Visions of the American Dream danced around in my ancestors thoughts. Twelve of them took the difficult and somewhat dangerous journey across the Atlantic Ocean for a better life in America. At least eleven of them made it. Each left his or her home for different reasons. Some left to escape poverty and persecution while others desired opportunities unavailable to them in their native lands. They all had one thing in common, to reach that often spoken about Promised Land, a place where they hoped their dreams would come true.
Although many of my relatives immigrated to America, I only know a few details. I wanted to find out what it was like and found a first hand account written in the 1890’s. In the book, From Plotzk to Boston, author Mary Antin shared her experience, beginning from the time her family decided to emigrate from the small town of Plotzk in Russia until the time she, her mother and three siblings arrived in America.
Mary Antin (right) and her sister
Most of the people who lived in Mary’s small village had America on their mind. Leaving loved ones and everything familiar behind for a new life was a difficult undertaking. People in the process of emigrating were both admired and envied. Townspeople would talk about America while at work, in the market, in the neighborhood and everywhere else. Children also had ideas about a better life based upon what they heard from their parents. They even made up games pretending to immigrate. If someone from Plotzk visited America, the townspeople would gather around when he returned to enthusiastically soak up every word.
Mary’s father was the first person in the family to leave. Three years later, during the spring of 1894, enough money was saved so that the rest of the family could join him. Before the Antin family left, they gave away most of their belongings including many valuables because they were only permitted to travel with a few pieces of luggage.
When the big day arrived, half the town came to the train station to bid Mary and her family farewell. Following tears, advice, and requests from family and friends, the Antins set off by train. The only place that they ever called home and the crowd of people that they loved dearly faded into the distance.
The first stop, in Vilna was uneventful but necessary because Mary’s mother, Esther had to pick up travel documents. Mary wrote that Vilna was larger and cleaner than Plotzk. It was also the first time that she saw horse cars. She visited a bookstore, something foreign to her as well. She had never seen so many books in one place. Mary did not mention how many days it took until they were able to continue their travels but during the time-lapse, they stayed with her uncle.
In their eagerness to continue the journey, they arrived at the train station too early. The cold wet dreary morning seemed to last forever. They felt relieved when they finally heard the sound of the train whistle. The next stop to Verzbolovo (today known as Virbalis), was a long and uncomfortable eight hour trip. As they pulled into the next station, the scene changed. The sky cleared up and the sunny weather enhanced the pleasant atmosphere. A man whom Esther was talking to during the ride helped her purchase tickets for Eidtkunen, the next station along their route.
One of the greatest fears that immigrants faced during this time was the spread of cholera, an epidemic which was prevalent in Russia. It became a pandemic in Hamburg in 1892, making immigration restrictions even tighter. With that in mind, the passengers at the next depot were greeted by very serious, stern and frightening looking German police. One of men that entered the car told Esther that she and her family could not leave the train. Esther asked why but did not receive a response. A second policeman entered the train and asked where they were going. After he left, a third policeman entered with a doctor. Many routine health questions were asked along with questions about their travel plans. Then the doctor, who also served as an officer told them, “With these third class tickets you cannot go to America now because it is forbidden to admit emigrants into Germany who have not at least second class tickets. You will have to return to Russia unless you pay at the office here to have your tickets changed for second class ones.” After studying his notes for a few minutes, he continued, “I find you will need two hundred rubles to get your tickets exchanged. Your passports are of no use at all now because the necessary part has to be torn out whether you are allowed to pass or not.” Mary and her family felt helpless.
Would Mary’s dream to reunite with her father after three long years be shattered? Had all the planning and money saved gone to waste? They barely had enough cash to complete their trip and the fear that they might not make it to America was a frightening reality.
Esther pleaded with the doctor to allow them to move forward with their journey. Her appeal touched a soft spot in his heart and he allowed them to continue. He sent them to Keebart (today known as Kybartai) to speak to a well-known man that helped emigrants. His name was Herr Schidorsky.
