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.

Beside the Golden Door

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In 1913, a new world record was set for traversing the globe. It took John Henry Mears, a representative of the (New York) Evening Sun, just 36 days to log 21,066 miles, averaging 587 miles a day and 24.5 miles an hour, according to the Railway Age Gazette (July 1-Dec. 31, 1913). Five years later, Mariasia Naginsky and her young daughters would cover much of the same territory for about 15,000 of those miles — but would travel for what might have qualified as a record long journey. As they waited in Chicago to begin the final leg, less than 1,000 miles separated them from their destination of New York City.

If they followed the same route as Mears, they would have taken the New York Central Railroad. The NYC’s most famous train, the 20th Century Limited, offered a fast, nonstop connection between Chicago and New York. The train departed from LaSalle Street Station and traveled what was referred to as the “Water Level Route,” hugging the shores of the Great Lakes of Michigan, Erie and Ontario — the “natural highway between the West and East,” as described in NYC advertising. The 20th Century Limited took its passengers across Indiana and Ohio, then through the northwestern corner of Pennsylvania before crossing into New York state with stops in Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany before swinging south along the Hudson River past Poughkeepsie as it headed toward New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, which had just opened five years before. Because the 20th Century Limited was an extra-fare, first-class train, it’s more likely the family traveled on a lesser-known route that would take them on the same path until it reached Ashtabula, Ohio, where the train would turn to traverse northern Pennsylvania past Williamsport and cross northern New Jersey to the Central Railroad of New Jersey Terminal in Jersey City, where they could have boarded a ferry to lower Manhattan.

Also operating between the cities was NYC rival the Pennsylvania Railroad. The “Pennsy,” as it was known, traveled from Chicago’s old Union Depot to Pennsylvania Station in New York, which had just opened in 1910. The Pennsy’s most famous train, the Broadway Limited, departed Chicago daily at 12 p.m. and went through Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia before arriving in New York the following day at 9:40 a.m. Like the 20th Century Limited, the Broadway Limited was as an extra-fare, eight-car all-sleeper train with no coach service, so this, too, may not have been a feasible option. (It’s also possible neither of these upscale trains operated when the railroads were nationalized during the war.) The more likely scenario would have taken the family on the Pennsy’s Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne and Chicago line, which connected to the Pennsylvania Railroad main line, traversing that state through Harrisburg and Philadelphia, where it entered New Jersey and headed north through Newark and then into the newly built tunnels under the Hudson River into Manhattan.

What awaited the Naginskys in New York was undoubtedly something special. We don’t know for certain when, or how often, Aaron heard news of the fate of his wife and children. With the support of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, we can guess that he at least received word from Yokohama, Seattle and Chicago and knew of their impending arrival. What we do know for sure is the family was apart for four long, difficult years, his youngest still likely an infant when he left in May 1914. And so, beneath the starry ceiling of Grand Central, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, or under the steel-lined skylight windows of Penn Station, Aaron and Mariasia — “papa” and “ma” — and Jenya, 10; Chaya and Mira, 9; Zepora, 6; and Chana, 4, would finally reunite, beginning a new chapter in their lives — and putting the past firmly in the past.

In Chicago, a Final Stop

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1918 was a year of extremes in Chicago. It began with a blizzard that dropped a still-record snowfall of 42.5 inches over 22 days, as recorded by The Old Farmers’ Almanac. In September, the Chicago Cubs played in the World Series at 2-year-old Wrigley Field — but lost to the Boston Red Sox. Soon afterward, an influenza epidemic paralyzed the city for nearly two months, with more than 38,000 cases of influenza and 13,000 cases of pneumonia reported from mid-September to mid-November, according to the Influenza Encyclopedia.

There probably was still snow on the ground when Mariasia Naginsky and her daughters arrived in early 1918, en route from Seattle to New York. A city of 2.7 million people, Chicago had established itself as the nation’s transportation hub, providing a connection from the East to newly settled areas in the West. There were six major rail depots at the time the family passed through on the final leg of their journey to America.

