Steerage Passengers First View of the New World
The gay spirits soon flag when land is heralded; for Ellis Island is ahead, with its uncertainties, and the men and women who were the merriest and who most often went to the bar, thus trying to forget, now are sober, and reflect.
The troubled ones are usually marked by their restless walk and by their eagerness to seek the confidences of those who have tested the temper of the law in this unknown Eldorado.
Not long ago, on one of the ships in which I sailed, there was in the steerage, a monk, who neither walked nor talked like one. He shunned me, not because of my heresies, but because of my Latin, and although he mumbled out of a prayer-book and unskillfully counted his beads, I knew that " The devil a monk was he."
On the eve of the great day of landing, he was pacing the deck, evidently in an unreverential mood, and I too was there, being one of those who prefer the biting wind of the night to the polluted air of the steerage.
He came close to me as we walked, and hesitatingly asked me in a French to which clung a peculiar dialect never spoken in monasteries, whether I had been in America before.
When I replied in the affirmative, he inquired all about the examination of baggage and of men, and when I told him how strict it is, that nothing is hid from the lynx eyes of the custom-house officials, and that nothing is sacred to them, not even the body of a monk, he grew visibly excited.
Stealthily he drew from under the folds of his cassock, a stone, a large, brilliant, tempting diamond, and said : " You may have that." As I took it between my fingers, I detected traces of the torn rim of its setting, and passed it back into the trembling hand of his " Reverence."
" You needn't be afraid of that," he said; " I am one of the monks driven out of France, and I am taking the treasures of the Brotherhood over. I am afraid of the high duty and it will be cheaper for me to give you that diamond which is a pendant from the jewels of the Virgin, than to pay for what I have; that is, if you will help me to pass this little bag safely in."
With this he drew aside his cassock and fumbling in the folds brought to light a little bag which he would have handed to me, but I assured him that I was not a smuggler even for pious purposes, and after darting at me an impious glance, he disappeared into the steerage.
The next day at Quarantine, a messenger boy of unusual size came on board and calling out the names of a rather large number of steerage passengers handed them telegrams which were written in English and were rather suspiciously vague. -- " Pavel Moticzka, -- Ivan Kovaloff, -- Isaac Goldberg," and last, -- " Jaques Rosenstein."
My friend the monk nearly jumped out of his cassock to reach for his message, and the " Boy," who made most remarkable haste for a telegraph messenger, slipped a pair of handcuffs where only rosaries hung; and a Jewish jeweller's clerk from Paris, who was running away with the best part of his employer's diamonds, -- was in the toils of the law.
Some years ago when the steerage of the Hamburg American Line had not been made even partially decent by our stringent immigration laws, over 500 passengers, booked for the Fürst Bismark, at that time the swiftest boat of the line, were, without explanation or notification, stowed away in a freight boat scheduled to cross in twelve days, but never having actually made the trip in less than sixteen days.
The quarters were very close but the number of passengers was not excessively large, the weather was favourable, and blissfully ignorant of the slowness of the ship, we were comparatively happy.
We were divided about equally into Russian Jews, Slays and Italians, and there was very little choice so far as comradeship was concerned. The passengers were all fairly dirty, the Italians being easily in the lead, with the Russian Jews a good second, and the Slays as clean as circumstances allowed.
The Italians were from the South of Italy and had lost the romance of their native land but not the fragrance of the garlic. They quarrelled somewhat loudly and gesticulated wildly; but were good neighbours during those sixteen days.
They were shy and not easily lured into confidences by one who knew their language but poorly, in spite of the fact that he knew their country well and '.owed it.
In sixteen days the average American has a chance to discover at least one thing which he has found it hard to believe; that all Italians are not alike, that they do not look alike, and that they are not all Anarchists.
When some relationship was established between us, and I had to serve as the link among the three races, we had a grand " Festa " to which the Slays contributed some gutteral songs and clumsy dances, and the Italians, sleight of hand performances which made them appear still more uncanny to the Slays.
They also supplied a Marionette theatre, of the Punch and Judy show variety, and " last but not least," music from a hurdy-gurdy which played the dulcet notes of " Cavalliero Rusticana " and a dashing tune about " Marghareta, Marghareta.'
