Their Great Escape

Their Great Escape

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 to the ship's main deck, you'd be among the lucky ones breathing in fresh air. Walking around that deck was your best opportunity for exercise, in order to get through another day.  Down below in second class was where you'd spend your evenings; thankfully not further below in steerage class where the passengers were packed in like sardines. But from both of those decks came atrocious odors. And who could lay in their cot each night subjected to the infernal noises? The constant chattering, screaming, snoring, and incessant 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 that 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 answer to her question.


The line they were 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?
For Rachel to go around and ask for help all over Wales, from the wealthiest Jews she knew... it was like a God-send. Receiving all that money made everything that came after possible.”

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'd feel watching someone running away with what little precious jewelry she carried. It wasn't the riches that it held, but the sentimental value of the 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, but also for her life.  Policemen back in their village were not there to help the Jews. Very few there even considered Jews like them to be members of the human race.

Brought back from her deep thoughts, she scanned the hall observing the police officers among them.  They looked to be in very good shape; most seemed sturdy, but a few were stout. Each was decked out in a pleasing blue unifor with shiny buttons.  She thought it was a little funny that they all had drooping mustaches. Those closest to them were vigilant, looking for any sign of trouble. She felt a slight tug on her hand, pulling her a few steps forward. Suddenly two officers approached, but only to divide their queue into two separate ones 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 here."  Turning toward his brother Aaron, 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 shows 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 know you are so glad we were finally able to leave that dreadful place!  Yes, the countryside was pretty, but the god forsaken pogroms coming out of Kyiv were slowly driving us insane!  Think back to our mad rush to reach the trains, so we could begin the journey to London. I still remember it like it was yesterday, our long discussions in that crowded car, as we we passed through all of those countries. And so much crying over where everybody was going. Who wanted to stay in Europe? Who would choose to stay on in London or go on to Wales, and finally who’d come with us to America?  I am so glad Aaron and Ethel decided to join us. Remember when I asked the sailor on the ship how far it was to New York? Three thousand miles was his reply".
She looked up….  feeling as though she were 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 this America is, 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 now translated into English; his Russian name was far too complicated for anyone here to pronounce here. "Your lives will be so much easier for you both, with your new names.“  Abe smiled,  In any language 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 so much 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, with so many new opportunities anything seemed possible.

"Have you ever heard of North Dakota? We have a special program there for immigrants like you. We desperately need farmers for this region, so we offer you good land to farm there.  Keep in mind, though, that it is far from cities like New York and Chicago. You can live on your land for as long as you wish, at no cost to you, but if you stop farming, you must give up the land.  Would you like to participate in this program?” Stunned by this amazing offer, Abraham didn't hesitate for a moment, he knew instantly he was being given a mitzvah, a way to provide for himself and Sarah, so he nodded his head vigorously , "Yes! I will farm this land in North Dakota!"  Beside him Sarah was inwardly smiling, knowing there would soon be many more mouths to feed in the coming years and farming would indeed put food on their table.  The immigration official stood 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 grow to 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 new identity card and, most importantly, he had his fortuitous new land grant. What an amazing turn of events. They had just traveled six thousand miles from their village, with practically only the clothes on their backs, and now he was practically a land owner!  Stepping outside, they came upon a sign that spelled out Ellis Island. Together they waited there for brother Aaron.  He thought to himself what he would plant on his new land. Perhaps something they loved to eat; cabbage, beets, or carrots?  It would put food on their table and they would easily sell the rest. But If those weren't suitable he'd try wheat or barley. Soon, his brother and Ethel emerged and approached them. Aaron excitedly explained that they had asked the immigration officer if they could go to the same place as his brother, so as to keep their families together? His request was easily granted and Aaron told him 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 Hartsteins, fresh off the boat, stood together forming a small circle, hand in hand. Abraham bowed his head and led them in a little 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."

In unison, they raised their arms and gave a hearty"Amen".

My grandparents Abraham and Sarah Hartstein seated here witth their six children, all born in North Dakota. photo taken probably fifty years after the story you are reading.