Traveling on the Great Northern, Northern Pacific or Milwaukee Road railroads, they would have arrived at the Union Depot station. Built in 1881, the station was a long, narrow brick building stretching north-south. It did not have some of the elaborate architectural details or features that had become commonplace in the more modern rail stations of the 20th century. In fact, construction already was under way on a replacement facility, the present-day Union Station, to accommodate the growing rail traffic. Exiting the station, a long awning stretched across the front facing Canal Street, between W. Adams and W. Madison streets, just outside the city’s Loop business district.

If the Naginskys were aboard a Union Pacific train, the North Western Station would have been their terminus. Although just a few blocks from Union Depot, the station represented a new era in train travel. Opened in 1911, it was the city’s largest train station when they would have passed through. Mother and daughters would have been greeted by a three-story, 202- by 117-foot main waiting room with marble walls trimmed in bronze. They may have caught a glimpse of the dining room or the women’s rooms with writing desks and hairdressing services. Some of the other features of the station included smoking rooms for men, a barber shop and even hospital rooms, according to a history of the Chicago and North Western line. Exiting the granite building on a site bounded by Madison, Lake, Clinton and Canal streets, six distinct columns marked the grand entrance, as described by the Encyclopedia of Chicago History.

Whether they arrived at Union Depot or North Western Station, it’s likely there was community support awaiting them. Chicago was one of the centers of the settlement house movement, which had begun in Great Britain in 1884 in response to growing industrialization. The most well-known settlement house in the U.S., Hull House, was established in Chicago in 1888 by Jane Addams Hull and Ellen Gates Starr to help assimilate immigrants and ease the effects of poverty by providing much-needed social services in an industrial area on the near West Side of Chicago.

About four blocks away from Hull House, a Hebrew sheltering home was established in 1916 in anticipation of the expected wave of refugees fleeing Russia. As described in the Feb. 10, 1916, issue of the Jewish Courier newspaper:

Chicago is opening up a first class Hebrew immigrant shelter home. This institution was recently organized and is being financed by the Federated Orthodox Jewish Charities, which expects to donate about $4,000 annually to its upkeep. The Federation realized that something must be done in the way of providing a home or homes for the many immigrants who come here from Russia stranded.

Several hundred refugees who escaped the Russian fire, at present in Japan, will arrive in Seattle in a few days, and a great number of them who will come from there to Chicago will be out on the street if shelter is not provided for them. These immigrants are some of the best children of our Jewish nation. We must by all means provide homes and food for them when they arrive. This home for immigrants is to be located in the large building of the Jewish Aid Society, 1336 S. Morgan Street. This society has with great pride provided the space for the new home and the Federation donated $2,500 to this worthy cause.

Just a couple days later, the Reform Advocate newspaper also reported on the opening of the new home:

The Federated Orthodox Jewish Charities of Chicago has taken the initiative to create and support the Hebrew Immigrant and Sheltering Home. It will be the aim of the H. I. and S. H. to provide recent immigrants with temporary shelter, food, clothing, and other aid deemed necessary to prevent them from becoming public charges.

The present time is an opportune one for launching this organization as the wave of immigration is at low tide and will afford the time to gradually develop the scope of the Sheltering Home.

The F. O. J. C. has given its approval to the Sheltering Home and accepted it into the fold of its affiliated institutions. It has been voted a budget of $4,000 a year. The Jewish Aid Society has offered the Sheltering Home the use of its large building at 1336 S. Morgan Street, rent free, which has been gratefully accepted. An appropriation of $1,500 to remodel the building and $1,000 to furnish it has been made by the Federated Charities.

