The Autobiography of Solomon Katzen
The Early Years: 1902-1923
© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.
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My host contacted another border runner. On the next market day, the procedure of following the wagon, waiting in the woods until it got dark, crossing the swamp etc., was identical with the first try, the week before. The only exception was that the forward or advance scout came back to us in the woods and said that the time was ripe for crossing and to hurry up. The three of us reached the river in no time flat. We quickly undressed, put my clothes, shoes, and the burlap bag with my belongings into my shirt. I gathered all of this in a bundle and held it on level with my head. The river appeared to be no more than 30 ft. wide. I followed the leader, who knew where to cross. The water in spots reached to my neck. We didn't bother to dry ourselves, but continued through the woods for about 300 yards when we reached a clearing. There we finally sat down, dried ourselves and got dressed. To my utter consternation, I discovered that my bundle held only one shoe. The guides appeared to be in a hurry and I gave them the written message that I crossed the border. I also wanted to know what the single shoe contained. The shoe had been thoroughly soaked when crossing the swamp, so it was relatively easy to pull off the entire sole. At that time the soles of shoes were fastened to the inner sole by wooden pegs. I was satisfied that I saved the 35 rubles in gold coin.
Following this, the guides left me and went to a nearby farmhouse to arrange for a co-conspirator on the Latvian side to lead me through the woods onto a dirt road which led to the nearest village on the Latvian side. It seemed to me that I was waiting much too long for them to come back with the new guide.
Finally, they came with the new guide and they themselves bade me good-bye, and hurried to get back to the river and cross it back into Russia.
It was still night time, perhaps 2 a.m. I was happily following the new guide, who was Russian, but now presumably a Latvian citizen. Having gone about 200 yards, through the woods, we were surprised by a military figure in a white cloth with a drawn revolver in hand, commanding us to stop. He read a riot act to us, to the effect that the Latvian guards are cooperating with the Russians and returning to them all escapees from Russia. With one hand he searched us if we were armed. Finding no guns, but the coins in my pocket, that was the first thing he confiscated. He bawled out the "Latvian" guide and warned him not to be caught again. The next time, he warned him, he will be arrested and turned over to the authorities. In the meantime he told him to beat it, and I was told to continue straight for another 50 yards, and that I would come to the road, but to be sure that I turn to the right.
With the 35 rubles in gold, he also confiscated about 1.25 rubles in silver coins, which amounted to 125 kopeks. I pointed out to this armed "guard," that he was grossly unfair with me. Here I am in a new country, barefooted and no money even to buy a pound of bread. There upon he "generously" returned to me the silver coins, and I proceeded to walk onward as I was ordered. A slight break in the darkness, took place, early dawn was coming. In the meanwhile, my feet ached terribly from cuts that I sustained while walking barefooted through the thick woods. The single torn shoe was of no use to me and I had discarded it.
Before long, I reached the dirt road and continued walking. Every step was painful. Full dawn arrived and the countryside was awakening. A local peasant carrying a basketful of eggs for sale in town caught up with me. We exchanged remarks about the weather. I couldn't keep up with his stride and he walked on ahead of me. About nine o'clock in the morning I reached the small town Lucin, and asked for, and was directed to the local synagogue. Luckily the (Shamesh) sexton was still there. He immediately recognized me as a refugee from Russia. Observing the condition of my feet, he said that I couldn't continue this way. He went with me to several Jewish homes to scrounge up a pair of old shoes. Because of my large size feet, and they being injured and swollen, we realized, that it would be best to inquire about rubbers. And in one home, I was given a pair of old, partly torn rubbers which were of some help. During our walk through the town, we passed a bakery and I treated myself to four whole rolls for 10 kopeks. The next assignment was to get me out of this village and proceed to the nearest railroad station at Zilupe, which was about 12 kilometers distant.
The sexton took me to the local Jewish drayman, who possessed a horse and buggy and was in the business of carrying passengers or freight. The drayman demanded three rubles in silver in advance. The fact that I was held up and robbed and that all I had was 1.15 rubles didn't concern him. He then had an idea. He would relieve me of 1.15 rubles and collect the balance from the "joint." What he meant was the HIAS, which was the acronym of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, an American organization. HIAS had set up a one-man office in Zilupe to assist refugees coming out of Russia.
