As a child, I remember being told the tales about my grandmother’s voyage to this country. They went something like this: My great grandfather came to America first, sending money home to his family in Russia so they could join him in New York. Unfortunately, the money was being stolen in the mail. Realizing this, my great grandmother set off on her own, along with her five daughters (including my grandmother and her sisters, who were young girls at the time). Because World War I had begun, the Atlantic Ocean was closed to passenger traffic, so they had to travel across Russia, passing through Manchuria; Japan; and the Pacific Ocean to reach the United States.
“Mariasia’s Crossing” refers to the remarkable experience of my great grandmother — known as Mariasia in Russia but later called Minnie — during the “second crossing,” when millions of Jews immigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century “across a literal and figurative ocean into the modern world,” as the Yivo Institute for Jewish Research describes it. The first crossing, which we read about every year on Passover, was Moses leading the Jews out of Egypt across the parted Red Sea.
Like many immigrants at the time, my grandmother didn’t want to focus on the past. If she had her way, we would just talk about the future — how the family had gone from “professions of nothing” to become doctors, engineers, teachers and artists. But two events spurred me to gain a better understanding of what happened as my family emigrated from Russia: the death of my grandmother, Ada Naginsky Grossberg, in 1990 and my father, Stuart Greer (Grossberg), in 2003.
To start, I had these bits and pieces of family lore, along with a prized audio cassette of my grandparents, but still a lot of questions. Where did they live in Russia? (I needed something a little more solid than “Chick-a-chick” gubernia.) Did they leave any family members behind? When did they leave and arrive? And how did a woman travel halfway around the world with five young girls (amidst the turmoil of World War I and the Russian Revolution, no less)?
A lot has gone into my search in the 20-plus years since I began. I spent countless hours at the National Archives, searching for the name “Naginsky” on reels of microfilm. I traveled to Seattle, where I visited the public library and the University of Washington, and New York, where I reviewed the archives of the Yivo Institute. I tracked down ship manifests, immigration arrival cards, certificates of naturalization, census records, applications for Social Security numbers, World War I and II draft registration cards, and death certificates — anything that might yield clues about their lives.
By no means have I found the answers to all my questions. It will be an ongoing effort to put all the pieces together — some of which, unfortunately, may be lost to history. But I have gathered some important facts, which I will share with you through this blog. I’m also hoping this blog will allow family members to share the information they have — whether it’s anecdotes, documents or photographs — and help me make the experience of Aaron, Minnie, Janet, Ada, Mary, Sylvia and Anna come alive, nearly 100 years later.
Thanks for joining me on my own journey to tell their story of courage and sacrifice.