In the ensuing years, the home — whose management shifted in about 1918 to a newly established Chicago branch of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society — would serve scores of new arrivals, likely Mariasia and her daughters among them. In a letter sent to the Society’s national headquarters in 1919 requesting additional funding, branch President Adolph Copeland would document not only the work of the sheltering home but also the branch’s many other activities on behalf of immigrants. According to the Federated Orthodox Jewish Charities:

… they were appealed to for help on all sides, and no cry for help went unheeded. He mentioned the Shelter maintained by the Society, describing it as modern and well-equipped where transient and immigrant poor are fed and lodged under thoroughly sanitary conditions. He described the manifold services rendered by the Society, meeting immigrants at the depots and directing them to their destinations, transmitting money abroad without charge to needy relatives. …

Mr. Copeland concluded his letter with an appeal asking the F. O. J. C. to take up with the A. J. C. the matter of setting aside for the work of the Society the sum of $35,000. He asked the board to remember that although the actual immigration is less than it used to be and at present (1919) smaller than it ever has been in the history of the country, still the immigration problem is more serious than it ever has been and the Society is the only body that is coping with the tremendous problem.

It’s unclear how long the Naginskys stayed in Chicago in what was likely late winter of 1918. It’s probable they had to at least wait for the departure of their train bound for New York, not only because there were fewer travel options during the war (at the same time that passenger traffic was growing) but also because they may have needed to have money wired to them to pay for the final leg of their trip. We know they already were being assisted by the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society in Seattle so it’s likely there was communication with the Chicago branch to meet them at the station and transport them to the shelter home at 1336 S. Morgan Street for however long they needed to stay.

While family members recounted very little about their travels, they did talk about one thing: a newspaper article written about their journey to America while they were in Chicago. That fabled article remains the holy grail of our research, holding the promise of uncovering details that have been lost to time.

‘Seeing America First’

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Once the paperwork had been processed, the money wired and the rail tickets purchased, Mariasia Naginsky and her five daughters would leave the relative comforts of their Seattle shelter home for the next-to-last leg of their journey — crossing the vast expanse of the American West. As in Russia, they would travel on relatively new transcontinental routes that passed through territory few people had seen.

The U.S. rail industry had expanded significantly in the early 20th century, attempting to capitalize on new opportunities in the West. There would never be more track mileage (approximately 254,000 miles in 1916) or passengers (1.2 million passengers in 1920) than during this time period, according to a railroad history timeline compiled by PBS.

Hampered by one of the most severe winters on record as the nation struggled to keep up with the demands of World War I, the federal government took over the rail industry effective Jan. 1, 1918, making economic growth and leisure travel secondary to support of the war effort. As described in “Trains Across the Continent: North American Railroad History” by Rudolph L. Daniels, the newly formed U.S. Railroad Administration created one company, American Railway Express, from the four major rail companies and immediately placed an order for 2,000 additional locomotives and 100,000 freight cars to address shortages. Despite a reduction in passenger service, the number of people traveling by train continued to grow by 8 percent in 1917 and 1918 — likely creating delays for available trains and perhaps even crowding on board. With fewer seats available on passenger trains, immigrants continuing on to other destinations probably had longer waits than the average of 10 days before the government takeover of the railroads. Interestingly, one of the most talked-about changes was the end of a la carte meals on dining cars. According to Daniels’ account: “[The U.S. government] determined that the customary large variety of dishes encouraged waste and were difficult to prepare. Passengers could choose from a few set menu ‘packages.'”

It was against this backdrop that Mariasia and her daughters would board a train bound for Chicago, probably in late February or March 1918. Because it was such a time of transition, it’s difficult to determine whether nationalization efforts already were under way or the private companies still were operating their normal routes. If both Seattle rail stations still were offering passenger service, the family would have left from either the King Street Station or the Oregon-Washington Station.

