A little more than a month after Aaron arrived in America, World War I broke out in Europe.
Alone in Aleksandrovsk with her five young daughters — a baby, a toddler who also was deaf, 5-year-old twins and a 6-year-old — Mariasia no doubt experienced the food shortages and drastic price increases that were becoming widespread throughout Russia. It’s likely the family also witnessed refugees fleeing Europe’s Eastern Front, as Ukraine, the region where they lived in southwestern Russia, bordered Austria-Hungary. Growing unrest over the czar’s gross mismanagement of the war, which culminated in revolution in 1917, was another reality of the times. Adding to Mariasia’s troubles, communication with her husband either was delayed significantly or stopped altogether.
Aaron faced his own challenges in America. In addition to being apart from his family, he had to adjust to an entirely new country, learning a new language and culture. Shortly after his arrival, he filed his initial papers to begin the citizenship process — a petition for naturalization — with the Supreme Court of the state of New York. His two required witnesses were his brother, Israel, and his brother-in-law Sam Silvert. He probably was working long hours in the Garment District of New York — likely at Supreme Caps Co. at 51 West Third Street, Israel’s employer in 1918, according to his World War I draft registration card — so he could send money back home to his family.
It was common practice for new immigrants to send money home to their families, whether it was to support them, pay for their eventual passage to America or both. As a result, they became easy prey to those who handled the mail. According to family accounts, Aaron was one of their many victims. It’s possible that the large political police force established to defend the czarist regime from dissent was responsible for the theft. As described in W. Bruce Lincoln’s book “In War’s Dark Shadow – The Russians Before the Great War,” the Okhrana regularly intercepted large amounts of foreign and domestic mail from revolutionary groups and individuals but also spied on everyday people. A 1916 article published in the left-liberal newspaper Den’ in Petrograd, Russia, reported that a large bundle of letters from Jews in America to relatives in Russia had been uncovered hidden near a rail station after being passed by censors, offering further evidence of the political police force’s culpability. It’s not difficult to believe that the Okhrana was guilty of yet another indignity against Jews, given the hatred felt for them by the Russian autocracy.
As weeks turned to months and months turned to years, conditions in Russia continued to deteriorate, and reports began to appear in U.S. newspapers documenting the human impact of the war. There were articles about Jews seeking assistance to find missing relatives and of Jewish refugees stranded in places such as Vladivostock, Russia; Harbin, Manchuria; and Yokohama, Japan. One Polish mother wrote that she had received “no help or news of her husband for a long time” and that her children were “in need,” according to a 1917 article in the New York Times. Other reports shared a different kind of news — of a global community that had mobilized to come to the aid of fellow Jews through fundraising and relief efforts. These were the stories of Mariasia’s Crossing.