“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” — Mark Twain
While I was writing Ellis Island, 1923, I could almost hear my grandmother saying, “That’s not true!” Her words rang in my ears as I played around with details of the voyage to America, so, while I don’t know exactly what happened to them on Ellis Island, I wanted to make the event plausible.
Here are the facts:
Yes, Jacob, Magdalena, and Elizabeth did come from Neu Banat, Romania in the summer of 1923. They traveled on the ship America, out of Bremen, Germany, and, according to a website called The Ships List, this ship and several others were detained off-shore until the first of August, because new quotas of the number of immigrants from each country began on the first of each month. Ships raced to arrive at New York Harbor first so that their passengers could be guaranteed entry. This was a potentially dangerous tactic, as the number of ships in a small area of the sea might have spelled disaster. America arrived at 1:02 am on a foggy August 1, 1923.
My grandparents’ ship carried 692 first class passengers and 1056 third class passengers… no steerage. The third class passengers had a small bunkroom with its own sink. These rooms had four bunks, but in my story I didn’t include other passengers in their cabin.
First class passengers didn’t go to Ellis Island. They were processed on the docks of New York, and third class passengers were ferried to Ellis Island. This system was similar to the special perks given to first class airline passengers of today, who avoid the long lines of baggage claim and customs and zip right to the front.
The procedures I’ve described for processing immigrants on Ellis Island are factual. People were inspected for trachoma and other health issues, and those who were unhealthy were sent back to Europe on the ships they’d arrived on, expenses paid by the ocean liner companies. Since these companies didn’t want the burden of taking people back, they conducted some inspections of passengers before they debarked for the United States. The medical exams on Ellis Island, about eight minutes in length, were stressful not only because of the fear of failing to pass. The new arrivals were afforded little privacy and their clothing was piled on benches with the clothing of others in line. Regularly, people didn’t pass the health inspections and were denied entry, often resulting in the heart-breaking separation of family members from each other.
Because my grandparents didn’t talk about it, no one in our family is sure of the details that caused them to be detained. The issue seemed to be a misunderstanding about the amount of money required for entry. Detainees like my grandparents were separated, men from women and children, into crowded dormitories furnished with cots like the two-tiered bunks described in the story. Detainees were issued five blankets, probably not clean, — two to spread on the canvas cot, and three for covers. They were allotted two paper towels and a bar of soap each night, for personal hygiene. Meals were free of charge.
The food served on Ellis Island was adequate. Breakfast may have consisted of eggs, coffee, and toast; dinner might have been barley soup, boiled beef, vegetables, potatoes, and tapioca; lunch might have been corned beef hash or jelly and bread. Immigrants were often surprised at the unusual foods they were served, and many tasted their first banana on the island.
Volunteers came to Ellis Island to assist the new arrivals. Women from the Salvation Army dressed in their blue bonnets often handed out donuts to the children, and some volunteers entertained the children with music and games.
The story about the baby Laney is sadly true. Laney died, probably of pneumonia, on January 27, 1923, after the family’s passport photo was taken. Throughout her life, my grandmother told my aunt Liz that Laney died because Lizzie let her go outside without a coat. Lizzie, who was three years old at the time of her little sister’s death, carried this guilt with her throughout her life. My grandfather’s destruction of the cradle is pure fiction. While we don’t know how it got there, the X over Laney’s face on the passport is real. It doesn’t appear in the passport picture shown in the story because my aunt Kathryn had the X photo-shopped out so that she could see what her sister looked like.
My aunt Liz had little memory of Ellis Island, only that my grandmother cried a lot. Who could blame her? Mourning her daughter Laney, separated from her family and the only home she’d ever known, separated from her husband, no understanding of English… there was plenty for her to cry about.
As for my grandfather, he was the one who wanted to come to the United States and he promised my grandmother that it would only be temporary. He never returned to his homeland, however. My grandmother returned once, in the summer of 1937, with my mother Mary and my uncle Jack. My mother’s reminiscence of their visit provided me with the images of life in Neu Banat — the village, the homes, and even the roadside spot where the teenagers hung out. https://hellolamppost49.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/european-vacation-1937/
Perhaps Jacob’s desire to come to America was inspired by his older brother Andrew’s visit home when Jacob was about ten or twelve years old. In the Wolf family picture shown in the story, it is easy to see why an impressionable younger brother might have been star struck by the debonair Andrew.
On the back of the photo is a message written by Andrew that reads: “Much close friend, I grasp pen in best of health to write a few lines to you. Much new I can write about how it does not suit me at home, I wish I were again out there. I was supposed to have taken over my Uncle’s business but it is very weak — out there I earn more in one week than with the business in one month here and I haven’t any enthusiasm here on the farm. It is not like the city. I am well at home by my elders, I have wine and schnapps and what I wish to eat and girls but it still doesn’t suit me, that’s why I’ll be in one month again out there — now I will close my writing…. Andras Wolf.”
I recently heard the war story about my grandfather and his brother strapping themselves to a train in order to get home from my cousin Maureen, Lizzie’s daughter. My mother has no recollection of the story, and it seems far-fetched, but I included it because it shows some of the spunk that my grandfather surely had.
Andrew eventually sponsored my grandparents and arranged for them to live with him until they could afford a place of their own. He and his wife lived at 7177 West Grand outside of the city of Chicago, and when the taxi driver took my grandparents on such a long journey from the train station downtown, my grandfather was convinced that the cabbie was trying to jack up the fare by driving them out of the way. My grandfather did work with Andrew in his butcher shop and my grandmother cleaned houses. One of her clients, a wealthy Irish woman, kindly helped my grandmother learn English.
Unfortunately, Andrew’s life took a sad turn. He became an incurable alcoholic and spent his last years confined to Manteno State Hospital, a dismal asylum for the mentally ill. His wife Rose divorced him and took a job as a live-in housekeeper in Glenview. One of their daughters lived with my grandparents while she attended beauty school, and their other children were sent to Florida to live with relatives.
All of us Americans have our own immigration story, and this one is no more special than any other. Every person in the United States, except for Native Americans and African Americans, is here because someone before them made a conscious choice to seek a better way of life for themselves and their families. I am unfailingly awed by their courage, resourcefulness, determination, and work ethic.
Here’s a link to a piece I wrote previously about their first years in their new country.
Grandma and Grandpa, if you’re out there somewhere reading this, I hope you’re pleased with my efforts.
(Photo taken sometime in the 40’s with my uncle Bob, in front of their house on Mozart Street in Chicago.)