" Signors and Signorinas," said Pietro, after he had played all the tunes of his limited repertoire, " I have the great honour of presenting to you the national anthem of the great American country to which we are travelling." He turned the crank, and out came, -- the ragtime notes of " Ta -- ra -- ra -- boom -- de -- a."
The last number on the program was a song by a Russian Jewess, a woman whose beauty was marred by bleached hair which had grown rusty, and by a complexion upon which rouge and powder had done their worst.
Her voice which was strong rather than melodious, had in it an element of artificiality evidently begotten on the stage. She at once became the star among our entertainers, and though her culture was superficial, she was by far the best company for me.
Her parents, she told me, had been well to do Jews in a market town in Russia. They had broken away from many of the observances and traditions of their religion, they and their children followed all the latest fashions, a governess imported from France brought with her Paul de Kock's novels and other elevating (?) Parisian literature; music teachers came, who discovered in the only daughter a voice which of course, had to be cultivated in Vienna.
There were concerts which the father's money arranged, a few glowing press notices at so much a line, and finally the fruitless struggle to appear in opera.
Then came one of those Anti-Semitic riots, those brutal outpourings of human hate which she was unable to describe. All she could say over and over again was, "Strashno, Strashno," " it was terrible, terrible."
The house in which she had lived was a wreck, her father beaten to death, and she -- she could not say it; but I knew. She told of women whose mutilated bodies were torn open, and of children whose heads were beaten together until they were a bleeding mass. Yes, indeed, it was " Strashno, Strashno," terrible, terrible.
Somewhat early in her girlhood, a clerk in her father's store " had looked upon her, and loved her " with a youth's ardour; but she had scorned him, as well she might scorn this uncultured, stupid looking son of Abraham.
Again and again he asked her to be his wife, until through her entreaty, her father drove him out of the store. She told me much of her life and perhaps many things which she told me were not true.
I knew for instance, that she had not sung before the Czar of Russia, that Hanslick the great musical critic of Vienna did not predict for her a Patti's fame and fortune; nor did I believe that a young millionaire in Berlin blew out his brains because she would not marry him.
But I did believe that the poor clerk went to New York, that he had worked day and night in a sweat shop pressing cloaks, that out of his earnings he had supported her in the vain struggle to attain Grand Opera, and that now she was on her way to reward his faithfulness and become his wife.
" What is it like, this America ?" " What kind of life awaits one on the East-side ? " " What social status has a cloak presser in New York ? " " What chance is there for one to reach the goal of Grand Opera ? "
These and other questions she hurled at me while the line upon the horizon grew clearer, and the hearts of men and women heavy from expectation.
On this ship too, Susanka, a Slovak girl nursed her way across the Atlantic, giving food to a little Magyar baby which she despised; and while she rocked the restless little one to sleep and sang her Slavic lullaby, " Hi-u, Hi-u, Hi-u-shkee-e" -- one could see in her heavy face her heart's hunger for her own child. "
Oh ! Pany velkomosny (mighty sir), my little child ! I had to leave it with a stara baba (old woman) and it was gray, ashen gray when I left it, and it will die, it will die ! " and she grew frantic in her grief as she rocked the Magyar child to and fro, " Hi-u, Hi-u, Hi-u-shke-e-e-e."
" Who was to blame, Susanka ? " The look of pain changed to one of fiery anger as she sent back across the sea, a curse, long and terrible, against her betrayer.
Yes, those are heavy hours and long, on that day when the ship is circled by the welcoming gulls, and the fire-ship is passed, while the chains rattle and the baggage is piled on the deck.
"Will they let me in, signor ?" "Why should they not, Antonio ? " " Ah I signor, I have not always been a free man. They held me in jail for four years. Will they know it in America ? I stabbed a man, -- yes, signor."
" Will they let us in, Guter Herrleben ? " anxiously asks Yankev: his wife Gietel and six children are with him and one of the boys lies motionless upon the hatch, pale, worn and almost gone. " Consumption ? yes; he was so well, but we were smuggled over and driven by the gendarmes, and had to be out in the damp, and he caught cold and a cough came and you can see, Guter Herrleben, quick consumption ! "
Yankev, and Gietel his wife, had an appalling story to tell, and I listened to it as we squatted on deck under the twinkling stars. The moon shone in silvery splendour upon the quiet water, and I wondered why the sea did not grow angry, the constellations pale, and why the moon did not become red like blood at the horror of it all -- a horror which never can be told.
