Aaron’s Arrival: Marking 100 Years

Aaron Naginsky With Grandson Gary

Aaron holding his first grandson, Gary Grossberg.

One hundred years ago today, my great grandfather, Aaron Naginsky, arrived in America.

I’ve described his trip from Russia to New York’s 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 include everything I’ve been able to gather about him in one place.

Aaron was born in about 1879 in Pohar, Russia, the second child of Ann Voloff and Morris Naginsky, a cantor. His older brother, Israel, was about 2 years old when he was born; he was about 6 when his sister Mary arrived and 13 when the youngest, Sadie, came along. He would marry at about age 26, and he was about 28 when his first child was born; the following year, the family would move to Aleksandrovsk, Russia, where his four other daughters would be born during the next six years. He was about 35 years old when he left for America in 1914. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen on July 14, 1921.

Aaron would make a living as a butcher in Russia and later in America, but he spent most of his working years in New York as a capmaker in the Garment District. Presumably, his first job was at Supreme Caps Co., located at 51 West Third Street, where his brother was working as of 1918. Sometime during the 1920s, we were told the family lived in Linden, New Jersey, and operated a butcher shop there; however, I have yet to find any official documentation of this. As of 1930, he and the family were back in Brooklyn, according to the census, which recorded his profession as a capmaker again. His last job was at Buchbinder & Co., located at 43 West 46th Street, where his sister Sadie’s husband, Sam Silvert, was a partner.

Aaron may have had a typical working-class immigrant experience, characterized by long hours and hard work, but the sweat shop role did not define him. As I’ve noted in previous posts, family members say he was interested in politics and loved music, especially Russian composers. They also describe him as a quiet, gentle man.

Throughout his adulthood, he struggled with his health. He contracted tuberculosis while still in Russia, and, according to family accounts, he was treated for the disease in America as well, spending a year at the New Jersey Sanitarium — something I have yet to document. His daughter Ada always remembers him “coughing his head off” and having asthma. His granddaughter Judith Bradfield Tomero remembers him injecting himself with insulin because of diabetes.

Despite the challenges he faced in his life, when he died of heart disease on Dec. 23, 1945, at age 66, I like to think he was content. In addition to his five daughters and sons-in-law, there was now a new generation of American-born Naginsky descendants: three granddaughters and seven grandsons. The youngest, 3-year-old twins Nick and Bob, would visit him when he was ill and bed-ridden, but Nick would “retain an image in my mind of him cheering up at our visit.” Seeing them, I expect, was the fulfillment of a dream.

At Pier 6, a Day of Judgment

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Unlike the vast majority of U.S. immigrants who came through Ellis Island, the passengers on board the Hawaii Maru in January 1918 would not be greeted by the majestic Lady Liberty as they approached America. Leaving behind the open, blue waters of the Pacific, they would enter a long, narrow strait with Vancouver Island on one side and the Olympic Mountains on the other. After navigating past a series of peninsulas and islands, the ship would enter Puget Sound as it approached its destination.

[For years, vessels sailing from foreign ports had been required to stop at the Diamond Point Quarantine Station, located at about this spot in the journey. It’s unclear whether the Hawaii Maru stopped there, but recent shifts in immigration policy (read this aside to learn more) as well as evidence from the ship manifest (described below) suggest they did not.]

Rising above the shoreline, passengers would glimpse the city of Seattle perched on a series of hills, with the Cascade Mountains, including Mount Rainier, as a backdrop. Thanks to its geographic location, Seattle had thrived since the turn of the century, first as a launchpad for prospectors after the discovery of gold in Canada and Alaska and later as a center for trade and shipping. New, imposing structures dominated the skyline, including the 17-story Hoge Building built in 1911 and the 42-story Smith Tower completed in 1914, all evidence of the city’s growing prosperity.

The ship carrying Mariasia and her daughters, along with 70 other passengers, would pull into Pier 6, in the heart of Seattle, on Friday, Jan. 25, 1918. The pier served as the terminal for the McCormick Steamship Line, the Munson McCormick Line and the Osaka Shosen Kaisha, owners of the Hawaii Maru. Built in 1902, the pier was located at the foot of University Street, adjacent to the Pike Place Market, which already had been in operation for more than a decade by the time of the Naginskys’ arrival.

The immigration station at Seattle was not set up to handle large numbers of people. There was no single building physically separated from the mainland to process thousands of immigrants, as there was at Ellis Island. According to guidance prepared for the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society representative who would meet arriving ships, it appears that passengers were processed right at the pier (although the Immigration Building was located just a couple blocks away, at 84 Union Street).