We sat side-by-side in the wagon. It was a beautiful summer day. He was not the type of man I wanted to engage in conversation. So we sang together various cantorial selections from the High Holiday services.
The town of Zilupe had a more prosperous appearance. I was delivered to the HIAS office and corroborated the drayman's statement that I paid him 1.15 rubles, all the money I had. The HIAS representative paid him the difference in Latvian paper currency.
Then the HIAS manager, filled out a form in English. He asked me questions in Yiddish and transcribed the information on the form in English. I received the following assistance in the HIAS office:
1. They dispatched a telegram to my parents in Zagare, Lithuania, to the effect that I was now in Latvia, that I was on my way to Riga, and that I would be staying at Hotel Imperial.
2. Mailed a letter to my grandmother in the USA, informing her that I was now in Latvia and would need a new affidavit and some money. She was further informed that she would hear from me after I had established an address in Riga.
3. They gave me enough Latvian money to buy a railroad ticket to Riga, plus some change for emergencies. I was told that there would be an overnight train leaving for Riga at 8 p.m. and that I should check in the Imperial Hotel, which is close to the railroad station in Riga.
Because of my appearance and my difficulty in walking barefoot in the old rubbers, I stayed on in the HIAS office until closing, about 4 p.m. Then I walked to railroad station and bought a ticket to Riga. The populace was much better dressed than in Russia. I tried to stay in dark corners, just not to appear too conspicuous. Thoughts were going through my mind, that having crossed into Latvia does not assure safety. Perhaps the local authorities can deport the illegal transients back to Russia. Being close to the border, Zilupe, was the starting point. At 7:30 p.m. the train rolled into the station. I boarded a 3rd class carriage, which was still the old Russian rolling stock. Though not overcrowded, the carriage was full of passengers. After the conductor came through once checking for tickets, I clambered up on the upper deck. I used my burlap bag as a pillow. Since it was dark, I couldn't see the countryside anyway, I tried to fall asleep. It was not a restful trip on the train. In the early morning, the conductor announced "Station Riga last stop, everybody out."
The Stopover in Riga
On the way to Riga, the train stopped at several stations, including the large city of Dangaspill (formerly Dvinsk). At these stops, passengers were leaving or boarding the train. With all the passengers, I left the train, walked through the station and reached the street. A strong sense of envy arose within me, when I saw so many passengers being happily greeted by friends and family. They left on various conveyances or on foot to their homes or hotels.
The city was coming to life in the morning. Few automobiles, mostly drozhky, i.e. horse driven cabs, on wheels with rubber tires, produced only the clip-clop sound of horse hoofs.
I looked around and saw the sign of Hotel Imperial and limping on my injured feet, in oversized rubbers, I walked to the hotel. Apparently, there was some kind of arrangement between HIAS and this Jewish owned hotel. If the refugees sponsored, somehow couldn't or didn't pay for the lodging, the cost was footed by HIAS. At the registration desk of the hotel, I told them that I was sent by HIAS. No questions were asked and I was assigned to a private room on the 3rd floor. Whether it was my tiredness or the comfortable bed (the kind I had never slept in before) that prompted me, I undressed, got into bed and must have fallen asleep immediately. I slept through the entire day and into night, until I was awakened at midnight by a loud knocking on the door. Somewhat startled, I opened the door, and was faced by two Latvian plain clothes policemen. Then followed a barrage of questions, but first, I had to hand over my burlap bags with its contents. They said the certificates that I had been the head bookkeeper in Sovnarchoz, that I was a student at the Railroad Polytechnic Institute, Membership card of the professional union, the free railroad pass, etc. One of the detectives remarked to the other that we have here quite a "fish." Then the questions: 1) When and where did you cross the border? To which I gave the correct answers. 2) Did you have any guides to help you? The answer was "No." 3) What is your destination? USA. Why did you choose to come through Latvia? Because I was born in Latvia and I'm conversant with the language and topography. They didn't make notes of the preceding conversation and didn't confiscate anything. I was told that I'm under arrest, but for now I can go back to sleep and that they will come for me in the morning.
