|The doctor left my sister’s bedside. He tried to explain to my parents as I listened in shock, but their English was not good enough. Perhaps, they did not believe the words they understood all too well. “Rose,” Momma said. “What is he saying?”
“He… He says the Influenza Outbreak is sweeping South Bend. There is nothing he can do.”
“Tell them to keep her as comfortable as you can… She, she doesn’t have long.”
Momma and Poppa shouted and cried as the doctor walked to the door. He paused only to say, “I’m sorry.”
I remember telling my brother Max to run and get our older brothers, seeing him leave, hearing Momma and Poppa sobbing. I stumbled out of the house. Feeling dizzy and sat down on the porch and cried.
I glanced back inside. Malki couldn’t be dying… The doctor had to be wrong. We had gone through so much just to make new lives in America. Malki had so much left to live for; she was only twenty-two.
My family had crossed much of Europe and sailed to America eleven years before. I was the youngest of five children. Only ten years old when I left with Momma, Poppa, my brother Mutel, now called Max, and my sister Malki. She was two years older than me. Mutel was the next oldest – our older brothers, eighteen and seventeen, had already gone to America and encouraged us all to follow.
They had found jobs near where Poppa’s nephew’s family lived in Joliet, Illinois. Their letters were so full of hope and promise that Poppa decided we would join them. Poland was a good place, but Poppa said life would be better in America.
Malki and I were so excited. Poppa sold everything we couldn’t carry, either to his brother, Uncle Mordecai or the neighbors. We would have more than enough for the tickets to New York and starting our new life in a new country. But things also got a bit strange once everyone in town realized we were going to America.
Poppa’s sister wanted her son Hirsh to go to America with us. He was fourteen and had the same first name as my older brother Hirsh, both having been named after my Grandfather.
So Poppa said to Momma, “How could I tell her no?”
“Samuel, we can’t!”
“They are giving me the money for his ticket. He’ll go stay with her brother-in-law in New York City.”
“I said we would take him with us. No arguments, woman. It is not like we would be lying if asked the names of our children. They’ll assume my nephew Hirsh is our Hirsh.”
“What am I to do with another child on this trip?”
“He is fourteen. He is no child. If need be, he can take care of himself.”
Oh how Momma complained the next day at the market to Mrs. Bailes, who glanced over at her daughter, Alta. “Ah, Hannah, since you are already taking Hirsh, perhaps – perhaps, Alta, could come help on your trip.”
“Help?” I remember hearing Momma say. So much trouble wrapped in that single word.
When Momma came home she announced to Poppa that Alta would be coming with us to America too.
“Alta is sixteen,” Momma said. “She can watch Malki and Rose, and keep an eye on Hirsh.”
“Mutel can keep an eye on Hirsh.”
Poppa’s yelling shook the room. Momma shouted louder, I swear, I the whole house shook.
Now I don’t know how it is with other families, but Momma taught Malki and me the importance of yelling and screaming. She had been orphaned when little older than I was then. She and her brother Aaron had moved in with Great Uncle Lazer and his wife. His wife didn’t like that, so she arranged to have Momma married off to Poppa as soon as she was considered old enough. That meant Momma was fifteen, but Poppa thought her a few years older. He was twice her age.
Momma didn’t like talking about it. But she said she told Uncle Lazer and his wife she didn’t want to get married. She was too young. “Girl, they told me to just go through the ceremony and you’ll come home with us afterward. When you’re older, you’ll move in with him… They lied, of course. Malki, Rose, learn from my mistake. When you know what is right, let no one tell you otherwise. And be sure to yell really loud. They hate that!”
So Momma married Poppa thirty years ago and moved with him to Marijampole.
Momma finally yelled, “Unless Alta comes with us, Hirsh can make his own way to America!”
That brought silence. Malki and I listened harder from the bedroom doorway and heard Poppa say, “Fine. Only one problem, you have read Hirsh and Avram’s letters too. Alta cannot go to America without her mother and father – unless she’s meeting her husband or is engaged.”
“Fine! We’ll say Alta is engaged to Mutel.”
Mutel had been eavesdropping too. When he heard that and he storm into the living room and used words I had never heard before. He also swore he’d never marry! To this day he’s still not married, but neither is Alta.
So it was that we boarded the train accompanied by cousin Hirsh and my friend Alta and left Poland in the summer of 1907, beginning our journey to across the world.
The train took us to Germany and from there we took the ferry to Rotterdam. Once in Rotterdam, we made our way to the harbor and got in line at the Holland-America Line Shipping Company office. It was a long line – a very long line at the harbor.
When we came to the front of the line, Poppa showed the shipping clerks our tickets for the S.S. Nieuw Amsterdam. They wrote our names in a big book and asked Poppa questions. He told them our ages and said, “My children Rose, eight, Malki ten, Mutel, sixteen – Hirsh, he thirteen.” None of that was true, but in Hirsh and Avrum’s letters they warned that the United States was looking for immigrants who were younger and would be good workers. So Poppa lied about his age too. They scribbled all his answers down.
Alta stood there awkwardly. Poppa said, “She is with us.”
“Family?” the clerk asked, frowning.
“No, friend of family,” Poppa said as Alta watched without saying a word.
“Help with children like daughter to us,” Momma added.
The clerk frowned, looked at the ticket in her hand. “Relationship, friend… Fine,” then leaned forward. “You may have a problem with that in New York City. They do not like single women coming to their country.”
