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.
But tomorrow didn’t bring any news. Nor the next day. Jacob struggled to stifle his impatience, his growing dread. In a few months, when we are all settled in Chicago, this will seem like nothing, he told himself, but he couldn’t help grapple with the idea that maybe he and his family would never see Chicago. What then? I guess we move to Timisoara. Maybe find a job there, like my brother Joe. But Joe had gone on to school and worked in a bank. He couldn’t picture that for him. Should we return to Neu Banat and try to farm once again? Each idea lay like a stone on his chest. He couldn’t conjure up an alternative to his plans for a new life. No, no, I won’t take my family back! And to keep himself distracted, he unfolded his list of words and read them over and over.
Another morning, and another day of anticipation. Bitte, Gott, bitte, he muttered as he straightened his blankets, joined the other men in the lavatory to wash and shave, then returned to his bunk to put on the shirt he’d rinsed and hung to dry the day before. He spotted an official carrying a clipboard entering the room and knew that the daily announcement of releases was about to begin. Hope fluttered in his gut, but he tamped it down. Be ready for another letdown and then it won’t feel so terrible.
Yet, Jacob’s optimism could not be quashed. Today could be the day, please God. Thrumming his fingers against his thighs, he stood facing the official, who held up his hand to silence the room. The official began, “Attention, please. Attention. Will the following men come with me for release? Guiseppe Fortunata…. Anton Miserski… Tom Feeney…” Jacob’s Irish friend whooped and bolted toward the front of the room, pumping his fist in the air. Good for Tom. He’s a good man. Tom reached out the shake the hands of the two men whose names had been called, and the three stood grinning at one another as the list continued. The official stared down at his clipboard. Jacob held his breath and closed his eyes. “Two more: Michael O’Connor… and last one today… Jacob Wolf.”
A gasp escaped Jacob’s mouth. Jacob Wolf? He said Jacob Wolf? “Wolf here! Wolf! here” he shouted.
Tears sprang to his eyes, but he brushed them away. Not a time for tears, man. He scooped up his belongings and ran to join the others, nearly tripping as he snaked his way through the rows of bunks.
Tom clapped him on the back, beaming. “We’ve made it, Wolf!”
The official smiled and gestured to all five men. “Come with me and we will get your documents in order.”
Outside the bunkroom, they were led to a counter manned by another clerk who spoke to each detainee one by one. Jacob, rubber-legged with relief, worked to stifle the grin that refused to leave his face. He watched as each man signed a document or two and headed for a passageway labelled “Ferry to trains.” His mind swirled. Finally! Won’t Lena be relieved. And Lizzie will get her train ride. We’ll be together, Lena, Lizzie, and me. Chicago, only a couple of days away. He shifted from one foot to another, waiting for the clerk to speak to him.
“Here’s your telegram and a wire transfer of money. You are free to go.”
“But my frau? My kind?”
“Ah,” the clerk said. “Follow me.” He led Jacob to the doorway where he’d last seen Lena and Lizzie. “Wait here. We’ll get them.”