Imagine an Easter night, a night when Yankev and Gietel celebrated the liberation of Israel from Egyptian bondage. On the same night their Russian neighbours were celebrating the liberation of the human race from the power of death. The synagogue service was over.
They had told the story of Israel's passing through the Red Sea, and of the perishing of Pharoah's horsemen; Yankev had come home to the feast of unleavened bread and bitter herb; the neighbours had been to the church where until midnight, in darkness and silence, they mourned at the tomb of the slain Christ.
Then with the passing of the long and silent night they went from street to street shouting: " Christ is risen, Christ is risen, Christ is risen, indeed." But the mob came upon the defenseless home plundering and burning all in its fury, although mercifully sparing the lives of the now homeless and penniless family.
Others fared worse, for they had no money with which to bribe, while their daughters were older and good to look upon. It was a little place and just a little pogrom. It was not written about nor protested against; but what would have been the use ?
Dumb from agony we sat there and I had to breathe back into them the faith which they had almost lost, and the courage which had almost left them; a faith and courage which I myself did not possess.
In the peace of the night I could hear only the terror of the voice of the Lord saying : " Vengeance is Mine." The gentle Nazarene who came in love to conquer by love, I could scarcely see, and I yearned to make the Psalmist's prayer my own. " Blessed be the Lord Godwhich teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight."
That night and many another last night on board of ship, I listened to the stories of men and women who were fleeing from the terror of Russia's law.
Russians who had wrought in secret, who had planned great things and who had risked everything -- Bogdanoff, Philipoff, Lermontoff, Lehrman, Loewenstern.
Jews and Gentiles who had struck out in their blind fury, who had felt the terror of the law and the greater terror of taking, or trying to take, human life. Some guilty, some innocent; all of them caught in the same net.
Characteristic is the story of a Warsaw merchant who sailed with me on my last journey. On the evening of the 21st of April, 1906, he went to a dentist to have some work done. He went in the evening because he was busy in the daytime, and when he arrived the police were searching the house; after which all the inmates, dentist and patients, were taken to the police station and cast into prison.
Two hundred and fifty persons were together in a room large enough for twenty. The odours were frightful, as in common with all Russian prisons there were no toilet conveniences outside of that room, in which for three days they were left. After bribing the officials, twenty fortunate men, my informant among them, were given another room.
Nine weeks he remained there utterly unconscious of the reason for his detention; and only after the hard and faithful struggle of his wife was he released, -- without an apology, to find his business ruined and only sufficient money left to go to America.
On the same ship I met the widow of a Jewish physician, who was shot down in the act of binding the wounds of those fallen in the uprising of Moscow. Binding the wounds of soldiers and revolutionists alike, he was shot in the back by a police lieutenant who afterwards was promoted to a captaincy.
No, it is not easy to travel in the steerage; not because there is not room enough, nor air enough, nor food enough, although that is all true; but because it is hard to believe down there that the God of Israel is not dead, nor His arm shortened, if not broken, like those of the Greek deities.
Yet they still have faith in Him, these children of His, who have waited for the fulfillment of His promises. They still wait, although " Jerusalem the golden" is a far away dream, and they are scattered wanderers over the face of the earth.
Friday night, with the coming of the first star, all those who believed, met, to voice their faith in Jehovah.
In a corner of the steerage quarters, while the eyes of the Gentiles looked inquisitively on, they turned towards Zion, and lifting up their voices, greeted the Sabbath : " Come, my beloved, thou Sabbath bride," " Lcho dody L Crass Calo."
They sang this one joyous song of Israel, and stretched out their arms as if to press this spiritual bride to their rest-hungry souls.
They do not doubt that Jehovah will guide the destinies of Israel, and that the Sabbath bride will some day descend upon the earth to abide forever, bringing rest and peace to the Israel of God.
At last the great heart of the ship has ceased its mighty throbbing, and but a gentle tremor tells that its life has not all been spent in the battle with wind and waves.
The waters are of a quieter colour, and over them hovers the morning mist. The silence of the early dawn is broken only by the sound of deep-chested ferry-boats which pass into the mist and out of it, like giant monsters, stalking on their cross beams over the deep.
Source: Steiner, Edward Alfred, On the Trail of the Immigrant, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, 1906