By 1918, the King Street Station already had become an iconic building on the Seattle skyline, with its tall clock tower facing the city. Built between 1904 and 1906, the station was designed by the architects of New York’s Grand Central Station, as described by HistoryLink.org, which also noted that the building’s style was sometimes referred to as “Railroad Italianate.” Departing from this station, the Naginskys would have been dropped off by a representative of the Seattle branch of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society, likely in a motor car, at the grand entrance drive on King Street, which was covered by an extended projecting awning. Inside, they would have found ornate details such as coffered ceilings and even a ladies’ waiting area.

Those departing from the King Street Station would have been taking either the Great Northern Railroad or the Northern Pacific Railroad.

Traveling The Great Northern, the family would have witnessed “magnificent mountains, placid lakes and breathtaking glaciers,” as described in “The Great Northern Railway – A History” by Ralph W. Hidy et al. The railroad’s Oriental Limited train, which had the northernmost route of all carriers, would have taken them through central Washington, then swing toward the northernmost tip of Idaho and remain close to the Canadian border through Montana and North Dakota. Entering Minnesota, it would begin heading south, following the Mississippi River through LaCrosse, Wis., and Dubuque, Iowa, before crossing northern Illinois.

Accommodations on board the Great Northern’s Oriental Limited — so named because of the connection it provided to and from the Far East — likely would have been superior to anything experienced by the family before. When operations began in 1893, the Oriental Limited’s cars were “new and among the best available,” according to Hidy’s account: “Diners were finished in polished oak, as were sleepers. The buffet-library observation car was adorned with rich carpets, wicker chairs, wrought-iron design work, and colorful curtains and ornate lamps — all in contemporary Victorian fashion.” As recounted by Hidy, the train was described in early advertising as “one of the greatest,” covering “the shortest, the easiest, the most interesting route across the Continent”:

… the track of the Great Northern is noted for its solidarity, long tangents, and easy curves; the rails are of the heaviest steel, the ballasting of rock; the train swings as smoothly over the Montana mountains as it does over the prairies of North Dakota; the jumps, jerks and bumps have all been worked out of the roadway — a spoonful of coffee always reaches the passenger’s mouth intact from his cup despite the fact that a 160-ton engine is whirling the train along at 40 miles an hour.

The Northern Pacific’s flagship train, the North Coast Limited, would follow a similar route to the south of the Oriental Limited. Picturesque mountains and rivers would continue for thousands of miles, with the No. 2 train, as the eastbound route was called, also making its way across the western states of Washington, Idaho and Montana, coming within 75 miles of Yellowstone National Park. Across the Badlands and Great Prairie of North Dakota, the train would travel past the lakes of Minnesota then take the same Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad line as the Great Northern into Chicago’s Northwestern Station. “Twenty-eight ranges of mountains, in all, comprise some of America’s grandest scenery,” read a late-1940s Northern Pacific brochure. “The Continental Divide, Hellgate Canyon, Clark’s Fork Canyon and the summit of the Cascade Range are among the spectacular sights which call forth special admiration.”

Like the Great Northern, Northern Pacific trains were built with passengers in mind. The company offered “daily through trains, electric lighted and elaborately equipped with every comfort,” read a 1909 ad promoting the new service that appeared in The Toledo Bee. “The trains are made up of modern, roomy Pullman sleeping cars, Tourist Sleeping Cars, Comfortable coaches, a Buffet Library observation car, and a Dining Car, a la carte, operated not for profit, but in such a way as to reflect high credit on the management for its perfect service and thoroughly good cuisine.”

By 1911, a second station was offering transcontinental rail service from Seattle to Chicago. Located right next to its rival King Street Station, the Oregon-Washington Station served as the terminus for both the Union Pacific, which built the station, and the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad. The station was a grand architectural structure built in the Beaux Arts style with classical details, according to HistoryLink.org. If the family left from here, they may have sat on tall oak benches in a central barrel-vaulted waiting space or in a separate ladies’ waiting area, surrounded by tiled floors and classical columns. A large, semi-circular window facing the tracks lit up the massive space. Designed to meet all passenger needs, the station had a small hospital on the concourse level as well as a restaurant and other amenities. It also had features that made operations more mechanized and efficient, reflecting the growing modernization of the railroad.

