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.