Sleep was the furthest thing from my mind. I was wondering which of the documents could cause me trouble, I felt that I could be subjected to detailed questioning about the Sovnarchoz. Furthermore, there even maybe a treaty between Latvia and Russia to return the respective fugitives, who held important governmental posts.
There being an open fireplace in my room, I burned the certificate of my connection with the Sovnarchoz and the Union membership card.
Having slept for 15 hours, I lay in bed awake and weighed the various consequences of the night visit by the detectives. About 8 a.m. a knock on the door to get dressed and be down in the lobby by 9. When I reached the lobby, I noticed about ten people in the same fix as I. Some were family groups with children. From a clerk, I heard that during the past night there was a general search for illegals at all hotels. It didn't take me long to notice, that at every exit from the lobby to the street, there was posted a uniformed policeman. The lobby of the Hotel Imperial was the assembly point for all the illegals who fell into the net that night. Every once in awhile, a policeman brought in a few people and departed. As I was keeping my eyes peeled on the main door of the lobby, wonder of wonders, whom do I see but Mother and Father opening the door. I started waving to them frantically not to come in, because they were walking into a trap. But it was of no use, they came in. We hugged each other with tears of joy. They had not seen me in over two years and furthermore, I was returned to them from the "other world." Observing the scene of our meeting, a policeman came over and asked for their passports. They, too, had come into Latvia illegally. As soon as they had received the telegram that having crossed the border, I could be seen at Hotel Imperial, they didn't waste any time trying to obtain a Latvian visa for a few days. This meant going to a consul in a larger city. Such a course would have entailed the loss of a few days. Since Zagare was within a few miles of the Latvian border, there were no difficulties in crossing the border with a furman (drayman) and continuing to the nearest railroad station. From there by train to Riga. So they came, and now we all were under arrest.
About 11 a.m. all the illegals, about 25 people in all, were ordered out on the street and form a line by twos. At the head of the line, marched a policeman, holding in his right hand upraised, an unsheathed saber. At the end of the line, marched two soldiers with rifles on which bayonets were attached. We started our march, Mother and Father marching alongside each other, and a few children with their parents. The rest were mostly young men or women. The citizenry on the sidewalk were looking on in amazement, speculating as to what group of criminals or conspirators had been arrested. We marched about 1 1/2 miles to a brick building, which in the Czarist days was a military barrack. It was a large three story building surrounded by a high fence, with a sentry at the gate.
There were three main wings to the building. In one was housed a unit of the Latvian army who used the large yard as training ground. In the second wing was a civilian government office, probably a department of the Ministry of the Interior. The third wing was utilized to hold the detainees or the illegals. When we reached the yard, the guards left us, and we were ushered into a large room, which already held quite a number of detainees. Being citizens of the neighboring Lithuania, my parents were called into the office. They were fined a sum in Latvian currency, the equivalent of about 10 gold rubles, and were released. They were admonished to return to their hometown Zagare promptly. Mother and Father told me that their horrifying experience was worth it, just to see me alive and out of Russia. We took leave of each other and
they left for Zagare. The furnishings of this large room, where the detainees were kept were most "luxurious." Except for an inadequate number of straw bags, which had been appropriated by the earlier arrivals, the room was empty of any kind of furnishings. We slept on the floor. Eventually there was a straw bag for everyone. I do not have a clear recollection of the arrangements for food. It seems to me that everyone was given a half loaf of black bread daily, and at noon a bowl of soup was added from the field kitchen of the army.
