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.