[Throughout my career as a college professor, I have collected numerous firsthand accounts from immigrants about their journeys and first impressions and/or experiences in America. This is the first of dozens immigrant oral histories i will post. I’ll begin with my favorite story, without any embellishment, about that wonderful symbol of who and what we are as a nation.]
Tanya Arden was eight years old when she came here in the early twentieth century with her mother, her older sister, and younger brother. Years earlier, her father had left Russia to begin life anew in the United States. The plan was for the family to join him in New York once he had saved enough money to pay for their steerage passage.
One night though, Cossacks invaded their settlement and, in their wild rampage, murdered anyone they could find. Tanya and her family were in the upstairs loft, preparing to go to sleep. Two Cossacks burst into the house, found her aunt and cousin who were still downstairs, and killed them. Even as they heard the screams, Tanya’s mother instructed the children to climb down the ladder outside their house leaning against the loft window.
As the family—the children barefoot—ran over the frozen ground and the small river into the woods on the other side, the soldiers gave chase. The family ran to a house where an elderly woman lived, the only Christian woman that Tanya’s mother remembered ever being kind to them. This woman quickly hid them in the back of her house, offering blankets for warmth.
The soldiers soon banged on the woman’s door, asking if she had seen any Jews. When she said “No,” one soldier threatened her, saying, “Old woman, are you lying? I’ll kill you where you stand if you’re lying to me!”
The woman, lifted the cross on her necklace and said, “I swear by all that is holy about this cross that I cannot help you.” [Think for a moment about that clever answer.]
Satisfied, the soldiers left, and the next day Tanya and her family fled to a nearby town and took refuge in a deserted synagogue, as did others. A day later, Tanya’s mother pleaded with an aid worker, who was connected to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in New York City, to have someone there locate her husband, because he would not know where they were. Fortunately, HIAS found her husband, he sent the money to them, and they made their journey to America.
As the ship entered the harbor, the passengers were on deck, cheering and crying. Tanya’s mother pointed to Lady Liberty and said, through her own tears, “Do you see that statue, children? Do you know what it means? It means freedom. Freedom! Never again will you have to be afraid of who you are or of what you are. Not in this country! That’s what that statue means.”
[More of Tanya’s story at Ellis Island next time]
[You can learn more about immigrants to Ellis Island and romance and corruption among its employees in the 1890s and early 20th century in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate and its sequel, Defenders of Freedom. Both are based on real people and actual events.]