Beside the Golden Door

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Sailing to Seattle, 1854-1918

This postcard appears to be an early image of the Diamond Point Quarantine Station in Washington, which grew from three to 27 buildings during its years of operation (1893-1936).

For many passengers sailing to Seattle before the Naginskys, their ships were required to stop once or even twice near the entrance to the Puget Sound before they could proceed on to their destination.

Starting in 1854, all arriving passengers would have to disembark at Port Townsend for processing. Located at the entrance to Puget Sound, this site would serve as the official customs house and port of entry for 57 years before those functions were transferred to Seattle in 1911.

After the U.S. Congress passed the National Quarantine Act in 1878 to prevent vessels from carrying infectious diseases into the United States, it subsequently authorized funds for the development of a quarantine station in Washington state — which would become another regular stop for all vessels arriving from foreign ports when it opened in November 1893. Situated opposite Port Townsend on Discovery Bay, Diamond Point would serve as the site for the inspection of all incoming passengers for symptoms of diseases such as influenza, cholera, malaria, smallpox, yellow fever, diphtheria and leprosy. If necessary, ships would be fumigated with burning pots of sulphur to kill fleas, rats, lice, and other vermin that could be potential carriers of disease, as described by HistoryLink.org. The 1878 law also shifted control of the quarantine and disinfection process from states to the federal government; the Marine Hospital Service — the precursor of the U.S. Public Health Service — became responsible for these measures at ports nationwide and in 1902 took over medical examination of all immigrants.

While Diamond Point operated as a quarantine station for 43 years, it’s unclear whether it was always a mandatory stop for vessels arriving in Seattle and other nearby ports during that entire time. In September 1916, for example, the U.S. government issued instructions requiring all steerage passengers coming from Asia to disembark at Diamond Point for “bacteriological examination” — suggesting this was a change in policy. The new instructions were issued in response to an outbreak of cholera in Japan and China during the fall and winter of 1916. Ironically, the initial cases of cholera, some of them fatal, were discovered in late July 1916 aboard the Hawaii Maru as it sat in the Yokohama harbor waiting to depart on the same voyage to Seattle as Mariasia and her daughters would make on board that ship 16 months later.

Once satisfied that Japan had quelled the outbreak, the U.S. government withdrew its quarantine requirement for steerage passengers about six months later and shifted to a different strategy: inspecting ships both at the departure point and at the destination — which is likely what occurred on board the Hawaii Maru in January 1918. Dr. R.H. Earle, head of the Diamond Point station, described the new process in an article published March 29, 1917, in The Seattle Daily Times: “All ships sailing from a foreign port must have the written bill of health of a medical examiner whose salary is paid by the United States government before they sail. Failure to obtain this paper incurs a heavy fine. Then the ships are thoroughly examined before any passengers are permitted to land over here. Thus there is a double check.”

Ten Days in Yokohama, Part I

The Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society took over operations of the Yokohama shelter in 1918 after local groups were overwhelmed by the influx of emigrants. Photo courtesy YIVO Archives.

The Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society took over operations of the Yokohama shelter in 1918. Photo courtesy YIVO Archives.

On the first day of January 1918, Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society special representative Samuel Mason arrived in Yokohama. He didn’t even have to set foot inside the refugee center before he started hearing the stories, which he shared later in his August 1918 summary report, “Our Mission to the Far East”:

No sooner had I reached Yokohama than I was informed that the “Russian Home” was the filthiest place. The Russian people are so terribly filthy, I was told. Hence the reason for the deplorable state of the “Royal Hotel.” No one could pass the place, I was further told, without acknowledging the absolute truth of the statement.

Determined to get to the root of the problem, Mason conducted his own investigation into the center’s operations before visiting the shelter himself. However, its presence would prove impossible to ignore. “[A]s we started to walk I scented the place where the refugees were kept,” Mason wrote in his summary report. “The odor was exactly as described. I then knew where the house was situated.”