Union Pacific’s route was the southernmost of all the carriers, taking passengers through different areas of the country than its competitors. From Seattle, the train would head south on the Oregon and Washington line through Tacoma into Portland, Ore. From there, the line would head east, following the Columbia River along the Oregon-Washington border past Mt. Hood before angling southeast through Pendleton, Ore., and Boise, Idaho. Near Pocatello, Idaho, the train either continued on this path toward Granger, Wyo., or it headed due south past the Great Salt Lake to Ogden, Utah — both stops on the Union Pacific’s main line. The main line would cross southern Wyoming, passing Cheyenne; move directly through the nation’s bread basket, with stops in Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa; then head across Iowa and Illinois.

The Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railroad, more commonly known as The Milwaukee Road, would begin offering service to Chicago soon after the Oregon-Washington Station opened in 1911. Over 2,300 miles of track, The Milwaukee Road’s Columbian and Olympian lines would cross five major mountain ranges — the Saddles, Belts, Rockies, Cascades and Bitter Roots — and move through mostly sparsely populated areas in central Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa before crossing into Northern Illinois.

Regardless of the carrier, the duration of the trip seemed to be roughly the same. Multiple sources report the journey from Seattle to Chicago took between 70 and 72 hours. According to a schedule published in 1921 — a few years after the Naginskys’ trip — a North Coast Limited train would leave Seattle’s King Street Station at 9:15 a.m. Sunday and arrive at Chicago’s Northwestern Station by 11:15 a.m. Wednesday.

Government price controls and stiff competition, initially within the rail industry and later from other modes of transportation, kept rail ticket prices relatively low and falling as early as the last decade of the 19th century. As described in Hidy’s historical account, Great Northern touched off a price war in the 1890s that brought first-class fares from Seattle to St. Paul down from $60 to $35 and second-class fares from $35 to $25; shortly afterward, prices dropped again to $25 and $18, respectively. Second-class travel accounted for more than 80 percent of the railroads’ business, “which differed little … from first-class service,” reasoned Great Northern’s Hill, who saw opportunity in greater overall volume. By 1921, published fares for adults traveling from Seattle to Chicago were starting at $9.90 for a “Tourist Upper Berth,” not including an 8 percent war tax. Tickets for children under age 12 were half-price, while those for children under 4 were free. The actual fare paid by Mariasia in 1918 could have been even lower, as the railroads, led by Great Northern, offered special fares for immigrants and settlers.

Whether traveling the Great Northern, Northern Pacific, Union Pacific or The Milwaukee Road, Mariasia and her children would experience many different geographic areas of the country they would soon call their own, living up to the Great Northern advertising slogan “See America First.” And yet for all the spectacular scenery along these routes, years later the oldest, Jhina, who was about 9 years old at the time, would have only one recollection — of “vast, open spaces.”

Stolofka Sweet Stolofka

Home Sweet HomeThrough its work, the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society demonstrated Judaism’s commitment to “tzedakah,” which is alternately defined as “justice,” “righteousness” or “fairness.” The concept, deeply rooted in biblical teachings, involves giving to others in order to create a more perfect world — one way that Jews are commanded to serve God. The duty to perform the “mitzvah,” or good deed, of tzedakah explains the overwhelming response by the global Jewish community to the plight of refugees who were displaced, impoverished and separated from their families as a result of World War I and the Russian Revolution.

The spirit of tzedakah was evident in the Seattle home operated by the society, which cared for so many of these refugees. As described in my March 11 post, volunteers were actively involved in everything from doing laundry to providing bond from their own personal property to secure the release of detained immigrants. While they were paid for their service, many members of the staff, which included home manager Abe Spring and a chef, stenographer, steward and waiter, showed extraordinary dedication to the well-being of their charges, putting them at ease upon their arrival, acclimating them to their new surroundings and shielding them from any harm.