As at Ellis Island, processing in Seattle likely involved multiple physical examinations and interviews. According to Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers,” passengers would stand in lines to undergo basic medical evaluations, and those with obvious issues would be marked with chalk to indicate they needed further inspection in a certain area. Through an interpreter, immigrants would be asked questions to determine if they were alert or “dull-witted.” The inspectors also would make sure children could walk and were not deaf or dumb, which, of course, was an issue for Mariasia’s daughter Zepora. A second medical specialist would evaluate the passengers for “contagious and loathsome diseases,” and a third doctor — “often feared the most” — would conduct eye examinations looking for trachoma, responsible for half of all medical detentions. As Howe wrote: “It is a torment hard to understand, this first taste of America, with its poking of flesh and prying into private parts and mysterious chalking of clothes.”

The ship manifestSeattleWashingtonPassengerandCrewLists2 Hawaii Maru Ship Manifest reveals some interesting facts about the Naginskys gathered from a final interview with an immigration inspector. Either John Wyckoff or J. McCullough, the two document signatories, asked Mariasia questions about things such as character, family and money. She revealed that the closest relative she left behind was her father, Shlomo Balotin, in Potzib, Russia [Pochep]. She indicated that she would be joining her husband, A. Naginsky, at #422 Blake Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y., but she didn’t yet have a ticket to her destination. Fortunately, the inspector indicated that she was not a polygamist, anarchist, or deformed or crippled. It noted that she arrived with 70 rubles, which appears to be converted to the dollar amount of $90.

The manifest also has some notations that indicated the Naginskys encountered some difficulties in the immigration station. The medical examiner signed his name to the following statement: “Seattle, Wash., 1/25/18: I hereby certify that the above named aliens are not suffering from any physical or mental defect or disease excepting — 3, 5, 17.” Mariasia’s oldest daughter, Jhina, was listed on line 17. The immigration inspectors signed their names to additional information stating that those individuals listed on lines 8, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15-22, 25-27 of the manifest, including the entire Naginsky family on lines 16-22, were “Held B.S.I. Lines” — in other words, they needed to be evaluated by the Board of Supervising Inspectors.

Whatever issues may have arisen before the Board of Supervising Inspectors — whether they involved Jhina, Zepora or something else entirely — would be resolved quickly. On Jan. 25, 1918 — 95 years ago yesterday — the Naginsky family was cleared by immigration. Next to each of their names on the final manifest is a single, faded stamp of the word they had awaited for years: “Admitted.”

Growing — and Going

Aleksandrovsk as it looked at the turn of the century.

Whether they still held out hope for Russia, did not have the financial means necessary or simply opted for greater stability, Aaron and Mariasia Naginsky initially resisted the emigration trend. Between 1907 and 1908, they chose a less ambitious frontier, moving 300 miles south to a newly booming area of the country.

While many Jews were being displaced by pogroms and new government restrictions, it’s possible the Naginskys left not by force but by choice. To placate the increasingly activist Jewish community, the czarist regime instituted limited reforms in 1905 that included opening up 100 small towns in southern Russia for Jewish settlement, perhaps Aleksandrovsk among them. With a Jewish population of more than 5,000 at the turn of the century, Aleksandrovsk in the Ekaterinoslav gubernia was larger than the hometowns of both Aaron and Mariasia — and growing rapidly. It was the site of the first railway bridge across the Dnieper River, helping to spur industrial growth before the communist revolution and sparking overall population growth from 38,000 in 1910 to 60,000 in 1913.

With a growing family, the Naginskys may have been seeking better economic opportunities. Their first child, Jhina (later Janet), was born in 1908 before they left Chernigov. Just a year later, their twin daughters, Chaya (later Ada) and Mira (later Mary) were born in Aleksandrovsk, as were their two youngest daughters, Zepora (later Sylvia) and Chana (later Anna), who arrived in 1911 and 1913, respectively.

We have some information about the Naginskys’ lives in Aleksandrovsk, which Jhina (Janet) shared with her own daughter, Judith Bradfield Tomero, years later. The family lived in a house with niches, or shelves, built into the wall where the children would sleep during winters to keep warm. Jhina (and presumably Chaya and Mira) attended a local school, which required Jewish children to take an entrance examination for admission. As a child, Jhina would go out to the fields in the spring to cut flowers with the Russian village girls and learned how to make the flower crowns they commonly wore. And the daughters were cared for by a maid who had a gypsy boyfriend.

