugh and was full of big ideas and advice.

“My cousin begged me to come to his big wheat farm in North Dakota, far in the West, colder than even Romania,” Heinz had boasted. “He’s making so much money, and I’m going to be rich. Then I’ll send for meine frau und kinder.”

“We’re going to Chicago – me, meine frau, my daughter.”

Heinz scoffed. “No big city for me. Dirty. Crowded. Too many crooks.”

Jacob shrugged. “I’ve had enough of farms. A city is opportunity.  I’ve wanted to go to America since I was a boy, but during the war, I thought, how will I get there? After the war, I got my brother Andrew to sponsor us. I’ve saved for six years to pay our way.”

Heinz smirked and patted Jacob on his shoulder. “Well, young Herr Wolf, I wish you luck. I hope you won’t be sorry.”

Jacob nodded, but dismissed Heinz’s words. Just like my brothers, always knowing better than I do. I won’t be sorry, I know, he told himself.

 “Heinz!” he called out, waving at the burly man in a crumpled tan shirt slumped on a bench at a nearby table. Heinz looked up, his face was devoid of the ready smile Jacob had seen on board ship. He gestured for Jacob to join him. “So, you are detained here, too,” he said, inching over on the bench so that Jacob could sit down.

“Yes. I need more money, it turns out. But, I telegrammed my brother. I’m sure he’ll send it,” he said with more confidence than he felt.  “My wife and daughter are in the women’s section. You?”

The older man avoided Jacob’s gaze, reached for a plate from the server passing behind the table, and scrutinized the beef stew in front of him. He dug his fork into a potato, put it in his mouth, and chewed it a bit before answering. Jacob, too, took a plate, but kept his eyes on Heinz. Was this the cocksure fellow from the ship? He looks shrunken, defeated.

Heinz grunted. “Money problems, too. I left Bremen with enough, but I got swindled playing cards. Some damn Pole took my money.  I’ve sent a telegram to my cousin, but I think his funds may be all tied up until the harvest, and that’s not until the end of September. Don’t know if they’ll let me stay that long.” He waved his fork in the direction of the grand hall.

Jacob looked down at his plate, spearing a bite. He had seen card games on board the ship, but he’d never joined in. He’d witnessed enough disastrous gaming during his stint in the army. Bored soldiers, thinking themselves smarter than the others throwing money into the pot, often squandered their meager military pay, and were left with nothing to send home to their families.  Jacob had steered clear, refusing to part with his hard-earned wages. Gambling! Mein Gott! What had Heinz done, losing so much? What a fool!  “I’m sure it will work out for you, Heinz,” he said, although he wondered if it would. Heinz’s situation surely was more dire than his own.

Heinz shook his head. “I doubt it. My luck seems to have run out.” He pointed his fork at Jacob. “You’re a smart young man, Wolf. Smarter than me. You will get to your Chicago. Think of me back behind a Banat plow when you do.”

The two men ate the rest of the meal in silence.

After dinner, Jacob returned to the detainees’ quarters, but he wasn’t ready for sleep. Perspiration trickled down his neck and he rubbed his forehead with a limp handkerchief. The air was cloying and foul – too many unwashed bodies under a bluish haze of stale tobacco smoke, and windows that were too high to allow any breeze to float through to the men below. He was used to smells — sweaty bodies after a day’s work in the hot sun, pungent animal dung in the barn, the biting tang of chicken droppings—but this was different.  He longed to be outside where he could breathe deeply and escape the dank cloud that enveloped him.

He took the bar of soap and the paper towel he’d been allotted and headed to the lavatory. It reminded him of an army barracks, but in the army, regulations required the soldiers to be tidy. Jacob held his breath against the stench and searched for a sink not rimmed with gray scum. He stripped off his shirt and washed his face, his chest and under his arms. Then, he held his shirt under the faucet, scrubbing it with his bar of soap. I may be a detainee, but I’m not a bum. He wrung out his shirt, and back at his cot, he hung it on the metal frame. He found a clean undershirt in his valise and put it on. It’s still stifling in here, but at least I don’t stink.

Ellis Island 1923, Part 7

In the summer of 1923 my grandparents Jacob and Magdalena Wolf and their daughter Elizabeth arrived in the United States, heading for Chicago. When the 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.


Herr Wolf, kom,” said the official, leading Jacob through a door into a large room filled with cramped rows of army-like bunks.  “Men stay here. You can send telegrams over there. Good luck,” he said, then bustled back through the door.

Jacob stood paralyzed,  grappling with the turn of events that had led him here. What a fool I am! He took a few deep breaths to silence his ragged breathing and scanned his surroundings. In the main hall, he’d felt an air of expectancy, but this room was subdued, grim. Men slouched on narrow canvas beds connected to the bunks by metal chains, or huddled in quiet conversations, worry and desperation etched on their faces. Was it only a few minutes ago when I thought I was leading my family to Chicago?

