The Worst of Times — and the Best

Mariasia and her daughters traveled on the newly built Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, taking the Trans-Manchurian segment through Harbin.

Between 1881 and 1914, close to 2 million Jews arrived in America, with the vast majority going through New York’s Ellis Island. With the advent of World War I, however, Atlantic sea routes were no longer available for passenger traffic, and the entire emigration pattern shifted east starting in early 1915. Not only was the distance more than twice as long as the traditional route — roughly 12,000 miles compared to 5,000 — but it took emigrants across the length of Russia as the country was descending into revolution. This was the path that Mariasia was forced to take, along with her five young daughters, to reunite with Aaron in America.

A number of factors made this trip possible.

With the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the early 20th century, western parts of Russia finally were connected to the Far East. After more than a decade of construction beginning in 1891, the railway provided a way to traverse the vast expanse of Siberia year-round. Emigrants traveled the route that opened first, in 1904, which also offered the shortest route from Moscow to the port city of Vladivostok. This involved transferring from the Trans-Siberian Railway to a segment called the Trans-Manchurian Railway (or Chinese Eastern Railway) in Chita, located in the Trans-Baikal region of Russia, then going through Manchuria and the city of Harbin before crossing back into Russia. (The longer route contained within Russia was not completed until 1916.) Today, the more than 5,000-mile trip across seven time zones takes as few as eight days — but we know that Mariasia’s trip lasted far longer than that.

To help them navigate the complexities of their journey as well as provide some of the basic necessities, Jewish emigrants were assisted by the remarkable efforts of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. According to “Visas to Freedom,” Mark Wischnitzer’s historical account of HIAS, the society collaborated with relief organizations in Germany, Austria-Hungary and other European countries to compile lists of individuals who had lost contact with relatives in America and then publicized the names in an effort to reconnect the families — which was done with great success. HIAS also helped Jews secure visas, arrange for transportation, learn English to meet entry requirements, and communicate with family members, among other activities, all of which Mariasia and her daughters may have benefited from during their travels.

In response to the new eastward emigration patterns, HIAS — with its broad network of support from government as well as private individuals and groups — provided additional resources in critical locations in the United States and around the world, most of which were stops along Mariasia’s route to America. As the number of Jews reaching the West Coast soared between 1915 and 1916, new offices were established in San Francisco and Seattle. To assist those newly arrived immigrants who had to make their way from the West Coast to New York, HIAS formalized arrangements with the Chicago Hebrew Sheltering Home to meet trains as they arrived and alert the New York office so it could track down their relatives. After getting word that emigrants, including many women and children, were stranded between Siberia and Japan in 1917 because of the sudden devaluation of the Russian currency, HIAS immediately stepped in to fund the creation of a refugee shelter in Yokahama, Japan, and to establish bureaus in Vladivostok and Harbin.

Traveling across Russia during World War I and the Russian Revolution and continuing through the Far East, Mariasia and her daughters witnessed the worst of humanity — and the best. Even before the onset of the war, the Jewish press of Russia took note of the role being played by HIAS in improving the condition of refugees. As recounted in “Visas to Freedom”: “It evokes the tragic picture of the Wandering Jew, the whole misery of the ‘stranger in the strange land,'” wrote one journalist in 1912, but “also the consoling beauty of Jewish kindheartedness, brotherhood and charity.”

Mariasia’s followers: Take a “ride” on board the Trans-Siberian Railway and view some of the spots she and her daughters may have seen as they traversed Russia en route to America.

4 comments on “The Worst of Times — and the Best

  1. Judith Tomero says:

    Naomi, what excellent research you continue to do. Here are some things my mother told me about the train journey to Vladivostok, I may already have told you, at least some of what I remember. When Grandma and her daughters reached Vladivostok it must have been end of summer or autumn since my mother said they had to spend the winter there. They lived in a shelter for immigrants, probably run by HIAS. Wealthy Jews of the city came to help out the travelers. A rich merchant invited my mother, then probably 7 years old, to come and live with his family. My mother said they gave her silk dresses to wear and caviar for breakfast. When the time came for Mariasia and her children to leave, the merchant asked her to leave my mother with him, she would be another child in his family. Mariasia said no, her husband had left her with five daughters and she had to bring him all the five.

    • nsgreer says:

      I love this story! From what I’ve read, the Jewish communities in the towns en route were quite generous in helping refugees. Leaders in these communities corresponded with HIAS when they needed help/money, and HIAS became more involved as the situation worsened. Do you remember hearing anything about their ship hitting an iceberg or almost sinking because of a storm and having to return to the port? What about being quarantined because of illness?

      • Judith Tomero says:

        Yes, according to what my mother told us the ship the ship they were on going to Japan struck an iceberg and they returned to Vladivostok. If she told us more, I don’t remember. My mother said she suffered from nightmares about icebergs for many years.

  2. […] Ellis Island in an earlier post. I’ve also shared what I learned about his childhood and adulthood. But given this significant milestone, I wanted to dedicate this post to “papa” and […]

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