Unknown to us in Russia was the fact that the League of Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, was in its early stages of organization. A famous Norwegian by the name of Nansen, was instrumental in providing to millions of refugees an international passport. Most of the World War I refugees had no valid passports. In his honor, the passports were called a "Nansen Passport." Part of the duties of the office personnel located in the barracks was to interrogate the detainees, and to issue to them Nansen passports. For without a passport, you just couldn't move around. For instance, in my case, transit permission was stamped thereon by the Latvian, Lithuanian, German and French consulates. America had been closed to Europeans since August, 1914. Now the flow of refugees, who were escaping through Rumania, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, was discovered to be a good source of income. When my older brother Harry crossed over illegally to Latvia, there was no fine. Now the government of Latvia demanded a $100 dollar fine, from every refugee. Of course, the Latvian government realized that the refugees had no such sums, but would be paid by the American relatives. In my case, poor Grandma sent me a new affidavit, about $25 for clothes and shoes, and a money order for $100 to cover the fine.
Another obstacle was placed in the path of the immigrants. This time it came from the USA. An anti-foreigner feeling was developing among the populace. Many White, Anglo-Saxon Protestants were unhappy with the new immigrant stock who were coming from Eastern and Southern Europe. There was only a trickle of new Anglo-Saxon or Scandinavian immigrants. Congress promulgated a new law that fixed the total of the annual inflow of immigrants. This total allocated fixed percentages to each country based on the point of origin of the population according to 1880 or 1890 census. By this maneuver, the doors were practically shut to new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe. Thus, prospective immigrants from Italy, Poland, Russia, Romanian, Lithuanian etc. encountered a long waiting period and many of them went to South America, Cuba, Canada from where it would be easier to get into the USA. Although I saw the American consul in Riga in June and July, he could issue no visas at that time. The new quota system became effective as of Oct. 1, 1923. I was lucky, since there was a small demand against the Latvian quota and I planned my voyage to arrive in the USA on the nearest possible date.
The Lithuanian quota for 1923 was already closed. Although my father had made an application for a visa, his was not granted until 1924.
Similarly, my cousins Chayim and Leo Muschat (Munsat) were most anxious to get to America in 1923. They must have acquired some false documents and received the visa. However, some enemy of theirs who knew of this situation reported them to the Immigration authorities in 1926 or 1927. The result was that Leo Muschat and his wife Ethel and young son Ted had to leave the USA. They went to Paris to Ethel's uncle and after a few years were re-admitted to the USA. Chayim Muschat simply disappeared from view. I found out later in the early 1950s that he was living in Barre, Vermont, under the name of Fields.
I'd like to relate a few incidents of my sojourn in Riga. Once, when I was in the office of our building awaiting interrogation, I saw, amongst a group of young Latvian men, a young blond man sitting at a desk. His cranium had a peculiar shape. I motioned the office boy to come over, which he did in great surprise. He probably wondered what this dilapidated Russian refugee wanted of him. I asked him in Russian, "What is the name of that blond young man sitting at the the desk?" Thinking that it was none of my business, he quoted a name. I told him that he was wrong and continued, "Isnt his name Serepski?" He was astonished that I would know his name. I asked the boy to please go over to that young man and tell him that one of Russian detainees wanted to see him. This he did, and Serepski turned around and looked at me, the person, the boy was pointing to. Hesitatingly, he got up and came to the partition. Well, I said, don't you recognize me! He did not. After a few hints, I finally reminded him that we were sitting on the same bench in the final 4th grade in the Elementary School, then he remembered and pronounced my name. Of course, he said, that you have changed a lot. After a few more reminisces, he tried to dissuade me from going to America. Why, here in Latvia, a new world is opening up, industry, prosperity. Possibilities of advancement galore. This was all true and it applied to Latvians. Jews could succeed only in business. At any rate, I didn't even bring up the subject, as the men born in 1902 were being enlisted into the army that year. In this case they would bend the law and enlist me, which I avoided as poison.