The immigrants who stayed for any length of time seemed grateful for the generosity and kindness they experienced at 512 18th Avenue. They called it “Stolofka,” according to various references to the home, which is said to be Russian for “shelter.”

While I did not hear any stories from my own family describing the home in Seattle, others who stayed there clearly did share their experiences. The mother of noted opera star Beverly Sills apparently was one of those cared for at the Seattle shelter house, according to a woman whose own mother had volunteered at the home and remembered Sills mentioning it in a television interview during the 1980s, as reported in the January 1990 newsletter of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society. I have no confirmation of this fact, but according to The New York Times, Sills’ mother, Shirley Silverman, who reportedly was born Sonia Markovna and had the last name Banchikov before it was changed to Bahn when she entered this country, did immigrate to America in 1917 and was born in Odessa, Russia — making it fairly certain she made a similar journey as my great grandmother and my grandmother and her sisters.

The shelter house in Seattle known as Stolofka made a difference in the lives of many new arrivals to America. During its relatively short existence — from 1916 to about 1920 — the home provided 20,000 nights of lodging, served 100,000 meals and managed wire transfers totaling $250,000 from relatives in various locations to their family members who were temporary residents, according to the historical society newsletter. “… it is nothing short of remarkable that the Seattle Branch has been able to accomplish so much constructive work in the few years it has been in existence,” a national HIAS official said during a visit marking the end of the program, the article reported further. “Our branch in Seattle is one of the best examples of philanthropic effort America has produced in a number of years.”

The Dream of America

The Seattle Jewish community treated immigrants such as the Naginskys with kindness and respect, preparing and serving them meals at HIAS's Seattle shelter house. Photo courtesy University of Washington Special Collections, UW7530

The local Jewish community treated immigrants such as the Naginskys with kindness and respect, preparing and serving them meals at HIAS’s Seattle shelter house. Photo courtesy University of Washington Special Collections, UW7530

After their long, arduous journey through wartime Russia and Asia, Mariasia Naginsky and her five daughters undoubtedly felt they were on the doorstep of their ultimate destination when they arrived in America in early 1918. Yet 3,000 miles — from Seattle to New York — still separated them from her husband and the children’s father, Aaron Naginsky.

As described in my last post, the Naginskys likely resided temporarily in the home operated by the Seattle branch of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society. The duration of their stay — which averaged about 10 days for most immigrants, as noted in the January 1990 issue of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society newsletter — would be determined by the amount of time it took to process government paperwork and receive funds from relatives for train tickets that would allow the family to reunite. More than $60,000 was sent by telegraph to HIAS to pay for immigrant transportation during 1916 alone, according to an Oct. 7, 1917, article in the Seattle Sunday Times.

A number of activities could have occupied the Naginskys while they waited to proceed to their next destination. Mariasia may have written letters to relatives both in America and Russia, advising them of the family’s safe arrival. As noted in the HIAS instructions, “a supply of stationery and writing utensils should always be at the disposal of the inmates of the Shelter, free of charge, and a competent person able to write in the language of the immigrant should be there every evening to offer his services to those immigrants who are unable to write their own letter for various reasons, and particularly to address their envelopes, or to send off telegrams for them.” A writing room on the first floor of the headquarters building could have been used for this purpose.

HIAS took its responsibility for integrating new immigrants into American society seriously. Mariasia and her daughters likely received instruction in the classrooms located on the third floor of the headquarters building — “where those who stay for any length of time are taught the rudiments of English,” the 1917 Seattle Sunday Times article reported. In the dormitory building’s assembly room, the family also could have attended one of the seasonal lectures offered “to acquaint the newcomer with American life, American institutions, and American ideals,” as noted in the HIAS staff manual.

