In early January 1918, Mariasia and her daughters were on the cusp of a remarkable achievement: reaching the shores of America after a yearlong journey through Russia and the Far East during a period of dramatic social upheaval, including a world war and a revolution. Like so many of the other emigrants, they probably suffered from exhaustion, disease and hunger. But just what did they experience in those final days as they prepared to leave Yokohama?
The work of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, under the guidance of special representative Samuel Mason, offers a glimpse into that time. As described in my last post, Mason took immediate steps to address the physical condition of the Ginzburg Home. So in those early days of January, it’s likely that Mariasia and her daughters were moved to temporary quarters to accommodate the improvements being made. They also may have been among a group of refugees who “began to bless America as soon as they realized what I planned to do,” according to the Jan. 14, 1918, letter Mason wrote to a representative of the Seattle chapter of the Society. “They greeted President Wilson’s photograph which I brought into the Home with rousing cheers, and when I unfurled an American Flag, some of the inmates rushed forward and kissed it.”
The Naginskys would not be around to experience the Ginzburg Home’s transformation into the clean, modern “American Home,” as it came to be called. As described in Mason’s August 1918 summary report, “Our Mission to the Far East,” the refurbished home opened on Feb. 11, 1918, with a fully equipped kitchen including several new gas stoves; eight lavatories; four shower-baths; and a laundry. It also featured a classroom for English language instruction, a sun room for children where they could learn “the American sport … with bats and balls provided,” and a room for religious worship. Weekly lectures were offered on topics such as hygiene and Americanization. A visitor to the home later called it “a living monument to the glory of American Jewish charitable enterprise,” the report stated.
Another one of Mason’s initial steps upon arriving in Yokohama was to reconnect refugees with their relatives in America. During this brief period when he and the Naginskys were both in Yokohama, Mariasia may have been given the opportunity to communicate with her husband, Aaron, in New York. To do this, staff may have helped her complete a “War Refugees Record of Inquiry” form, asking her name, age, “social state,” previous home and address, and how long she had been away from home as well as information on her relatives in America, including the date of the last letter to and from them. Through the local American Consulate, Mason arranged to have this information sent by cable to the relevant Society branches in America to help locate and inform family members, according to Mark Wischnitzer’s historical account of HIAS, “Visas to Freedom.”
While it’s certainly possible that Mariasia managed to relay messages to Aaron earlier on during her journey, most organized U.S. efforts initially focused on World War I’s Eastern Front and not in areas farther east. With the exception of an initiative by the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society and other U.S. relief organizations to publicize the names of people seeking lost relatives in newspapers throughout Russia’s Pale of Settlement as well as in America, most notably the New York Times, refugees had to rely on what was likely minimal coordinated assistance from local Jewish relief societies outside of those areas. During his 1918 mission, Mason established the Central Information Bureau for Jewish War Sufferers in Yokohama, with branches in Harbin and Vladivostok, to provide this and many other services to emigrants. The Yokohama bureau alone would provide assistance to more than 1,700 people over the next eight months alone, but most of that help would come a little late for the Naginskys.
An additional service they may have been able to take advantage of during this short time frame is assistance with travel arrangements. As noted in “Visas to Freedom,” Mason led an initiative to help refugees make passage reservations with various trans-Pacific shipping lines. This was not a simple task, as limited space was available, few ships offered separate areas for women and children, and many expressed a reluctance to allow “troublesome Russians” on board, an effort he described in his summary report. Yet within three months’ time, HIAS would secure spots for 700 people, Wischnitzer stated in his book. The Society also conveyed the urgent needs of war refugees in the Far East to U.S. government officials, which led the State Department to issue special instructions to regional consulates that would make it easier for women and children to obtain visas allowing them to enter the United States and join their husbands or fathers, according to Mason’s report.
Mariasia and her daughters likely underwent medical examinations, disinfections and immunizations as well during those 10 days as part of Mason’s urgent agenda to improve the physical condition of the refugees themselves. A clean bill of health was required to obtain steamship tickets so it was not only a health issue but also a practical matter if the Society was going to successfully reunite these refugees with their families in America.
In summarizing his organization’s successful mission to the Far East, Society President John L. Bernstein made these observations in the foreword of Mason’s report:
The refugees were found in a most terrible plight. For months they had been driven from pillar to post, had suffered most grievously at the hands of officials, had been robbed of their funds, had undergone every conceivable and inconceivable hardship. That the unfortunate women and children were able to overcome the ordeal is evidence of their tenacity and pluck, which was, no doubt, buoyed up by the hope that somewhere there must be some people, there must be an organisation, that would come to their rescue.
During what were likely 10 remarkable days in Yokohama, Japan, the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society would come to the rescue of Mariasia, whose courage and determination had allowed her family to reach that point in their journey. On Jan. 10, 1918 — 95 years ago today — she and her five daughters would finally set sail for America.