During my stay at the barracks I had become acquainted with two Jewish young men, who arrived in Riga ahead of me. They had received money from their relatives and outfitted themselves in American style clothes. Though, I was still in rubbers and old clothes, the three of us walked partly along the railroad tracks to the city center. It was routine to stop at the American consulate and inquire if our visas were ready for approval. On one of these walks, while we were still on the railroad tracks, coming toward us was a man in a raincoat. The day had been cloudy with a promise of rain. I stopped the man, excused myself, and asked him if perhaps his name wasn't Fritz Derman. He was surprised and said yes. He was straining his memory, and asked if we didn't serve together in XYZ regiment of the Czarist army? I kept on saying no, when he mentioned, that maybe we were together in General Denikins army. To come to a conclusion, I told him that I was one of his former pupils in Sasmaken. After looking at me intently he said, you are not per chance Solomon Katzen? I said, yes, and we shook hands again. I asked him then what he was doing in Riga. He said that he was brushing up on some subjects by taking summer courses at the University. Upon my inquiry as to where he was staying he indicated an address not far from our barracks. He was very much surprised to hear from me that another of his former pupils, Serepski, was working for the Ministry of the Interior in an office in the barracks. He said that he would certainly look him up. My two friends who observed this scene were astonished.
On many afternoons, I watched a detachment of the army do their training in the yard. At the conclusion they would stand muster and sing their new national anthem. The first three lines stuck in my mind. It went: "God bless Latvia, our dear fatherland, let it be with luck...etc."
My mother had a widowed cousin by the name of Rivka Lasersohn, and her daughter Masha, living in Zagare. They had weathered the war years, having remained in Riga, living with her brother, a resident of Riga, by the name of Yanke Peretzman. Having learned from Mother that I was now in Riga, Masha, on one of her frequent visits to Riga, came to see me at the barracks. She came accompanied by the two elder Geronick girls Sonya and Ethel, who were similarly related to me. Since the barracks was no place for visiting, we went out for a walk. The conversation was partly in Russian, but mostly in Yiddish. We recalled experiences of the war years, and kept walking till we reached the Geronick home. I saw the Geronicks once or twice afterwards.
While in Riga, I also looked up Benno Thal from Sasmaken. He had a bachelor apartment. Both he and father previously advised against visiting Sasmaken, since I wouldn't find any people that I was interested in. My injured feet improved. With the money I received from Grandma, I bought ready made shoes and a ready made suit, shirt and tie. Finally sometime in August, the American visa was stamped on my passport with an immigration date set against the quota of October 1923. With that paper in hand, I went to the French Line office who laid out the itinerary for me. I communicated with my parents regarding my plan of travel. Unknown to me, they had gotten an American visa for my youngest brother Lozer, also against the October quota. It was their plan that we should travel together. Father wrote to me that since Lozer was under 14 years of age, upon arrival in America he will stay with Father's youngest sister Rosa Brown in New Bedford, Mass. Father also told me, that the traumatic experiences in Smiela affected Lozer emotionally, and he is somewhat withdrawn from people.
The French Line booked passage for my brother and myself on the steamship Paris third class, which was scheduled to sail from Le Havre to New York City on September 24 with an arrival date of October 1, 1923. They also procured the railroad tickets with a stopover of a week in Berlin, one day in Cologne, with an arrival date in Le Havre about three weeks before boarding the ship. Over with the waiting period, events began to accelerate. I wrote to Harry and our Grandma of our impending arrival. It was agreed that since Uncle Benzion Krales (Mother's brother-in-law) lived in Brooklyn, he would be the one to meet us.
I acquired a small valise, but still used the large burlap bag that I brought from Russia. With railroad and steamship tickets, as well as a few dollars in my pocket, I felt free and elated. I boarded the train in Riga in the morning. Within a few hours, we were at the Lithuanian border, where Latvian conductors and guards were exchanged for Lithuanians who checked the documents of every passenger.
The train started to move and within a half hour we reached the first station in Lithuania - Sauli. I got out of my carriage and met Father, Mother and Lozer. Not having seen Lozer in years, he appeared like a stranger to me and presumably I was a stranger to him. Like all good Jewish mothers, Mother brought along a substantial burlap bag with chalah, cookies, salami, and other edibles. We hugged and kissed each other and bade goodbye. Lozer boarded the train with me, and now, full of thoughts we were off.
For some reason, the train had a long stopover in Kaunas, the capital of Lithuania. Lozer remained on the train with our belongings and I went out to have a look at the city. I was astonished to see for the first time, horse drawn street cars. In comparison with riga, the whole town had a drab appearance.
