Almost 100 years ago, as Russia was descending into revolution and war was on the horizon, my great grandfather made the momentous decision to leave his native land — a decision that would not only affect him but all of the family members who would come after him.
On May 5, 1914, 34-year-old Aaron Naginsky set sail for America from Libau, Russia (in present-day Latvia), aboard the S.S. Dwinsk. He likely traveled by train to make the 1,200-mile journey from Aleksandrovsk, in southwestern Russia, to the northern port town. While Libau once was a popular port for emigration, it had fallen out of favor because of frequent entanglements with czarist authorities. Why Aaron left from there is unclear, but we do know that his passage was paid for by his brother, Israel, who already had been in America for a decade and who, like so many other new immigrants, was probably saving money to allow his relatives to join him.
Aaron arrived in New York on May 20, 1914, a little more than two weeks after his departure. The ship passenger list noted that his profession was “capmaker,” a reference to the garment industry factory worker job he would soon assume alongside his brother. It also indicated that he would be living with Israel at his home at 605 Williams Avenue in Brooklyn.
For Aaron, leaving his native Russia meant leaving behind his wife, Mariasia, and their five daughters, ranging from just a few months old (or possibly still on the way) to age 6. Because of the high cost of passage for an entire family, it was extremely common for husbands to go to America first and send money home so their families could join them as soon as possible. That clearly was the intention when Aaron departed, but what took place just weeks later would set into motion events that would keep them apart for far longer than they ever imagined.
As he left, perhaps he carried with him a photo (pictured above) of a relative named Zhenia Negisk, with the following note written on the back in Russian: “I am writing to you a few words. Live and be healthy. I hope that you don’t know sorrows and don’t forget me.”