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.

In Chicago, a Final Stop

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

At the End of the Line

An image of a street corner in Vladivostok during the 1910s.

After their ship nearly capsized, the Naginskys were forced to return to Vladivostok (pictured here during that era) and remain there for several months.

Once they were permitted to leave Harbin, the Naginsky women would board the train and travel about 300 miles to Vladivostok, the terminus of the Trans-Siberian Railway and gateway to the Pacific Ocean — another step closer to their ultimate destination of America.

It almost became the final stop along their journey. After an initial stay in Vladivostok — for how long we don’t know, though others were held up there because of overcrowding in the next destination of Yokohama or by Japanese visa requirements — Mariasia and her daughters departed for Yokohama only to be forced to return to the port after their ship nearly capsized, according to family lore. Most stories told of the ship hitting an iceberg, but in that part of the Sea of Japan it was more likely an ice sheet. Winters in Vladivostok typically are dry but cold, while heavy snow commonly occurs on the western coast of Japan. Other accounts suggested the ship encountered a storm, which also is plausible as the region experiences typhoons year-round, peaking from August through October, as well as a monsoon season, which generally occurs in June and July.

Regardless of the cause, we know Mariasia and her daughters had to remain in Vladivostok for several more months until it was safe to cross the Sea of Japan. During that time, most of the family likely stayed in a shelter for emigrants supported by the Jewish Kehilah of Vladivostok.

The Jewish Kehilah of Vladivostok was active in supporting fellow Jews in need. According to a letter from a Kehilah leader, the Federation of Jewish Societies of Vladivostok helped families of Jewish soldiers from the onset of World War I. After the revolution, a committee was formed to provide housing and food to the Jewish emigrants who had begun to stream into Vladivostok, and it eventually became known as the Jewish Relief Society. To support these groups, initially the Kehilah relied almost exclusively on monthly contributions from the city’s 30 to 40 Jewish families.

As demands increased, however, the community could no longer remain self-sufficient. The letter from the Kehilah leader went on to make an appeal for funds to Herman Bernstein, a noted U.S. journalist and diplomat who went to Russia in 1917 to report on the revolution for the New York Herald:

The Jewish Kehilah of Vladivostok was in a position to go on with the relief work without any outside help when the number of war sufferers was small, between 50 to 100. At the present time, there are 500 men, women and children at the Vladivostok center. … The exact number of Jewish war sufferers and immigrant at the different places in Siberia is not known to us. But from the little information which is reaching us, we know that they number many thousands. We know also that most of them are on their way to Vladivostok and, therefore, the vital problem before us is to get sufficient funds, so that we should be able to continue our relief work, which will be necessary to increase with the increased number of expected war sufferers.

The letter, found among the archives of the YIVO Institute, was sent after the Naginskys’ stay in Vladivostok, but it still provides insight into the worsening situation on the ground there as well as throughout the region.

With the local Kehilah playing an active role in providing assistance to emigrants, it’s not surprising that the Naginskys would have interacted with some of the members. One of them, a wealthy merchant, invited the oldest daughter, Jhina, then about 7 or 8, to live with his family while they waited for the departure of the next ship to Japan. Years later, Jhina (Janet Naginsky Bradfield) recounted this story to her own children, telling them that the family gave her silk dresses to wear and caviar for breakfast. And when the time came to finally leave, the merchant asked if she could stay as another member of his family. “No,” Mariasia said, according to Jhina. “My husband left me with five daughters, and I have to bring him all five.”

Along the Great Siberian Way

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The zero-kilometer mark of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which the Russians originally called the Great Siberian Way, was the Yaroslavsky Rail Station in Moscow. This is where 31-year-old Mariasia Naginsky and her five daughters — then ranging in age from 2 to 7 — would find themselves, after traveling more than 500 miles from their home in Aleksandrovsk, likely in 1916.

Outside the station building, the family may have noticed details reflecting the diversity of northern Russia, including facade ornaments with flora and fauna symbols and an antler motif on the side tower. When walking through the main entrance, they also may have seen the exposed, curved wood beams lining the central archway and the lattice grids of the building’s main windows — nods to Japanese and Chinese architecture. The design, which was completed in 1904, was inspired by the future role of this terminal as the hub of traffic to Siberia and the Far East, as described in “The Origins of Modernism in Russian Architecture” by William Craft Brumfield.

The main hall, where the girls and their mother may have waited for their train to depart, was an “open, functional space, brightly illuminated and modestly decorated with [painted] panels [showcasing the northern Russia landscape], simple oak wainscoting, a tile floor, and suspended light fixtures in the modern style,” according to Brumfield’s account.

The Naginskys may not have been able to appreciate the beauty of their surroundings because their voyage across Russia likely was long and miserable. Aboard the steam engine train, it took them months rather than the days it takes today to reach the Pacific coast. We know they had to wait in rail stations for long days, surrounded by their baggage, including the enormous goose down pillows they carried with them, until the next train would come through. Another factor — their lack of money — may have forced them to stop at various points along the way so Mariasia could find work doing laundry, according to relatives. Their limited funds probably meant crowding into so-called “cattle cars,” the lowest class available, along with the record number of passengers traveling at the time. Delays also could have been caused by technical conditions on the railway or by illness, which is likely with five young children.

The timing of their travel could not have been much worse. Czar Nicholas II was deposed in March 1917 following demonstrations and other violence. Hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers already had been killed in the battles of World War I, and by mid-1917 many of the troops chose to desert rather than continue fighting. In October 1917, the Bolsheviks had taken control of the government, and civil war had erupted. Both family and news accounts describe trains packed with Russian soldiers, who would lift the children up into the cars through the windows. According to stories told to relatives years later, other men dressed in uniforms and boots would come through the trains, and people would whisper, “Bolsheviki!”

Within this environment, Mariasia’s background and appearance may have enhanced her family’s ability to survive this trip. Because of her education, she spoke and read Russian, which was not common among Jews, especially women. Her light eyes also made her ethnic background less obvious.

In addition to being witnesses to history, the Naginskys traversed the full range of Russian territory during their travels, from European Russia to the Far East via Siberia, according to this 1928 schedule. After pulling out of Yaroslavsky Station in Moscow heading eastward, they would cross the Volga River and skirt the Ural Mountains, passing through Perm and Yekaterinburg, at the juncture of Europe and Asia. In southwestern Siberia, they would stop in two large, relatively new commercial centers, Omsk and Novonikolayevsk (now Novosibirsk). Moving into central Siberia, they would travel through the scenic city of Krasnoyarsk and then on to Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, just south of Lake Baikal. At or near Chita, they would transfer to the Trans-Manchurian Railway, which would take them across the border to the Northeast China region of Manchuria, where the family likely spent time in Harbin before crossing back into Russia to reach the port city of Vladivostok, some 6,000 miles from where they had begun.

While we can retrace the path of Mariasia and her daughters, it’s more difficult to re-create the atmosphere that existed on board the Trans-Siberian Railway at the time of the Russian Revolution. But it seems that we can look to the silver screen to get at least a sense of what they experienced during their journey. Apparently, the film version of Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” successfully captured the imagery and mood during this watershed moment in history — the masses of humanity, the unsanitary conditions, the danger, the desperation. Watching the movie 50-plus years later, Janet Naginsky Bradfield (Jhina) remarked to her own daughter: “That’s what it was like.”

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.