Late in the afternoon, the train took off for the German border. There again, the same procedure of exchanging the Lithuanian for German conductors and guards. It was toward evening when we reached the first town in Germany - Eidkunen. Since we had to board a new train the following morning, we stayed over night with a private German family. We slept in deep featherbeds, the kind I hadn't seen. In dollar currency, it was very inexpensive. This the period of wild inflation where the German mark depreciated almost 25% in a day.
Despite of having lost the war, the houses and barns of the countryside looked very well taken care of. Upon arrival in Berlin, we checked in for a week in the Hotel Schlesisher Banhoff. We started walking and riding to see the various sections of the city. However, when we passed under a railroad overpass, and a train happened to come along, Lozer got very scared of the noise. In general, he was scared by the city traffic and noises. He preferred to remain at the hotel and I went exploring by myself. It is worth noting, that the poor working people or the unemployed in Germany had a tough time making ends meet. The young chambermaid at our hotel was very grateful, when I gave her a piece of white bread.
When I stepped in at Wertheims, a large department store and wanted to buy a tooth brush, the clerk had to phone the central office to obtain the multiple which applied at that hour. One hour later the price was higher. Cigar smoking and cigar stores were plentiful as were bars for eating and dining. Berlin, in the days of the Weimar Republic, was a cultural center, attracting refugees and dissidents from all over Europe. Many of the Russian and Jewish intelligentsia used Berlin as their headquarters.
From Berlin to Cologne the countryside was more densely populated and we passed many large industrial plants. There was much that was different from what I had known.
Lozer preferred to remain in the hotel, of which I was glad, since we really had nothing to talk about. The first thing was to explore the Cologne Cathedral, which took almost 700 years in building. For the first time, I saw a tombstone inside a cathedral. Then climbing the stairs of the towers was exhausting, but the climbers were repaid with an exquisite view of the city and the Rhein River.
Before boarding the train for an overnight trip to Paris, I hurriedly bought in a store a round can that I thought to be sardines. From my experiences in Russia, there were no other canned goods but sardines. When I opened it on the train, much to my consternation I discovered it to be canned vegetables, which I had to discard. The train went through the industrial and mining area of Germany. Buildings much closer to one another. Very little open farm land.
At the border crossing the usual exchange of guards and conductors. In the morning, we were in Paris. There was quite a lapse of time between trains. I'm not certain but it seems to me that we arrived at Garre du Nord and I think we had to go to Garre St. Nazair for a train to Le Havre.
By walking from one station to the next, we walked through some central areas of the city, like Place de la Concorde, Paris Opera Building; the Eiffel Tower in the distance. We were surprised by the heavy automobile traffic, where almost everybody was blowing their horns. The police were blowing their whistles and it seemed that no one was paying attention to them.
Since I had no map of the city, I had to ask for directions. Assuming that Parisian policemen would know German. When I asked for directions in that language, all I got from the policeman was a derisive "Bosh." That was a hate word for a German. So I learned quickly and, thereafter, asked civilians. I can't say, that most of them were polite. We reached the railroad station and took the train for Le Havre.
As observed from the train, the countryside looked prosperous. The farm buildings were mostly of stone. At the station in Le Havre, we were greeted by an agent of the French Line. He assembled more prospective passengers and in a company bus we were taken to the French Line Pension. We were assigned to an upper and lower bunk in a large room, which held many such bunks.
There were people from the Balkans, Italy, Poland, North Africa, and other Mediterranean lands. Next to us was a Jewish family from Morocco. The father, with a white, straight, long beard, looked like an old time patriarch, the mother in Arabic type garb and the smaller children likewise. However, their daughter, about 18, looked like a Semitic princess. Since they spoke French and Arabic, I couldn't communicate with them.
At the pension, we received three meals a day. Dinner, the big meal, was served in daytime. The tables were loaded with pitchers of red wine, instead of water. The food was good and adequate. We remained there for about three weeks, before sailing. Lozer was satisfied to stay at the Pension, while I went out to explore and see the sights of the city.