We know from family accounts that the Naginskys also struggled with health problems during this period. Aaron contracted tuberculosis, a widespread, frequently fatal contagious disease largely affecting urban populations. Although the mortality rate from tuberculosis had started to decline in the early 20th century, there remained no known cure so experimental remedies were common. Aaron was advised to take lard, a treatment that was unorthodox in many ways — most obviously because scientists already had determined that tuberculosis was a disease affecting the lungs. It also was, quite literally, unorthodox for Aaron because consuming lard — made from bacon fat — conflicted with Jewish dietary laws that he followed. In an account about Aaron’s health problems from his daughter Ada, we get a glimpse of Mariasia’s fortitude when it came to protecting her family.

Another health issue that would have a profound effect on their family involved the Naginskys’ fourth daughter. As an infant, Zepora suffered from an illness that caused her to lose her hearing. Sign language already was in practice in Russia at the time, but whether she began signing or enrolled in school as a young child in Aleksandrovsk is an open question.

It’s difficult to imagine that Aaron and Mariasia would uproot their family knowing they had plans to emigrate. But from 1908 to 1914, as hopes for a truly representative form of government continued to diminish in Russia, we can surmise that the lure of a new land started to grow — no doubt assisted by letters from Israel, urging his brother to join him in America.

Art Imitating Life

“The Fiddler” by Marc Chagall

In the Broadway musical and film “Fiddler on the Roof,” set in early 20th century Russia, Tevye and Golde struggle to maintain longtime Jewish religious and cultural traditions as they are eroding around them. Modern ideas — such as marrying for love and living in a secular environment — begin to take hold among a new generation of Jews.

Many of these same themes were evident in the lives of Aaron Naginsky and Mariasia Balotin, who came of age at the same time as the fictional daughters of Tevye and Golde. When Aaron and Mariasia decided to marry, her parents, Shlomo and Shana, objected, according to the 1977 interview with Ada Naginsky Grossberg. But the couple married despite the parents’ objections, when he was 25 and she was 19, as recorded in the 1930 census — or in about 1905. By then, Aaron likely was established in his trade as a butcher.

There was a lot of turmoil in Russia around the time of Aaron and Mariasia’s marriage. 1903 brought the first pogrom of the 20th century, which had a profound impact on the psyche of Russia’s Jews and brought global attention to their plight. The Kishinev pogrom, spurred by false allegations that Jews had played a role in the murder of two Christian children, began on Easter Sunday and lasted for three days. Neither the government nor the military intervened to stop the riots, which resulted in the massacre and wounding of hundreds of Jews as well as the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses.

In the years that followed, unrest continued throughout the Russian Empire. Large sectors of the Jewish population became involved in national politics as part of a broader effort to unseat the autocratic regime of the czars and establish a representative form of government, according to the Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. During this period, known as the Russian Revolution of 1905, the government used harsh tactics to repress opposition, including dozens of pogroms committed against Jews.

As a young couple, Aaron and Mariasia were touched personally by this deteriorating environment for Jews. Most notably, Aaron’s older brother, Israel, departed for America in 1904, part of a rapidly accelerating wave of emigration from Russia. To reach the port of embarkation, Israel likely took the main route traveled by immigrants from southern Russia, crossing the Austro-Hungarian border illegally then taking a train to Vienna and proceeding north to Hamburg, Germany, as described in “World of Our Fathers.” Like most immigrants, he traveled in steerage, paying his own way at a cost of about $34. Departing May 4 aboard the S.S. Belgravia, he arrived in New York a little more than two weeks later with $10 in his pocket. Single and 25, Israel probably was the first family member to come to America, as the ship passenger list notes that he was joining a friend in New York.

We can speculate about some other possible developments within the Naginsky family during this time. Aaron’s younger sister Mary, who was about 20, may have begun her involvement in the Zionist political movement, as we know she left Russia intending to go to Palestine — but we don’t know when. Aaron himself may have gotten involved in the government reform campaign, as we know he was interested in politics.

There’s good reason the experiences of Aaron and Mariasia are reflected so accurately in “Fiddler on the Roof.” The play was based on a series of tales by the popular Yiddish writer Sholom Aleichem, who was noted for writing in the voice of the simple religious Jew. A contemporary of the parents of Aaron and Mariasia, Sholom Aleichem was exposed to the Haskalah, or Enlightenment, as well as traditional Judaism as a child. With this background, he was able to understand and effectively convey the modern-day challenges faced by Jews to people of all faiths around the world.

Like a fiddler on the roof, the fate of the Jews — and the Naginsky family — was uncertain and precarious, but their community, steadfast and rich in tradition, would help them survive.

