By most measures, the timing of the Naginskys’ journey from Russia to America could not have been much worse. But in the case of their trans-Pacific voyage, it’s possible their path was smoothed somewhat by those who had come before them: the more than 3 million Jews who left Eastern Europe for the West during the so-called “Second Crossing,” which took place from about 1870 to 1921.
The horror stories of the Atlantic crossing — the route of the vast majority of Jewish emigrants during this time period — had been well documented. Hordes of people crowded together in dark, dirty, unventilated steerage compartments. Inedible (and non-kosher) food served from large vats into passenger dinner pails and little availability of fresh drinking water. And, worst of all, a pervasive stench caused by widespread seasickness.
As word of the emigrants’ experience spread, the U.S. government began to look into their allegations. A congressional committee conducted an undercover operation and detailed its findings in a 1910 report: “… one wash room, about 7 by 9 feet, contained 10 faucets of cold salt water, 5 along either of its two walls, and as many basins. … This same basin served as a dishpan for greasy tins, as a laundry tub for soiled handkerchiefs and clothing, and as a basin for shampoos without receiving any special cleaning. It was the only receptacle to be found for use in the case of seasickness,” according to Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers,” an account of the journey of East European Jews to America and their lives there.
Private U.S. relief organizations would intervene on the emigrants’ behalf as well. The Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society had a vested interest in maintaining their health on board the ships as it also worked at major ports, most notably at Ellis Island, facilitating entry into the United States, which required emigrants to pass a series of physical examinations. An April 9, 1916, letter to the Nippon Yusen Kaisha Steamship Co. in Yokohama, Japan, from the HIAS president likely was representative of the group’s advocacy efforts:
You are aware of the fact that during the past few months Jewish passengers have been traveling on your steamers from Yokohama and Kobe to Seattle. We have been informed that the ship’s officers have endeavored to do what they could so that the Jewish passengers shall have as much comfort and convenience as possible, but one phase of the situation has been brought forcibly to our attention — the matter of proper food, and we therefore place the matter before you. …
The importance of giving food to Jewish immigrants prepared in accordance with Jewish laws is obvious. You will realize that these passengers are not accustomed to such food as your stewards prepare, even though it is probably wholesome and nourishing. They find it difficult to partake of Japanese food, with the result that they often abstain from food for many days at a time, and that they arrive at the port of debarkation in a weakened condition, which may result in detention by the immigration authorities. … we respectfully submit that of late their number [Jewish passengers] has been large enough to warrant you in giving consideration to this question, with a view of doing what you can to meet these conditions.
Improving the food on board ships carrying emigrants was just one of many transportation-related issues addressed by the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society as part of its work in the Far East. According to special representative Samuel Mason’s summary report “Our Mission to the Far East,” the Society had to contend with fleet shortages, specifically the lack of available third-class accommodations; the lack of separate accommodations for women and children; and restrictions on the sale of tickets to all Russians after a “disturbing element” celebrated excessively during voyages immediately following the successful revolution in violation of ships’ rules and regulations.
Despite these efforts by the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, which started in 1916 but began in earnest in early 1918, we don’t know whether they yielded concrete results in time to influence the nature of the Naginskys’ trip. As noted in the ship manifest for the Hawaii Maru, the vessel that carried them across the Pacific, Mariasia and her daughters traveled in steerage. This was likely all they could afford, with each steerage ticket priced at about $50 compared to $225 for the “first cabin,” according to the article “Doubling Trans-Pacific Travel Facilities” by Henry Walsworth Kinney, published in 1921 in The Trans-Pacific: A Financial and Economic Magazine of International Service.
It’s also possible they ended up in steerage because it was the only option available to them — or because they made the reservations before the Society had arrived in Yokohama to help. As referenced in Mason’s summary report, there was a shortage of adequate transportation for emigrants seeking passage to America. But the operative word may have been “adequate,” as Mason noted he was seeking third-class accommodations, which were not offered on the Hawaii Maru.
For their trip, Mariasia and her daughters joined 70 other passengers boarding from three Japanese cities — Nagasaki on Jan. 2, Kobe on Jan. 6 and Yokohama on Jan. 10, 1918. This is a surprisingly low number considering the passenger capacity was 385, according to the 1921 article in The Trans-Pacific magazine. The first cabin was nearly full, with 11 of the 15 spots taken; however, only 56 people traveled in steerage, along with eight stowaways, taking up only a fraction of the 370 spots allotted in that class. The vast majority of the passengers were Japanese, but 15 were Russian, including 10 Russian Jews. Like the Naginskys, all the other Jewish emigrants on board were women traveling alone with their young children in steerage, destined for New York to reunite with their husbands and fathers.
The vessel that would take them across the Pacific, the Hawaii Maru, was relatively new, with an all-Japanese staff. Built in 1915, the 9,500-ton passenger cargo ship was part of the fleet of the Osaka Shosen Kaisha Line, a Japanese steamship company. Hajime Yamamoto of Kobe, Japan, served as captain of the ship, which had a total of 84 Japanese officers and crew performing tasks such as engineer, steward/stewardess, wireless operator, doctor, mail officer, carpenter, sailor, stove-keeper, fireman, coal passer and cook.
Moving at speeds of up to 17 knots — or about 20 miles per hour — the Hawaii Maru would slowly make its way toward America. Whether my great grandmother, my grandmother or my great aunts experienced rough seas, harsh conditions, unpalatable food or no food at all, I never heard those stories. Perhaps it was so bad they couldn’t talk about it. Perhaps they were just grateful to be a step away from the “Promised Land.” Perhaps conditions really had improved by that time. Or perhaps it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for a family that had endured so much already. It would take 16 days to make the nearly 5,000-mile trip before Seattle, Washington, finally was in their sights.