Leaning against a wall, he reopened his folder packed with their documents. Everything is in order, he’d told himself over and over. But it wasn’t.  He knew better than to take out his money under the watchful eyes of strangers, but he didn’t need to. He knew exactly how much he had… so much for entry, and a bit more for their travel expenses. Not the fifty dollars required. He pinched his temples, shaking his head. Well, you’d better fix this. He squared his shoulders and approached an agent behind a counter.

The agent barely looked up, and shoved a form toward him. “Deutsch?” Jacob asked the clerk, who shook his head, then waved toward the other side of the room. Taking a pencil, he composed his telegram.

Arrived Ellis Island. Need another $25 for entry. Send it care of Ellis Island. Please. Waiting. Jacob.

He paid for the telegram, then sought out another government worker. “Deutsch?” Jacob asked again, and this time the man nodded. Questions poured out: “How will I get the money my brother sends? When can I see my wife and daughter?”

Kom hier,” the man said, leading Jacob through the cramped rows to an empty top bunk. On the way, he answered questions. “Check the desk every day. When your brother sends the money, we will admit you. It may be a week or two. Meals are free of charge. No men allowed in the women’s hall. Your wife and daughter will be taken care of. Just be patient.”

Patient? A week or two? Jacob’s eyes darted around the room of strangers, men like him who’d strived to enter this new country. And here they sat, waiting, waiting again. He plopped his valise on the canvas chained to the bedframe, then sat, his arms crossed over his chest.

What if we have to go back? He could not bear the thought of returning to their old life of working the farm, divided among the ten brothers. Out in the fields before the sun rose, plowing, tending to the crops, butchering cows and chickens, repairing fences, an unchanging march through life. His dreams were bigger than those of his older brothers, who’d dismissed his plan to join Andrew in America. “The streets aren’t paved with gold, you know,” they’d told him.


(Photo of the Wolf family when Andrew returned to visit. Jacob is in the last row, second boy on the right. Andrew is in the center in the gray suit.)

Peter had warned him. “Andrew thinks he’s better than the rest of us Wolfs, strutting around like a rooster when he came back to visit. You were only ten or eleven, so you swallowed all of his big tales. You’re going to be disappointed.” But Jacob had brushed off Peter’s warnings. If we go back, what will Peter say to me? And the others? “Oh, there’s Jacob… tried to get to America, but they refused him. Ha!” Humiliation burned in his gut. Please, Andrew, send the money.

Jacob lay back and stared at the ceiling. What must Lena be thinking? And Lizzie?  The ever-present weight of the January nightmare along with Lena’s sadness crushed his chest. When Laney had become so ill, Lena had nursed her day and night, struggling to get her fever down, rocking her, rubbing her little chest with ointment to rid her of the endless racking cough. Yet, Laney only got sicker, weaker, until the coughing ceased and she was no longer breathing — their cheerful, funny little daughter, gone. Lena’s wails of anguish had torn through his own broken heart, but he’d suppressed his grief in order to keep Lena from shattering completely.

After the funeral, Lena went through the motions of daily life, but she rarely spoke or smiled. One evening, Lizzie said, “Mama, can I put my dolly into the cradle?” and Lena had shouted at her. “NO! Get away from it!”

Lizzie shrank away from her mother. “I’m sorry, Mama,” she whispered. “I’m taking the cradle into the barn,” said Jacob, and Lena shouted at him, “You want to forget her!” His lips squeezed together to keep his words in, he scooped up the little bed and stormed out the door.

In the barn, Jacob lifted the cradle over his head and hurled it onto the ground. “Verdammt diese Wiege! Verdammnt!” He grabbed an axe, smashing it down on the cradle again and again. Wood fragments flew around him and he kicked them aside, then slunk to the floor, his anger dissolving into anguish. Why? Why did Laney die? Jacob covered his eyes with his hands and rocked back and forth on the floor, sobs wracking his body.  When his tears subsided, he uncovered his eyes and stared at the shards scattered on the floor. What have I done? Am I crazy? Shame replaced his misery. He bundled up the rubble, regretting the destruction of the cradle so carefully crafted by his father.

Sheepish, he returned to the cottage. Lena, rivulets of tears on her face, held a sleeping Lizzie on her lap. Jacob bent down and stroked his wife’s cheek.

“Things will be better when we get to America,” he promised her.


Ellis Island, 1923 Part 6

In the summer of 1923 my grandparents Jacob and Magdalena Wolf and their daughter Elizabeth arrived in the United States, heading for Chicago. When the 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.

Lena was surprised when she opened her eyes to a room brightening with morning light. I never thought I’d fall asleep, but I must have. Lizzie was not yet awake, but around them, other women stirred, a few babies cried, and children’s voices pierced the quiet.