The harbor was the most interesting place. Besides watching the arrival or departures of the big ships, like the Rochambeu, De Grasse and others, most of my attention was riveted on the smaller ships from all over the globe, particularly from the numerous French colonies. Sailors of many nationalities, pushcarts laden with raw sea food, which were gulped down by the buyers. Large, 40 gallon wooden barrels of wine were rolled on the street by hand, before disappearing into a warehouse or on a horsedrawn wagon. The workhorses pulling those wagons were of a breed, I hadn't seen before. They were broadbacked. At one corner, toward the evening, there was a prize fighter standing on a platform with a crowd around him. He was offering to anyone there 10 francs against 2 francs if the customer can last one round with him. Spotting me as a tall fellow, he tried to sell me his offer. From his gestures and behavior of the crowd, I understood what he was offering me.
Wonder of wonders, one day while on my walk through the city, I spotted Chayim and Leo Muschat, dressed like a pair of dandies. That was a surprise. They were staying at a private pension. They were scheduled to arrive in New York City before October 1, presumably under the old system - before the quotas became effective. While waiting to board the ship, every day seemed like an eternity, but time doesn't stand still. The hour came, when we were checked for our documents, boarded the company bus, and were taken to the dockside, and onto the ship, "Paris," which at that time was the flagship of the French Line.
Before finishing with Le Havre, just for the record, not having been in a synagogue for several years, I inquired and went to look for a synagogue. It was either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. After a lot of inquiry and search, I found the synagogue on the second floor of a building in a courtyard. I took a seat and looked into the machzor, that is the High Holidays prayer book, but couldn't follow their service with the Sephardic pronunciation and after 10-15 minutes I left the synagogue.
Back to the ship now. The third class cabins were large, accommodating 20-30 people. The cabin was filled with two tier bunks and every bunk was occupied. Immigrants had been preparing for months to sail and arrived in America as soon as the quota system allowed. Many ships from different ports were scheduled to arrive in New York Harbor on October 1 or shortly thereafter.
It was an overwhelming sight being on deck and observing the final stages of activities before sailing. First and second class passengers arriving late in chauffeur driven cars, boarded on a canopied gangplank. The last minute baggage and provisions that were being hoisted by the numerous cranes. The blowing of the mighty warning whistle. The increased tempo of final preparation disengagement of the gang planks and the hawsers that were holding the ship fastened to the dock. All the decorative flags and garlands on the ship blowing in the wind. The large crowd on the dock still trying to see their loved ones on the ship. Waving hands, hats, handkerchiefs. Another mighty blast, and the ship started moving slowly into the channel, leading toward the open sea. Stewards were recording passenger preferences for meals. There was an early kosher shift in which I recorded Lozer, then the second non-kosher shift and a late shift for tourist class passengers, where third class passengers could join. I signed up for the tourist shift.
Since the third class cabins were crowded and the air anything but fresh, I spent most of the time on deck. The day was beautiful and we had a rolling sea, which hardly affected the 50,000 ton ship.
Late in the afternoon we reached Southampton, England. The ship dropped anchor in the channel. A tender was already nearby so that little time was lost taking on the passengers and cargo from the tender. In short order, everyone was aboard, the tender disengaged another mighty blast and we were off to the open sea.
On the third day out from Le Havre, the dining room for lunch and dinner were filled for all shifts. While I was still out on deck in the evening I noticed that the sailors were running about frantically. Some running down to the cabins to make sure that every porthole is shut tight. On deck they were scurrying, tying down everything, and where required, covering and tying down heavy tarpaulins. In other words, from all this activity, I gathered that we were heading into a North Atlantic storm.
The next day, I was up early and went on deck. The ship was heaving and rolling, encountering 25 foot waves. Even on the protected area of the deck, it was very difficult to hold ones balance or walk. At any rate, it was better to be outside because the cabin area and even the stairs were full of vomit and the bad odor was overcoming.
The dining room for the various shifts was practically deserted. However, the tourist class shift had not suffered so much, because most of these people have been at sea before. There were a few missing at our table for breakfast. One seasoned traveler, a Frenchman offered the advice, that the best remedy was to drink red wine with lots of pepper in it. I did not follow his prescription, but did believe that it was best to be out on deck and try to walk as much as possible. I don't think, that I missed a meal on the entire trip. Never in my previous experiences have I had such good food, fruit, and wine served as on the French Steamship Paris.
