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.
The New York lady with the pretty clothes had returned. When Lizzie saw her setting up her easel on the other side of the room, she tugged on Lena’s sleeve. “Come, Mama. I want to go to school again.”
“All right, let’s go,” Lena replied. It’s a good thing for both of us, especially now that Marion and her little girls had been dismissed yesterday. Lena and Marion had wept as they hugged goodbye, both realizing that their friendship would not be sustained as they each headed for different cities. Lena felt bereft. How was it possible that she and Marion had become so close in only a few days? She seems like a sister, Lena thought.
The teacher, dressed in a pale green skirt, a blouse of ivory silk, and shoes of dark green leather, propped up the alphabet chart on the easel. ‘All right, children. Sing with me.”
Children who had recently arrived in the detention hall looked bewildered, but Lizzie, who’d sung along with the teacher on a few occasions, chimed in lustily. “A B C D E..” Lena smiled at her daughter. She’s so proud of herself. I hope that she will learn English well when we get to Chicago. She sighed. IF we get there. Lena’s stomach ached with a knot of dread that she could not unravel. Just where was Jacob? Andrew must send money. But what if Andrew never did? Once again, her chin quivered and tears dwelled at the surface of her eyes, threatening to roll down her cheeks.
When the song ended, a matron came forward and spoke quietly to the teacher. She nodded, and then the matron turned to the group. “Mrs. Wolf? Is Mrs. Wolf here?”
Lena froze, then raised her hand. “Frau Wolf,” she said.
“Ah,” she said. “I’ve been looking for you. Come. With your child.”
Lizzie stared at her mother, and when Lena reached out to her, Lizzie grabbed her hand and allowed herself to be led away. Lena felt her face redden as the heads of the other women swiveled to stare at her. Two scenarios played out in her mind – We’ve been released for Chicago. No, we’re being sent back. Lena walked woodenly. She hadn’t been able to read the expression on the matron’s face. Was this good news? Or bad?
Then, the matron turned to her and smiled. “Get your things. You’re leaving.”
“Mama, where are we going?” Lizzie asked. “I want to keep singing.”
The matron leaned down and patted Lizzie on the cheek. “Honey, you’re going to America!”
Was this really happening? Lena’s fingers trembled as she assembled their belongings. She folded a still-damp blouse she’d hung to dry on the bedframe, methodically smoothing the wrinkles from it, then carefully added it to the pile of clothing in the valise. “Get your dolly, Lizzie,” she said, concentrating on keeping her voice from trembling. Lizzie obeyed.
“Ready?” said the matron, and led them out toward the door.
I’ll never be in this terrible place again. But now what, she wondered. Before she could form a complete thought, Lizzie shrieked and wrested her hand from Lena’s. “Papa! Papa! Papa!’
And there was Jacob, kneeling on the floor, smiling broadly, his arms outstretched to welcome his little girl who was now flinging herself at him.
“My Lizzie!” he cried, scooping the child into his arms and rising to his feet. His eyes met Lena’s. Oh, the sight of him! He’s here for us at last! Thank you God!
“Lena, we’re on our way. Andrew sent the money.” She nearly stumbled, and slumped into him. As he pulled her close with one arm, she was wracked with sobs.
“Shh, shh, don’t cry, Lena. We’re okay. We’re okay.” Yet, his voice trembled. Was this really the day I’ve dreamt of for so many years? He set Lizzie down on the floor so that he could take his wife into his arms. He held her close to his chest, stroking her hair, until her sobs dwindled. Then, holding her cheeks in his hands, he kissed her gently. “I’ve missed you so. I’m sorry you’ve had to wait so long.”
“I know. I know. It’s all right. We’re all right.” She gulped deep breaths, working to stifle her needless tears. We are all right.
“Papa, where have you been?” asked Lizzie, scowling up at her father, her hands on her hips. “Mama and I were sad without you.”
Lena and Jacob’s eyes met, glistening, and Jacob once again stooped down to pick up his daughter. “How would you like to go on the train today?” he asked her.
“Really?” she said, clenching her fists in excitement.
“Yes, really.” He pointed to the passageway to the ferries. Then, lifting up the valises, he said to his wife and child, “Come. It’s time. Welcome to America. We won’t ever forget this day.”
(This photograph must have been taken about one year after the family arrived in Chicago. I’m struck by how prosperous and stylish they look, in spite of my dismay at Lizzie’s hair style.)