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.

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.

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.”

Sleepless Nights and Endless Days

This image of Jewish refugees at a rail station near the German-Polish border in 1918 gives a sense of what Mariasia and her daughters would be experiencing in their journey across Russia.

After returning from his group’s first mission to Europe since the outbreak of World War I, HIAS director Isidore Hershfield appeared at New York’s Carnegie Hall in June 1916 to report on the conditions he had found there. Among the thousands of people attending the event was U.S. Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson. As described by Mark Wischnitzer in “Visas to Freedom,” Herschfield’s report on HIAS’s efforts to facilitate communication between family members separated by the war evoked childhood memories for Wilson and gave him an appreciation for the organization’s work:

As your representative was telling the story of his visit abroad, my own memory went back some forty-five or forty-six years when I too was an alien living in an alien country with my father a resident in the United States. … I can recall how, as a little boy, I was sent daily to the post office in order to get news from my father. … The worry, the nervousness, the sleepless nights of [my] mother, when from causes unknown there were days and days of delay in the receipt of the expected letter, and the joy when it came.

I imagine Mariasia and her older daughters experienced similar feelings as they awaited news from Aaron. According to family accounts, the letters arrived either without the money that had been enclosed or they stopped coming altogether. At some point, Mariasia recognized that she could not count on the money from Aaron to secure their passage to America. If she wanted to be reunited with her husband, it would be up to her alone.

There are many ways Mariasia could have learned of the new eastward path the family needed to follow. The Jewish press of Russia covered the subject of immigration extensively, including stories on aid programs, according to “Visas to Freedom.” Additionally, as described in “World of our Fathers,” HIAS issued a bilingual monthly called “The Jewish Immigrant” that was distributed widely in Russia, providing practical information to those hoping to immigrate to the United States. Of course, she may have learned about it from other members of the Jewish community in Aleksandrovsk or in letters from Aaron that were delivered.

To get to the Russian port of embarkation, Mariasia and her daughters had to travel a combination of rail routes. We know that they took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok. It’s likely they also made the initial 500-mile trip northeast to Moscow by train, since Aleksandrovsk had become a center for rail traffic after the Kichkas Bridge, which traversed the Dnieper River, opened in 1908.

In about 1916, after two years of separation from Aaron, Mariasia packed up the family’s belongings, including enormous goose down pillows, and left Aleksandrovsk with her five young daughters. After what were likely many sleepless nights waiting to hear from her husband, Mariasia would face what probably seemed like endless days to finally reach her destination.

Mariasia Against the World

At the onset of World War I, Mariasia and her daughters were living in Aleksandrovsk, Ekaterinoslav, in the area of Ukraine where the Dnieper River bends to the east (just off the map).

A little more than a month after Aaron arrived in America, World War I broke out in Europe.

Alone in Aleksandrovsk with her five young daughters — a baby, a toddler who also was deaf, 5-year-old twins and a 6-year-old — Mariasia no doubt experienced the food shortages and drastic price increases that were becoming widespread throughout Russia. It’s likely the family also witnessed refugees fleeing Europe’s Eastern Front, as Ukraine, the region where they lived in southwestern Russia, bordered Austria-Hungary. Growing unrest over the czar’s gross mismanagement of the war, which culminated in revolution in 1917, was another reality of the times. Adding to Mariasia’s troubles, communication with her husband either was delayed significantly or stopped altogether.

Aaron faced his own challenges in America. In addition to being apart from his family, he had to adjust to an entirely new country, learning a new language and culture. Shortly after his arrival, he filed his initial papers to begin the citizenship process — a petition for naturalization — with the Supreme Court of the state of New York. His two required witnesses were his brother, Israel, and his brother-in-law Sam Silvert. He probably was working long hours in the Garment District of New York — likely at Supreme Caps Co. at 51 West Third Street, Israel’s employer in 1918, according to his World War I draft registration card — so he could send money back home to his family.

It was common practice for new immigrants to send money home to their families, whether it was to support them, pay for their eventual passage to America or both. As a result, they became easy prey to those who handled the mail. According to family accounts, Aaron was one of their many victims. It’s possible that the large political police force established to defend the czarist regime from dissent was responsible for the theft. As described in W. Bruce Lincoln’s book “In War’s Dark Shadow – The Russians Before the Great War,” the Okhrana regularly intercepted large amounts of foreign and domestic mail from revolutionary groups and individuals but also spied on everyday people. A 1916 article published in the left-liberal newspaper Den’ in Petrograd, Russia, reported that a large bundle of letters from Jews in America to relatives in Russia had been uncovered hidden near a rail station after being passed by censors, offering further evidence of the political police force’s culpability. It’s not difficult to believe that the Okhrana was guilty of yet another indignity against Jews, given the hatred felt for them by the Russian autocracy.

As weeks turned to months and months turned to years, conditions in Russia continued to deteriorate, and reports began to appear in U.S. newspapers documenting the human impact of the war. There were articles about Jews seeking assistance to find missing relatives and of Jewish refugees stranded in places such as Vladivostock, Russia; Harbin, Manchuria; and Yokohama, Japan. One Polish mother wrote that she had received “no help or news of her husband for a long time” and that her children were “in need,” according to a 1917 article in the New York Times. Other reports shared a different kind of news — of a global community that had mobilized to come to the aid of fellow Jews through fundraising and relief efforts. These were the stories of Mariasia’s Crossing.

‘Know No Sorrows and Don’t Forget Me’

Was Zhenia Negisk a close relative left behind in the Old Country?

Almost 100 years ago, as Russia was descending into revolution and war was on the horizon, my great grandfather made the momentous decision to leave his native land — a decision that would not only affect him but all of the family members who would come after him.

On May 5, 1914, 34-year-old Aaron Naginsky set sail for America from Libau, Russia (in present-day Latvia), aboard the S.S. Dwinsk. He likely traveled by train to make the 1,200-mile journey from Aleksandrovsk, in southwestern Russia, to the northern port town. While Libau once was a popular port for emigration, it had fallen out of favor because of frequent entanglements with czarist authorities. Why Aaron left from there is unclear, but we do know that his passage was paid for by his brother, Israel, who already had been in America for a decade and who, like so many other new immigrants, was probably saving money to allow his relatives to join him.

Aaron arrived in New York on May 20, 1914, a little more than two weeks after his departure. The ship passenger list noted that his profession was “capmaker,” a reference to the garment industry factory worker job he would soon assume alongside his brother. It also indicated that he would be living with Israel at his home at 605 Williams Avenue in Brooklyn.

For Aaron, leaving his native Russia meant leaving behind his wife, Mariasia, and their five daughters, ranging from just a few months old (or possibly still on the way) to age 6. Because of the high cost of passage for an entire family, it was extremely common for husbands to go to America first and send money home so their families could join them as soon as possible. That clearly was the intention when Aaron departed, but what took place just weeks later would set into motion events that would keep them apart for far longer than they ever imagined.

As he left, perhaps he carried with him a photo (pictured above) of a relative named Zhenia Negisk, with the following note written on the back in Russian: “I am writing to you a few words. Live and be healthy. I hope that you don’t know sorrows and don’t forget me.”