On the occasional walks on the restricted area of the deck, the sight of the ship heaving up and down and every so often a wave would break over the prow, wetting down the whole deck was awesome. Either because of the direction of the storm or perhaps some cargo had shifted, it looked to me that the ship was listing to the right by 10-15°. After four days of stormy weather, the seas calmed down. The passengers began to come up on deck and the attendance of mealtime increased. I remember passing by the bunks of a Jewish Ukrainian family. All of them were sea sick. The father was moaning in Yiddish: "What did they want from me to come to America? I can't stand it any longer. I wish that instead of me, my mother should have given birth to a calf."
Early in the morning on the seventh day we realized that the ship had stopped. I dressed and rushed up on deck. There were two other large steamers anchored nearby awaiting clearance to enter New York harbor. A small tender pulled up alongside our ship and up a rope ladder came the harbor pilot and US customs and immigration officials. Returning US citizens or foreign tourists were given preference in clearing their documents. Then, the immigrant lists were checked. Practically every passenger was now on deck as the ship was gliding slowly through New York harbor to its dockside.
On the left was the great Statue of Liberty, which had greeted millions of imrnigrants. Ahead was the lower tip of Manhattan with it imposing skyline and somewhat to the right the rnighty suspension bridges across the East River.
As a lowly, penniless immigrant, one felt humble before such a panorama. Seeing freight cars loaded on low barges traversing the harbor, an immigrant standing near me pointing to the scene exclaimed: "Look at the wonders of America, trains traveling on water!"
While most of the passengers stood on deck to take in the view of lower New York, our ship was slowly moving up the Hudson. Two heavy tugs gradually eased the ship into its dock. Opposite the dock, was a massive eight story building, with large lettering thereon reading National Biscuit Company - I couldn't imagine how such a big building could be utilized just for baking biscuits.
In the meanwhile, the ship was fastened to the dock. The gangway pulled up and the first and second class passengers were disembarking on a separate canopied gangway. Tourists and returning American citizens were disembarking on another gangplank. Cranes were unloading baggage in big hawsers. The dock was bustling with the activity of longshoremen who were handling the baggage. Passengers were being met by friends, relatives and uniformed chauffeurs. These people were happily at home. The immigrants, however, had to wait. Their turn came when a tender pulled up alongside our ship. In several installments, the immigrants were transferred to Ellis Island, which housed the Immigration Service. This island was very close to the island on which the Statue of Liberty was erected.
On the three large ships that arrived that day, October 1, 1923, there were at least 5 to 6 thousand immigrants. This large influx taxed the facilities of the Immigration officials to the point where they couldn't process all of them on the same day. My brother and I had to stay on Ellis Island overnight. In the morning of October 2, we were processed, escorted along with others to a small ferry boat which held about 200 people and were taken to the Battery which is the tip of Lower Manhattan. The immigrants were given cards showing the names of the persons who were supposed to meet them. The cards pinned onto our clothing had the name of Krales thereon. Everybody got off the boat and in the ensuing mad scene, relatives and friends, found each other. I knew that Uncle Krales, was a short man but I had never seen a picture of him. Before long, he approached us, we shook hands, and he lead the way. We were walking on American soil.
We walked to the Brooklyn Bridge and there boarded an elevated train. He expected me to be overwhelmed by what we were seeing in New York City, but I told him that except for the skyscrapers, I had already traveled on elevated trains in Berlin and had seen big city traffic. On the way to his apartment, on Sumner Street, in Brooklyn, we talked about our family's experience in Russia. Within 1 1/2 hours of setting foot in America, we arrived at the home of Uncle Krales.
What was awaiting me in America an open book. I was happy and hopeful for the future. I looked forward to reunion with my brothers, and my grandmother, who were already in America, and to meeting family members whom I'd never met. I felt a sense of gratitude and anticipation as I began my new life in a free, democratic country.
Forward to Addenda
© 1995 Solomon Katzen. Used with permission.