Once they arrived at the Keebart station, Esther inquired where Herr Schidorsky lived. After traveling to his home, she waited until he was able to meet with her. Herr Schidorsky was willing to help resolve what appeared to be a complicated situation. They spent a couple of nights lodging in town, including an evening at Herr Schidorshy’s home. At the moment when the paperwork was in order, Mary and her family rushed quickly back to the train station so that they could catch the next ride out of town and return back to Eidtkunen.
When the train pulled up to the Eidtkunen station, the guards once again questioned Esther. Just mentioning Herr Schidorsky’s name was the pass needed to proceed and exit the train. After entering a waiting area in a building next to the train station, they encountered chaos and confusion. All of the luggage was aimlessly thrown into piles and the belongings of those going to America were pulled aside to be fumigated.
There was a long wait before the Antins could board the next train. This time, they were directed to fourth class boxcars. The ride was overcrowded and very uncomfortable because of poor ventilation and nowhere to move.
Their next stop was Berlin. When the passengers exited the train, Mary felt that everyone was being herded like cattle. They were taken into a small room, where they were examined and then told to remove their clothes and to shower. They were then told to get dressed and were inspected again. Throughout the journey, the Antins were charged unexpected fees for various services and this time it was no different. A man asked each person to pay two marcs for the shower that was forced upon them!
The next train compartment was even more crowded than the previous one. People were leaning against each other, elbows were in faces and knees were pushed into backs. Despite the discomfort, Mary was amused by the scene.
The next stop was Hamburg where they were asked more questions and then proceeded toward and boarded a horse-drawn express wagon. The wagon brought them to a building near the port.
The inspectors with their harsh expressions and intimidating demeanor were frightening. At every junction, fear of the unknown raced through Mary’s mind. At the final stop in Hamburg, the interrogations continued. With the ongoing epidemic of cholera in the city of Hamburg quarantine was required. Since the family came from Russia where the outbreak of cholera originated and was still rampant, they had to be detained even though they did not show outward signs of the disease.
At last the time arrived when they could go to the waiting area until their ship arrived. While in the waiting room, there was chaos, excitement, noise, fast movement, confusion, boxes and luggage everywhere, the loud whistling of boats was clearly heard, children were crying and passengers were filled with emotion.
Finally they boarded their ship, the Polynesia. Shortly after that, each person was given one plate, cup and spoon which would be used over and over again for the duration of the trip. The family traveled in steerage with the majority of other passengers.
Once aboard the ship, Mary felt a sense of calmness and peace. However, by the next day the rough waves caused many people to become seasick. The conditions rapidly worsened. For six long days, it was hard to eat and a sense of sadness overcame Mary. Memories of the past flashed before her eyes as did fears of the unknown. Would they arrive safely or fall upon misfortune? To her advantage, the anticipation of a bright future always overshadowed her negative thoughts. So many mixed emotions were at play. Mary spent much of her time in deep contemplation.
Passengers on the upper deck. The ships were always crowded and passengers in steerage lacked privacy.
During the trip, the captain and crew interacted with the passengers. Children were able to run around and play on the deck. When the sea was calm and passengers were feeling better, their spirits were high and they enjoyed dancing and singing.
On day twelve of their journey, the captain told the passengers that they would soon see land. But that never happened because they encountered a storm. During the evening of day thirteen, the storm gained strength and the waves became violent. The ship rocked intensely. Belongings broke and some people were thrown from one side to the other. The foghorn blared throughout the night making the situation very stressful for everyone.
The weather improved by the following morning but the voyage lasted a couple more days. On day seventeen of the journey, the sea calmed down and the sun was shining. They could see land, trees, birds, and homes. There wasn’t a person who could contain his excitement. After docking, Mary disembarked from the ship and immediately saw her father. However, she could not go to him. First they had to be examined and questioned one last time. Each family member passed the immigration requirements and was finally free to start a new life. After three long years without their father and husband, at last the family was together again.
Mary Antin was an author and a civil rights activist. Before the age of thirty, she published her autobiography, The Promised Land. It was an immediate best seller and was praised by Theodore Roosevelt, Louis Brandeis, and other proponents of open integration. She became an icon for the opportunities offered in America.
Mary was born June 13, 1881 in Plotzk, Russia and died May 15, 1949 Suffern, New York.
If you would like to read this short book or any of Mary’s other books, they are free and available at Project Gutenberg.