Sleepless Nights and Endless Days

This image of Jewish refugees at a rail station near the German-Polish border in 1918 gives a sense of what Mariasia and her daughters would be experiencing in their journey across Russia.

After returning from his group’s first mission to Europe since the outbreak of World War I, HIAS director Isidore Hershfield appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall in June 1916 to report on the conditions he had found there. Among the thousands of people attending the event was U.S. Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson. As described by Mark Wischnitzer in “Visas to Freedom,” Herschfield’s report on HIAS’s efforts to facilitate communication between family members separated by the war evoked childhood memories for Wilson and gave him an appreciation for the organization’s work:

As your representative was telling the story of his visit abroad, my own memory went back some forty-five or forty-six years when I too was an alien living in an alien country with my father a resident in the United States. … I can recall how, as a little boy, I was sent daily to the post office in order to get news from my father. … The worry, the nervousness, the sleepless nights of [my] mother, when from causes unknown there were days and days of delay in the receipt of the expected letter, and the joy when it came.

I imagine Mariasia and her older daughters experienced similar feelings as they awaited news from Aaron. According to family accounts, the letters arrived either without the money that had been enclosed or they stopped coming altogether. At some point, Mariasia recognized that she could not count on the money from Aaron to secure their passage to America. If she wanted to be reunited with her husband, it would be up to her alone.

There are many ways Mariasia could have learned of the new eastward path the family needed to follow. The Jewish press of Russia covered the subject of immigration extensively, including stories on aid programs, according to “Visas to Freedom.” Additionally, as described in “World of our Fathers,” HIAS issued a bilingual monthly called “The Jewish Immigrant” that was distributed widely in Russia, providing practical information to those hoping to immigrate to the United States. Of course, she may have learned about it from other members of the Jewish community in Aleksandrovsk or in letters from Aaron that were delivered.

To get to the Russian port of embarkation, Mariasia and her daughters had to travel a combination of rail routes. We know that they took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. It’s likely they also made the initial 500-mile trip northeast to Moscow by train, since Aleksandrovsk had become a center for rail traffic after the Kichkas Bridge, which traversed the Dnieper River, opened in 1908.

In about 1916, after two years of separation from Aaron, Mariasia packed up the family’s belongings, including enormous goose down pillows, and left Aleksandrovsk with her five young daughters. After what were likely many sleepless nights waiting to hear from her husband, Mariasia would face what probably seemed like endless days to finally reach her destination.

One comment on “Sleepless Nights and Endless Days

  1. Phyllis Greer says:

    Wow! The photo and the anecdote are powerful. They “fill in the details” with likely possibilities.

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