I will never forget the look on Mutel’s face as Alta moved closer to him and took his hand and raised it close to her lips, “I go with my Mutel.”
The clerked instantly smiled. “Good. Good.” He waved us on.
We were issued cards for our luggage and told to wear similar cards which we pinned to what we wore for the voyage. We were Third Class passengers, the fancy term for traveling steerage. We followed the long line of people boarding the ship, two thousand people going Third Class to America.
Once on board we were shocked to see the bunk beds stacked in rows, wall to wall, across the hold that was to house us. I didn’t know what to think as Momma and Poppa helped us settle in, making our area homier. But so many people made settling in rather difficult. Alta was no help at all. Malki and I helped her. Alta had never been very strong or healthy. Her parents wanted her to go to America because we all knew America had very good doctors, who could cure anything.
Momma’s idea of Alta watching over us was for naught. She cried all that night. First Momma awkwardly consoled her in our bunk, and then Malki said, “It will be all right.” She gestured for Momma to go to sleep and held Alta for hours until exhausted by her tears she finally fell asleep.
I fell asleep hearing the cries of many other children who like Alta, Malki, and me were leaving the lives they knew for our families’ dreams of life in America.
Mutel and Hirsh shared a bunk above Momma and Poppa. During the voyage we were allowed on deck for only an hour a day, our turn came at night. Malki traded away her old, but still lovely, shawl Momma had woven for her for the chance for Alta and me to look out the nearest porthole. We saw only waves; although, there were whispers that boys with a view of one of the other portholes had seen a mermaid. Our voyage took ten days, days that felt like an eternity under the dim lights of the hold. I will be forever grateful to Malki for that bit of kindness.
Finally the ship arrived in New York harbor. The First and Second Class passengers got off in New York City then the ship crossed the harbor. We gathered our baggage and went up to the deck. The sunlight was so bright in America. It took me a moment to realize that we had spent so much time down below, how could it be otherwise. I also remember Poppa holding me up so I could see the Statue of Liberty. People began to point and then we saw our destination, Ellis Island, the place Hirsh and Avram’s letters warned us about.
We came off the ship with our baggage amidst the thousands we had lived with during the trip. We were lined up the same way we had boarded. We walked down the gangway and were told to leave our bags as we went into the building. Momma did not want to, but Poppa was adamant. He wanted no problems in our coming to America. If they wanted us to leave our belongings, so be it.
We came to a wide stair and an American soldier with a piece of chalk in his hand was standing at the top. We were ushered upstairs and the soldier marked a number of people with the chalk. Malki, Alta and I huddled together and came up together. The soldier ignored us, but marked a woman with her hand on the rail behind us with an “I.” She was separated from our group and her little girl cried, and then went with her father. I later learned she was sent to the hospital, they thought she might be sick or something simply because she used the railing.
He marked a man who looked real nervous with an “X.” They took him to the hospital too. Malki heard the soldier and whispered, “Rose, he said something about the man being crazy.” How he knew this I don’t know. He didn’t seem crazy to me, just excited about finally being in America.
We waited in line some more and they checked under our eyes with what looked like something like a shoe button hook, then passed my family on. Finally, we came to the line of officials in black uniforms. As we came to the head of the line, the official shouted, “LEWIN!” We looked at each other confused. “LEWIN! YOU?”
“Levin,” Poppa muttered, urging us forward.
The official shouted at Poppa as we approached the desk, “HOW MUCH?”
Poppa was confused. Malki said, “He wants to know how much money we have.”
The official looked in the big book and nodded.
“WHERE ARE YOU FROM?”
He nodded and shouted, “BAILES, ALTA BAILES.”
Alta swallowed and Momma hastily pushed Mutel forward. Poppa said, “Engaged.”
Mutel and Alta looked at each other, both pale.
The official nodded his head, and chuckled, "Good luck with that." He gestured us off and shouted the name for the next family.
Malki and I giggled. We had come to America and Mutel was getting married.
Momma glared, “Quiet, you two.”
Poppa coughed. We saw him trying not to laugh. That made us laugh and Mutel whispered, “Stop it!”
I went back inside the house and held my sister’s hand. “Malki, I was just thinking about our adventure coming to America.”
We had lived in Joliet for only a short time before moving to Chicago, where my brother Hirsh owned a dry cleaners. He was called Harry now and nicknamed the “Spotter.” People came from all over the city to ask him how to get out spots. He had married Momma’s cousin, who had come over not long ago. I had gained a sister but was losing Malki, who was dearest to my heart.
Malki weakly opened her eyes, then smiled. I’ll always remember that smile and her laughter from days gone by.
Tears in my eyes I left Momma and Poppa at Malki's side and went back out to sit on the stoop. Alta saw me as she walked down the street. She came up to me, still looking very frail after all these years. “You all right, Rose?”
“I was just remembering our coming to America together.”
Alta chuckled sadly, “Mutel's apparently still afraid your parents want him to marry me.”
“Max now – only you and Momma still call him Mutel.”
She sat down beside me. We sat there in silence for a time.
When my brothers arrived, I hugged them and urged them to hurry inside. Alta dared not quite enter the room as we gathered around Malki, who left us forever only minutes later.
We buried her the next day. Alta put her arm across my shoulders as we cried during. I remember how there was a sudden breeze as the rabbi spoke, which wiped away my tears, tickling me as Malki always loved to. I glanced toward the heavens, thinking the sun was bright, so bright here in America.
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Word Count: Approximately 2330 words