In the months since the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society had confirmed the conditions in Yokohama and cabled $3,000 to Japan Advertiser publisher Benjamin Fleisher to establish a temporary shelter, there seems to have been a struggle for control, according to Mason’s report. While Fleisher had secured an option on the old Royal Hotel, the local Emigrant Aid Society stepped in while he was out of town and obtained a one-year lease for the property. The Emigrant Aid Society had approached Moissei A. Ginzburg, a Russian businessman living in Japan, to provide operating funds for the home, which the group estimated at 12,000 yen per year, or about $180,000 today. This amount was turned over to the custodian and administrator, Maurice Russel, who renamed the shelter the Ginzburg Home for Russian Emigrants. To support the Emigrant Aid Society’s efforts, a group of “kind-hearted, charitable ladies,” including Ginzburg’s wife, formed the Ladies Committee for the Ginzburg Home for Russian Emigrants. The committee supplied clothes to the “half-naked inmates” of the home.

Within a short time, however, there were conflicts among the various parties involved in the Ginzburg Home. “They simply failed to understand their respective aims,” Mason stated in his report, in what sounds like a somewhat sanitized version of events. As he relayed further: “The situation became so aggravated that at one time serious disorder among the refugees was threatened, one organization throwing the blame for the occurrence upon the other. Japanese police had to be called in to prevent disturbance …” After that incident, a police officer had to be stationed outside the home around the clock.

The overwhelming number of emigrants descending on Yokohama could have caused the situation at the Ginzburg Home, but it also could have been the result of prejudice, cheapness or greed — or a combination of those factors. As Mason described in his report:

Originally the Royal Hotel had been a well equipped house. It had everything that a good hotel should have. Electricity, gas, beds and bedding, tables and chairs, dining room, kitchens and store rooms, well furnished lounging parlors, a very fine sun room, a billiard room and even an immensely large skating rink.

The gentlemen who rented the hotel were asked to pay Y7,000 [or about $10,000 today] for all the furniture and equipment. But they decided that it was all too good for the purpose. They wanted none of it, and so permitted everything to be sold at auction, including the floor of the skating rink, nearly all of the toilet bowls, all the gas piping, several of the ranges and every one of the electric chandeliers. The Royal Hotel had been metamorphosized into an almost dilapidated building.

When Mason finally entered the Ginzburg Home for Russian Emigrants on about Jan. 4, 1918, the reports he had heard were confirmed. From his room at the Grand Hotel, he shared his observations with interested parties in the United States through correspondence found within the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee Archives. In a Jan. 14, 1918, letter to a representative of the Society’s Seattle chapter, he painted a vivid picture: “The living conditions of the emigrants in this city were horrible. I was shocked to find the house they were kept in (the new quarters) lacking the most necessary sanitary facilities.” His account in a Jan. 26, 1918, letter to New York financier and humanitarian Jacob Schiff, who had facilitated the Society’s original $3,000 loan, was similarly blunt:

The lack of sanitary facilities in the house, coupled with the lack of a sewage system in this city, soon transformed the house into the worst imaginable place. When I arrived in town, I found thirty-two children suffering with whooping cough, eighteen with measles, sixteen children and adults with trachoma, two with tuberculosis, two with diptheria, one with typhoid, one with appendicitis and an epidemic of influenza. My task was terrific.

… There were three hundred and fifty people in the house, with only one hundred and eighteen cots, no toilets, just a few out of commission, no baths, some rooms on the ground floor without flooring, no tables, no benches, all the women cooking their own meals on little Japanese coal pots, eating off their beds.

Within days, Mason would take steps that would start dramatically improving the condition of emigrants stranded in Yokohama. “… by January 15th all the three organizations had been dissolved, the lease of  the house assigned to our Society and extended to April 1, 1919, and a host of carpenters, plumbers, painters, paper hangers and electricians installed and working at top-speed to make the house fit once more for human habitation,” he wrote in his summary report. As he told Schiff in his Jan. 26 letter: “I removed the sick to hospitals, I rented temporary quarters in different lodging houses to relieve the congestion in the house. … I started to fumigate the house and all the rooms, disinfect clothing and baggage, install toilets, flooring, a laundry, showerbaths, wash rooms, kitchen, etc. … I had every inmate vaccinated.”