What will the day bring, she wondered. Lizzie yawned, stretched, and opened her eyes. “Mama, is it morning? Is it train day? Where’s Papa?”

Lena looked down at the little girl’s smudged face, her disheveled hair, and her rumpled, stained dress. I must look no better, she thought. “Come, little one. Let’s get washed.”

She dug through her valise, hoping to unearth anything that wasn’t already soiled, and led the little girl to the bathroom, not unlike the facilities on the ship. Stalls of toilets lined a wall, and sinks lined the other. There, under an acrid stench, women tussled with their children who squirmed away from the wet cloths their mothers wielded. Lena found an unoccupied sink and struggled with the faucets, so unlike the pump in Neu Banat. She observed the other women and, as they did, she turned the handles to get water from the spigot. She soaked her cloth, then turned to Lizzie, wiping grime and the remnants of last night’s dinner from her cheeks and hands. She daubed at the front of Lizzie’s dress, spotted with stains and smudges. Lizzie stood patiently, squinting her eyes shut. She didn’t dare protest when she saw the steely look in her mother’s eyes.

Satisfied with Lizzie’s clean-up, Lena turned her attention to herself. She scrubbed her face, her hands, under her arms. Back home, Mondays were laundry days. She’d washed her family’s clothes in the trough, scrubbing out stains with strong-smelling soap, rinsing everything under the pump, wringing the sopping garments, then hanging them to dry. It was hard work, but satisfying.  The clean shirts, trousers, and dresses snapped on the line as the sun warmed them. When they were completely dry, she’d inhaled their fresh fragrance. Lena sighed at the memory. The dresses that she and Lizzie now wore looked cleaner than they had  before they’d entered the bathroom, but still held on to the fetid odor of clothing that hadn’t had a good scrubbing in weeks.

After a breakfast of lumpy oatmeal and toast, Lena and Lizzie returned to their cot. What to do now? Will Jacob come for us? Lena busied herself with unpacking her valise, refolding its contents, and reorganizing the items within. There were two other black skirts and blouses besides the dress she wore, and everything smelled musty. An apron or two, some underwear, a babushka, a wooly coat. For Lizzie, there were similar pieces. “We won’t pack much; we’ll buy things when we get to Chicago,” Jacob had said. Lena regretted that decision. Nothing here spoke of home, no pillowcases embroidered by Mama with dainty flowers, not even the quilt she’d made for their bed. Jacob wanted to start fresh in America. She wiped away tears again. Without Jacob, she had only Lizzie and this valise of nondescript clothing that might have belonged to anyone.

“Mama, don’t cry again,” said Lizzie, her forehead knitted into a frown.

Lena managed a weak smile and hugged her daughter. “Let’s sing,” she said, and began humming a familiar tune. “Du, du liegst mir in hertzen. You live in my heart.”

The morning dragged on. Lizzie seemed content to wander around the room, and Lena made sure that she never left her sight. She too, was curious about the others confined here. Where were these women from? Why are they being detained? She noticed that some seemed to be clumped in groups. How could these women look so calm and happy, chatting with another, even laughing? Why weren’t they afraid like I am? Were their husbands with Jacob? Why were they stuck here, instead of traveling to their destination? Imagine, whole families arriving in America together! What might it be like to have my sisters with me? Eva issuing orders to each of us, Catherine comforting me with reassuring comments, Teresa making everyone laugh, as she usually did? Lena studied a group of women nearby. She was unable to understand their language, but their sisterly back-and-forth was easy to see. Sure enough, there was one who looked stern and bossy like Eva, and one who sat with a serene smile on her face. Another was playing with three little ones, cousins, maybe, and giggles erupted from them. What are my sisters doing right now, she thought. Laundry? Baking bread? Gathering eggs? Or, depending on the time of day, would they be gathered around a table, gossiping about my brother Frank’s new fiancé.  Once more, tears threatened to seep from her eyes. If only we weren’t alone.

(Photo of Lena, on the right, with one of her sisters)

As the day wore on, Lena had little to do but sit and watch. Occasionally, the escort who’d shown them into the room yesterday reappeared with new women and children in tow. The women all looked frightened and confused, and Lena wondered about each one. Did they, too, come without enough money? Or were there other reasons for being detained?

Lena saw three or four women being escorted out. Once, the guide had come in the room and had shouted above the din: “Mrs. Ferraro! Mrs. Ferraro! Anna Ferraro!” The Italian woman with the baby next to her jumped up. “Anna Ferraro,” she said, pointing to her chest. The guide approached and beckoned for her to follow. Anna followed, her face a blend of fear and hope. They disappeared through the door. Lena said a silent prayer that this woman would soon be on her way to her new home in America.