It’s possible the family was able to enjoy some down time at the HIAS home as well. A library in the headquarters probably offered adult and children’s books in Russian and English, allowing Mariasia and her older children to read or simply peruse them. Meals at the communal dining table, which could accommodate up to 60 people, may have allowed the family to become acquainted with other new arrivals and members of Seattle’s Jewish community; meals were likely prepared by a chef and served by a waiter, both paid staff of the society, as described in the January 1990 Washington State Jewish Historical Society newsletter. If the Naginskys stayed as late as Feb. 12, they may have been treated to “attractive entertainment,” which was suggested within the HIAS manual in observance of national holidays such as Lincoln’s Birthday.

For immigrants such as Mariasia and her daughters, who had lived with so little for so long, their experience at HIAS’ Seattle shelter house probably was part of the dream of what they might find in America.

Delivering Justice for Today’s Immigrants

Immigrants are pictured outside the HIAS home at 512 18th Street. Photo courtesy University of Washington Special Collections, UW1152

Immigrants are pictured outside the HIAS home at 512 18th Street. Photo courtesy University of Washington Special Collections, UW1152

“Here in Seattle, in America’s dooryard, stands the immigrant of yesterday,” stated an Oct. 7, 1917, Seattle Sunday Times article. “With hands outstretched in welcome, he greets the immigrant of today. In sympathy and understanding, he leads him through the gateway and with friendly counsel guides his first footsteps into a haven in the New World. …” That support from the staff and volunteers of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society began for the Naginskys as soon as they set foot on American soil and would continue as they reached the HIAS home.

Situated away from the city’s business district, the facility at 512 18th Avenue was composed of two buildings, one a recently renovated headquarters and the other a newly constructed shelter. According to the Seattle Sunday Times article, the 12-room headquarters — originally built as a residence for Watson C. Squire, a former Washington territorial governor and U.S. senator — had an office and large kitchen and dining room on the first floor. The second floor included sleeping quarters and a private office for the home manager, while the third floor had two classrooms. The basement was used mainly for storage. The shelter building included an assembly room and additional sleeping quarters, with men housed on the lower floor and women and children on the upper floor.

A firsthand account from a woman who as a child had accompanied her mother when she volunteered in the home provided even more vivid details. As reported in the January 1990 issue of the Washington State Jewish Historical Society newsletter, Sara Efron described sleeping quarters with blankets strung across ropes to form individual areas with cots because there was not sufficient space for each of the immigrants to have a private room. Her mother would speak to the immigrants in both Yiddish and Russian, supply bedding from her own home for use in the shelter, and help with sewing needs, just a few of the volunteer activities of Jewish women in the community. Efron also recalled that the grounds included a garden and small farm, supplying residents of the home with vegetables during the winter and fresh eggs daily.

When Mariasia and her daughters arrived at the home, probably late in the day on Friday, Jan. 25, 1918, the staff would have specific plans for them. Representative and home manager Abe Spring described the procedure to the Seattle Sunday Times: “We meet them at the boat on their arrival, bring them here and after they have had a bath and their dinner they come into the office and tell their story,” Spring said. “Nearly all of them have come hoping to find relatives and friends. We send telegrams for them and attend to the notification of these relatives or friends, if they are to be found.”

General instructions prepared for the HIAS representative were even more specific about what the Naginskys likely experienced in their first hours at the home:

Before retiring the first night at the shelter a dose of Epsom salts should be given every one of the inmates according to their ages and state of health. A supply of new underwear and hosiery should always be on hand to replace filthy ones on those inmates who have no clean ones for a change.

Such as in the judgment of the House Committee are entitled to a free suit of clothing, shoes or hat, by reason of their inability to supply themselves with it, should be presented with a modest outfit. …

For all its kindness and generosity, the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society did not see its work as a handout, according to the Seattle Sunday Times. “Its members are endeavoring to give justice rather than charity for the immigrants,” the article stated. “Prominent Jewish business men and residents of Seattle have given freely of their time and money to assist those who have escaped tyranny and oppression seeking asylum in this land of freedom.”