The room they found themselves in was cavernous; you could barely make out the walls. The ceiling was so high that it seemed their entire ship could have fit inside it. The space reverberated from the echo of a thousand immigrants speaking all at once, not to mention all the babies crying. The awful stench you could not ignore came from those dressed in multiple layers of clothing. There was no question that very few had bathed since they had departed England.
Eight days at sea had taken its toll. If you could somehow manage to find your way tothe ship's main deck , you'd be among the lucky ones breathing fresh air. Walking around that deck was your best opportunity for excercise, to get through another day. Down below in second class was where you'd spend your evenings; thankfully not even futher below in steerage class where the passengers were packed in like sardines. But from both of those decks came atrocious odor. And who could lay in their cot each night subjected to the infernal noises? The constant chattering, screaming, snoring, and incesssant crying.
Finally, Aba spoke, "My God, I am so glad we are finally off of that ship. I was beginning to think we'd never get here!"
Beside him, his wife Sarah replied, "Wasn't the statue of the lady we passed, holding up the torch, the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?" Sarah's heart stirred, as she stood beside the handsome man whom she just married. In response he merely squeezed her hand as if in answering her question.
The line they were both in was moving slowly; shuffling forward a few steps every now and then. Sarah could just make out the people at the front, standing before a window. "Relax, Aba, we should be so grateful to cousin Rachel back in Wales. You of all people realize how clever she was in sending us the money, hidden behind the photograph of her family! And it was smart for her to address it to our neighbor Ivan, so it deflected any suspicion when it arrived at the post office. Thanking them did no good, since they kept saying it was the least they could do to repay us for our kindness. If I hadn't cared for their daughter Galyna, nearly dead from influenza, who knows what would have happened?
Then for her to go around and ask for help all over Wales, from the wealthiest Jews she knew it was like a God-send. Receiving that money made all of this possible.
Secretly ecstatic that things were going so well, She held her husband's hand, gripping it tightly. In her other hand, she grasped the handle of her satchel, fearful someone would snatch it. How helpless she would feel watching someone running away with what little precious jewelry she carryied. It wasn't the riches that it held, but sentimental things her mother handed down to her. Thefts and violence like that were not uncommon in Novovostok; when she went to market, she worried not just for the few shekels she carried, she worried for her life. Policemen back in her village were not there to help the Jews. Very few in the village even considered Jews to be members of the human race.
Brought back from her deep thoughts, she scanned the hall observing the policer officers among them. Some looked in good shape; some sturdy, and some were stout, each was decked out in the same pleasing blue uniforms with shiny buttons. She thought it was a little funny that they all had drooping mustaches. Those closest to them had their eyes fixed on the cues, looking for any sign of trouble. She felt a slight tug on her hand, pulling her a few steps forward. Suddenly, two approached but only came over to divide their cue into two separate lines, and as a result, they were now closer to their objective.
Aba leaned over whispering to her, "I believe it will only be a few more minutes before we will be finished up with this business here" Turning towards his brother, Aaron, and his wife behind them he repeated this prediction.
By his side Aba had a faded leather bag, pocked with tiny white marks from the salty air at sea; he extracted the documents it was holding.
"Here, my sweetness, you should hold your own document that show where you came from, for who knows how these things are handled." Taking them from his grasp, she gazed into his eyes, a shade of blue like cornflowers. "I am also so glad we were finally able to leave that dreadful place! Yes, Ukraine's countryside was pretty, but the god forsaken pogroms coming out of Kyiv all of the time were driving me insane! Then the mad rush to reach the trains so we could escape and begin our journey on to London. I still remember it like it was yesterday, our long discussions in the crowded car, as were passing through all of those countries. And so much crying over who among us would go where. Who would stay in Europe?who chose to stay on in London or go to Wales, or come with us to America. In the end, I am so glad Aaron and Ethel decided to join us.
Remember when I asked that sailor on the ship how far it was to New York? Three thousand miles was his reply".
She looked up…. feeling as though she was waking from a dream, still in a daze, she stopped to remember where she was. Before her sat a middle-aged man in spectacles, with salt and pepper hair and neatly trimmed white whiskers. He sat at a small desk behind glass and she heard him speaking words that made no sense. Was this English she was hearing? Then the man stopped, paused, and started up again, only this time in perfect Yiddish. She nodded, realizing that he was merely asking her for her papers. How smart she thought to herself that they'd have translators here.
After their brief interviews, the immigration man asked Abraham Hartstein, if he liked his new name in English, since the one his father gave him in Russian was far too complicated for anyone here to pronounce. "Your lives will be so much easier for you with your new American names.
I can't wait to begin to learn this English, Sarah again thought to herself.
Abe smiled, I like our names because they come from The Torah, and thank you kind sir, for all that you are doing for us to make our arrival here more comfortable".
When asked what work he did for a living, Abraham thought for only a second before he responded with farming. While this was not entirely true, for he had been a merchant, like his father, who sold dry goods from village to village. But in this new land filled with so many opportunities anything seemed possible.
"Have you ever heard of North Dakota? We have a special program there for many immigrants like you. We desprately need farmers for this region, so we offer you good land to farm there. Keep in mind that it it is from cities like New York and Chicago. You can live on your farm for as long as you wish at no cost to you, but if you stop farming, you must give up that land. Would you like to participate in this program? Stunned by the question, Abraham didn't hesitate for a moment, he knew he had find a way to provide for he and Sarah, so he vigorously nodded his head , "Yes! I will farm this land in North Dakota!" Beside him Sarah was inwardly smiling, knowing for certain there would soon be many more mouths to feed in the coming years and farming did indeed seem like a good to her as well.
The immigration officer stood up to wrap up the interview and handed them their new documents, "gezunterheit", he said which of course meant “travel with health,” and added that he hoped they would both love their new home outside of a place he called Morton, North Dakota.
It was that simple. Leaving the hall, new documents in his bag, each of them with their their new identity card, and most importantly in his bag he had his new land grant. What an amzing turn of events, they had come six thousand miles from their village, with practically only the clothes on their backs, and now he was almost a land owner!
Stepping outside, they came upon a sign that spelled out "Ellis Island". Together they waited there for his brother Aaron. He thought about would he would plant there? Maybe something they already loved to eat? Perhaps cabbage, beets, or carrots? It really didn't matter, if those weren't suitable he'd try wheat or barley. Soon, Aaron and Ethel emerged and after they approached, he explained that they too, asked if they could go to the same place so as to keep their the family together. His request was granted, Aaron finished his interview telling the same officer he would be a merchant.
Ethel added, "Now we need to find a train that will deliver us to this place called North Dakota."
And, so the four Hartstein's fresh off the boat, stood together forming a small circle, hand in hand. Abraham bowed his head and led them in a litttle prayer. "Our heavenly Lord, please allow us to make this final journey safely, and if it is not too much to ask, please don't make it too cold there, at least not as bad as from where we just came from."
In unison, they raised their arms and gave a hearty"Amen".