The Making of Mariasia

Minnie Naginsky was known as Mariasia in Russia.

Mariasia Balotin entered the world during the chaotic post-Czar Alexander II era in Russia. Despite the turmoil of the times, she apparently enjoyed a relatively comfortable childhood compared to many of her peers in the Pale of Settlement.

Born in about 1883 to Shlomo and Shana Balotin, Mariasia and her family might have been considered among the Russified Jewish middle-class intellectuals of the time. According to the 1977 interview with Ada Naginsky Grossberg, the Balotins were considered “above station.” We know that Shlomo was educated and spoke Russian, likely benefiting from the liberalization of antisemitic policies during his formative years under the reign of Alexander II. Another possible indication of their social status was the choice of name for their daughter, who obviously was given or regularly used a Russian first name in lieu of a Hebrew one.

Like her father, Mariasia enjoyed a secular education. Not only did daughter Ada Naginsky Grossberg indicate that her mother read and spoke Russian, but years later Judith Bradfield Tomero remembered her grandmother telling her that she had read all the great Russian classics in Russian as a young woman. This was unusual for the shtetl culture, where boys traditionally were allowed to read only sacred texts while girls could read novels, but they typically were in Yiddish, according to “Life Is With People.”

We know from the interview with Ada Naginsky Grossberg that Mariasia did not have a close relationship with her mother and seemed to greatly admire her father. Raised largely by peasant servants — which was not uncommon at the time, even among those of modest circumstances — she described Shana as “selfish.” Accounts of Shlomo, on the other hand, consistently portray him as highly educated, respected and accomplished.

One of the mysteries of the Balotin family is whether Mariasia had any siblings. Even her daughter Ada did not know and could only remember a “stray” uncle and cousin who came to America. Other family members, however, recall  a brother who played the violin. At this stage, it seems that we can only confirm this by searching through public records from their hometown of Potzib — if they still exist.

While we don’t have a lot of information about Mariasia’s childhood, we do know that she was given valuable tools — knowledge of the Russian language, an understanding of the modern world and perhaps a sense of independence — that would help her succeed — and, indeed, survive — as she faced daunting challenges during pre-revolutionary Russia.

Genesis of the Exodus

Mary Naginsky Ginsberg, Cyprus, 1927

Aaron Naginsky, New York, 1930?

1881 was a pivotal moment in Russian history. That year, Czar Alexander II was assassinated, ending more than a quarter-century of reforms that had raised the hopes of Jews to earn equal rights through citizenship. In the weeks that followed, pogroms broke out in Ukraine, incited by agents of the government, and they continued into the next year, when laws were enacted to reduce the Jewish presence in villages in the Pale of Settlement. “By the 1880s,” according to “World of Our Fathers,” Jews’ high expectations had been “badly shaken, perhaps destroyed.”

It was against this backdrop that the children of Morris and Anne Naginsky entered the world. The oldest, Israel, was born in 1877, followed by Aaron in 1879, Mary in 1885 and Sadie in 1892. (The birth years are close approximations based on public documents, which frequently conflict by a year or two.)

We have no facts about their childhood in Russia other than the town they lived in, Pohar, which had a Jewish population of 1,159 at the turn of the century. But we can make some general assumptions based on the common culture of the shtetl of Eastern Europe, the historical period, and what we know of Israel, Aaron, Mary and Sadie from their family.

It’s likely all the Naginsky children received some type of Jewish education at the “kheyder,” or school. According to “Life Is With People,” boys traditionally studied the Torah — some starting as young as age 3 — from 8 to 6, five days a week, and a half-day on Friday. Meanwhile, girls only were taught how to read and write a little Yiddish and to read some Hebrew by rote. However, they usually went home after two hours to help their mothers with responsibilities around the home.

Traditionally in the shtetl, Jewish boys who were considered to have the aptitude for a life of study were sent on to the yeshiva, a rabbinical academy, after the kheyder. Those who were not would interrupt their education at that stage to pursue a trade or business. That could be one reason why both Naginsky brothers went into trades, Israel as a furmaker/journeyman and Aaron as a butcher.

Another possible explanation is the climate of change that was sweeping across Eastern Europe in the late 19th century. According to “World of Our Fathers,” a combination of forces — exposure to modern thought during the Haskala, or Enlightenment, and the rise of worldwide political movements such as Zionism and socialism — were weakening the role of rabbis in Jewish society and strengthening the idea of secular thought. This trend — along with a sharp growth in poverty — may have made it more socially acceptable for Israel and Aaron, sons of a cantor, to pursue nontraditional roles.