From the time Mason entered the rundown home, Mariasia and her daughters would have only about one week left in the city to experience the benevolence of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society — a group that was really just beginning to bring relief to the suffering of Jewish refugees around the world.

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.

The Worst of Times — and the Best

Mariasia and her daughters traveled on the newly built Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to Vladivostok, taking the Trans-Manchurian segment through Harbin.

Between 1881 and 1914, close to 2 million Jews arrived in America, with the vast majority going through New York’s Ellis Island. With the advent of World War I, however, Atlantic sea routes were no longer available for passenger traffic, and the entire emigration pattern shifted east starting in early 1915. Not only was the distance more than twice as long as the traditional route — roughly 12,000 miles compared to 5,000 — but it took emigrants across the length of Russia as the country was descending into revolution. This was the path that Mariasia was forced to take, along with her five young daughters, to reunite with Aaron in America.

A number of factors made this trip possible.

With the completion of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the early 20th century, western parts of Russia finally were connected to the Far East. After more than a decade of construction beginning in 1891, the railway provided a way to traverse the vast expanse of Siberia year-round. Emigrants traveled the route that opened first, in 1904, which also offered the shortest route from Moscow to the port city of Vladivostok. This involved transferring from the Trans-Siberian Railway to a segment called the Trans-Manchurian Railway (or Chinese Eastern Railway) in Chita, located in the Trans-Baikal region of Russia, then going through Manchuria and the city of Harbin before crossing back into Russia. (The longer route contained within Russia was not completed until 1916.) Today, the more than 5,000-mile trip across seven time zones takes as few as eight days — but we know that Mariasia’s trip lasted far longer than that.

To help them navigate the complexities of their journey as well as provide some of the basic necessities, Jewish emigrants were assisted by the remarkable efforts of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. According to “Visas to Freedom,” Mark Wischnitzer’s historical account of HIAS, the society collaborated with relief organizations in Germany, Austria-Hungary and other European countries to compile lists of individuals who had lost contact with relatives in America and then publicized the names in an effort to reconnect the families — which was done with great success. HIAS also helped Jews secure visas, arrange for transportation, learn English to meet entry requirements, and communicate with family members, among other activities, all of which Mariasia and her daughters may have benefited from during their travels.

In response to the new eastward emigration patterns, HIAS — with its broad network of support from government as well as private individuals and groups — provided additional resources in critical locations in the United States and around the world, most of which were stops along Mariasia’s route to America. As the number of Jews reaching the West Coast soared between 1915 and 1916, new offices were established in San Francisco and Seattle. To assist those newly arrived immigrants who had to make their way from the West Coast to New York, HIAS formalized arrangements with the Chicago Hebrew Sheltering Home to meet trains as they arrived and alert the New York office so it could track down their relatives. After getting word that emigrants, including many women and children, were stranded between Siberia and Japan in 1917 because of the sudden devaluation of the Russian currency, HIAS immediately stepped in to fund the creation of a refugee shelter in Yokahama, Japan, and to establish bureaus in Vladivostok and Harbin.

Traveling across Russia during World War I and the Russian Revolution and continuing through the Far East, Mariasia and her daughters witnessed the worst of humanity — and the best. Even before the onset of the war, the Jewish press of Russia took note of the role being played by HIAS in improving the condition of refugees. As recounted in “Visas to Freedom”: “It evokes the tragic picture of the Wandering Jew, the whole misery of the ‘stranger in the strange land,'” wrote one journalist in 1912, but “also the consoling beauty of Jewish kindheartedness, brotherhood and charity.”

Mariasia’s followers: Take a “ride” on board the Trans-Siberian Railway and view some of the spots she and her daughters may have seen as they traversed Russia en route to America.

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.