At the End of the Line

An image of a street corner in Vladivostok during the 1910s.

After their ship nearly capsized, the Naginskys were forced to return to Vladivostok (pictured here during that era) and remain there for several months.

Once they were permitted to leave Harbin, the Naginsky women would board the train and travel about 300 miles to Vladivostok, the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway and gateway to the Pacific Ocean — another step closer to their ultimate destination of America.

It almost became the final stop along their journey. After an initial stay in Vladivostok — for how long we don’t know, though others were held up there because of overcrowding in the next destination of Yokohama or by Japanese visa requirements — Mariasia and her daughters departed for Yokohama only to be forced to return to the port after their ship nearly capsized, according to family lore. Most stories told of the ship hitting an iceberg, but in that part of the Sea of Japan it was more likely an ice sheet. Winters in Vladivostok typically are dry but cold, while heavy snow commonly occurs on the western coast of Japan. Other accounts suggested the ship encountered a storm, which also is plausible as the region experiences typhoons year-round, peaking from August through October, as well as a monsoon season, which generally occurs in June and July.

Regardless of the cause, we know Mariasia and her daughters had to remain in Vladivostok for several more months until it was safe to cross the Sea of Japan. During that time, most of the family likely stayed in a shelter for emigrants supported by the Jewish Kehilah of Vladivostok.

The Jewish Kehilah of Vladivostok was active in supporting fellow Jews in need. According to a letter from a Kehilah leader, the Federation of Jewish Societies of Vladivostok helped families of Jewish soldiers from the onset of World War I. After the revolution, a committee was formed to provide housing and food to the Jewish emigrants who had begun to stream into Vladivostok, and it eventually became known as the Jewish Relief Society. To support these groups, initially the Kehilah relied almost exclusively on monthly contributions from the city’s 30 to 40 Jewish families.

As demands increased, however, the community could no longer remain self-sufficient. The letter from the Kehilah leader went on to make an appeal for funds to Herman Bernstein, a noted U.S. journalist and diplomat who went to Russia in 1917 to report on the revolution for the New York Herald:

The Jewish Kehilah of Vladivostok was in a position to go on with the relief work without any outside help when the number of war sufferers was small, between 50 to 100. At the present time, there are 500 men, women and children at the Vladivostok center. … The exact number of Jewish war sufferers and immigrant at the different places in Siberia is not known to us. But from the little information which is reaching us, we know that they number many thousands. We know also that most of them are on their way to Vladivostok and, therefore, the vital problem before us is to get sufficient funds, so that we should be able to continue our relief work, which will be necessary to increase with the increased number of expected war sufferers.

The letter, found among the archives of the YIVO Institute, was sent after the Naginskys’ stay in Vladivostok, but it still provides insight into the worsening situation on the ground there as well as throughout the region.

With the local Kehilah playing an active role in providing assistance to emigrants, it’s not surprising that the Naginskys would have interacted with some of the members. One of them, a wealthy merchant, invited the oldest daughter, Jhina, then about 7 or 8, to live with his family while they waited for the departure of the next ship to Japan. Years later, Jhina (Janet Naginsky Bradfield) recounted this story to her own children, telling them that the family gave her silk dresses to wear and caviar for breakfast. And when the time came to finally leave, the merchant asked if she could stay as another member of his family. “No,” Mariasia said, according to Jhina. “My husband left me with five daughters, and I have to bring him all five.”

5 comments on “At the End of the Line

  1. Neil "Nick" Friedman says:

    Thanks again for your posts and interesting account of the (near) ship disaster. The version we heard was that the ship got caught in a mid-Pacific typhoon and nearly capsized. Grandma always called it the “Thousand and one nights”. Whatever really transpired it’s a fascinating story.

  2. Phyllis Greer says:

    The drama continues! I never heard that comment either, but most of what I heard came from Ada, with Jess interjecting a comment or correction as she went along. I also remember being told that several of them (including Ada) became quite seasick during this first attempt.

  3. Phyllis Greer says:

    . The ship disaster occurred when crossing the Sea of Japan from Vladivostok to Yokohama, according to my recollection, causing the family to return, unexpectedly to Vladivostok. I can’t imagine the ordeal of a trans-Pacific crossing; that would truly be the “Thousand and one Nights”.

  4. Judith Tomero says:

    I am sure I have mentioned before that my mother told us that for years she had nightmares about a ship hitting an iceberg and she always said it was due to the disaster on their first crossing from Vladivostock to Yokohama.

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