We do have clues that the Naginsky children were touched in some way by these new societal forces. Aaron was interested in politics and loved music, according to our 1977 interview with his daughter, Ada Naginsky Grossberg; the Russian composers were his favorites, recalled Aaron’s granddaughter, Judith Bradfield Tomero. And Aaron’s younger sister Mary apparently was part of the Zionist movement seeking to make Palestine her adopted homeland, but she only got as far as Cyprus before ultimately joining her siblings in America.

The events of the late 19th century shaped the views of many Jews — and likely the Naginsky children — causing them to question their role in the Russian Empire. They began to realize that peace and prosperity were not going to be part of their future in Russia, and the idea of leaving for a better life in America began to take root.

Naginsky cousins: Do you remember hearing anything about the childhood of Aaron or his brother or sisters? Do you have photos of any of the Naginsky siblings as children or photos of Israel or Sadie at any age?

Meet the Parents

Could this be the father of Aaron or Minnie Naginsky?

To date, the parents of Minnie and Aaron Naginsky — who remained behind in Russia while most, if not all, of their children emigrated — are the earliest known ancestors that can be documented in the family. We don’t have a lot of information about them, but what we do have was gathered from a combination of public records and personal anecdotes.

Aaron’s parents, Anne Voloff and Morris Naginsky, and Minnie’s parents, Shana and Shlomo Balotin, lived in the Pale of Settlement, a 386,000-square-mile area in czarist Russia, stretching from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. Almost 5 million Jews lived there in the late 19th century, which was roughly 94 percent of the total Jewish population in Russia but only 12 percent of the overall population of the area.

Since The Pale is where most Jews were forced to live in Russia, I looked to the Naginsky children’s records to shed some light on a more precise “hometown” of Morris and Anne. While their children almost consistently noted only “Russia” as their birthplace, several documents — and a 1977 interview with Ada Naginksy Grossberg — point to “Chernigov” as a home “gubernia,” or government province. In two later records — one a ship passenger list for daughter Mary and her husband, Israel Ginsberg, who arrived in America from Cyprus in 1931, and the other a World War II registration card for son Aaron — the birthplace was noted as Pohar, which was located in the Starodub uyezd (administrative district) in the Chernigov gubernia, with a population of just 1,159 Jews at the turn of the century. Pohar also happens to be the birthplace of Sol Hurok, an impresario who introduced many notable performing artists to U.S. audiences, including the Bolshoi Ballet. Born in 1888, Hurok was a contemporary of Aaron and his siblings.

The patriarch of the Naginsky family was a cantor. In this profession, Morris likely was engaged regularly in the study of Torah, which would have given him prestige, respect, authority and status in his shtetl. As noted in “Life Is With People,” the 1952 study of the culture of the shetl, social rank was determined by level of learning.

Nothing is known about Anne Voloff Naginsky other than her name. According to the 1977 interview, Ada never met her grandmother and didn’t remember her father talking about her. She speculated that her grandmother may have died at a young age.

While Aaron’s father likely was considered part of the upper social register in the shtetl because of his Jewish schooling, Minnie’s father apparently had more of a secular education. A bookkeeper for a large forest, Shlomo spoke Russian, which was unusual for a Jew, and also had the means to hire help to care for his children. Interestingly, their last name could derive from the Yiddish word for burghers, which is “balebatisheh” — a group regarded almost as highly as the learned within the shtetl, according to “Life Is With People.” Meanwhile, Shana seemed to have had a strained relationship with her daughter, who called her mother “selfish.”

Just as with the Naginskys, the Balotins lived in Chernigov. The most definitive document confirming that fact is the ship manifest for Minnie and her daughters from when they arrived in America, which lists “Shlomo Balotin, Potzib, Russia” as the “name and address of the nearest relative in the country whence alien came.” “Potzib” is likely Pochep, in the Mglin uyezd of Chernigov, which had a Jewish population of just over 3,000 in 1897. It was located approximately 30 miles from Pohar.

The family commonly said they were from “Alexandria” or “Alexandrovsk.” The public records indicate that Aaron and Minnie were not actually from Alexandrovsk, in the gubernia of Ekaterinaslav, but may have moved there in the period immediately preceding their emigration. According to multiple documents, the birthplace of Aaron, Minnie and their oldest daughter, Jhina (later Janet), is Chernigov, while that of the other four daughters is Alexandrovsk.

Listen to Ada Naginsky Grossberg’s memories of her grandparents.

Naginsky cousins: Do you remember hearing anything about your great grandparents? Or have you heard stories that are different from what I’ve shared here?