Home Archival Records Articles Bialystok Memorial Cemeteries
Contact Us Databases Discussion Forum Holocaust Links
Maps Participate Photo Album Publications Research Projects
Towns Translations What's New Yizkor Books  


My Trip to America

by Jean Levy Haren

I was born in Bialystok, Poland in 1913 the youngest in a family of seven children.  I suppose we were quite typical of a Jewish family in the ghettos of Eastern Europe in the years before World War I, clinging to our traditions in spite of the poor economic and political situation that existed in Poland at that time.  As one of “the tired, the poor, the wretched refuse”, we were constantly harassed and discriminated against.  It was very difficult to work, much less worship, as we wished.  My mother and father, as all parents, had a vision of a better life for their children, but realized that this dream could only be fulfilled in a free land. 

I was only a few months old when my father scraped together the money for passage to America for himself and my oldest sister, Eva, who was 16.  They hoped that with the help of relatives already there, they could both work and earn enough in a short time to send for my mother and the six younger children he left behind.  He soon saved the money for our passage, but World War I intervened and we could not leave Poland.  

During the war years, mother had a very hard time caring for us.  We never seemed to have enough to eat. There were not only bread lines, but coal was scarce and our small apartment was usually cold in winter.  Besides the physical deprivations, we were always frightened.  By 1919, the war was over and again we sought to have our dream become a reality.  By now my oldest brother Harry, who was 18, had been inducted into the Polish Army, and Morris at 17 was eligible for the draft.  The military life was harsh and brutal in the best of times, particularly for Jews, and my brothers’ army duty, for a term of at least 3 years, would have again ruined our plans to go to America.  Harry deserted and together with Morris left Bialystok for Warsaw where they hid with friends and relatives to await our departure.  Although I was very young, I remember the terror of the pounding on the door and the soldiers invading our home searching the house for my brothers and handling us roughly in the process. 

It was early in 1920 when the papers from my father arrived and we were ready to leave.  However, Harry could not have an official passport and visa because of his army status. He switched papers with my younger brother Jack who was 15 and too young for the draft.  Jack would remain in Bialystok for several months and reapply for a duplicate set of papers.  Apparently, the Polish government wasn’t too efficient, because he had no trouble coming six months later as planned. 

With great anxiety and excitement we prepared to leave.  We would take only our personal possessions, but some treasures wouldn’t be left behind.  One thing Europeans prized was the down comforter, which was the main source of warmth during the cold winter months.  My mother insisted that we take these with us.  We objected to carrying the bulky, cumbersome featherbeds such a long way, but later, were grateful to have them, for our first apartment in America had no central heating. 

We boarded the train – my mother, my brother Irving, my sister Esther, and I.   Our first destination was Warsaw where we met my two brothers, Morris and Harry, who had been in hiding.  We were happy and relieved to see them for as long as we were in Poland, we feared that one day they would be arrested and never be heard from again.  They described their terrible and anxious ordeal while in Warsaw, hiding in filthy, infested cellars and scrounging for food.  However, we did not dwell on the past for it was wonderful to be together again and on our way to a new life.  

We boarded a train for Danzig (now called Gdansk), which was then a free city on the border between Poland and Germany.  It was a long overnight ride without incident and, when we arrived, we were placed in a sort of Polish detention camp where we stayed for approximately 3 weeks.  We were questioned, examined and almost all our hair was shaved.  We were tense and on guard still frightened that my brothers could be caught and returned for military service.  Being the youngest, I was constantly reminded to be quiet for fear I would say something and imperil the whole journey. 

The next leg of the trip, from Danzig to Liverpool, was long but uneventful and we arrived completely exhausted.  For about two weeks, we stayed in a little hotel near the waterfront. From our windows, we could see many large ships.  Everyday we played a children’s game trying to guess which ship would take us to America.  It was summer and the warm days allowed us to leave our cramped quarters and walk around the city.  This was my introduction to a whole new world.  In Bialystok, we were completely surrounded by people who talked like us, dressed like us and believed like us.  In Liverpool, there were people of all colors and languages wearing strange and exotic clothing. It seemed more fantastic than any story I had ever heard. 

Our ship was the Cunard Line’s Corona, and it was quite new and very beautiful.  Like all liners, it had elegant first and second class accommodations, but like most immigrants, we sailed in steerage.  Our quarters were crowded and the food was awful, but no one seemed to mind for we constantly thought about America, our final destination, and the reunion with my father and sister. 

We tried several times to sneak onto the upper decks.  I guess the crew was accustomed to finding immigrant kids trying to slip through the barriers for we were always caught.  They tried to be kind, as occasionally I did stay long enough to catch several glimpses of how the other passengers lived.  I saw their beautiful clothes, luxurious surroundings, and more food than I had seen in my entire lifetime.  I wondered if such things waited for me. 

The enormity of our adventure did not stop us from being children (and the immigrant families in steerage had may children).  The entire ship was our playground, as we ran up and down the staircases, raced each other around the deck, and hid out in the lifeboats.   I remember my brother Irving, who was 13, trying to fish in the ocean with a can tied to a rope. I also recall vividly the day that Morris tried to throw Esther’s books overboard.

 As we sailed past the Statue of Liberty, it seemed that every passenger on the ship, of every nationality, came out to see Her.  The old and the infirm were helped to the rail. Children who were not yet old enough to understand were held on their parent’s shoulders to see Her.  No one on the Corona, who had struggled so hard, waited so long, or prayed so fervently, was about to miss that first sight.  Even in the poor, remote ghettos of Europe, everyone knew that She symbolized freedom.  Regardless of what lay ahead, this was the wondrous moment that meant we had finally arrived in America.  As the ship sailed past Her and into the harbor, people turned to look back, not wanting to let the Statue out of their sight, not wishing the experience to end. 

We arrived in Ellis Island on August 30, 1920.  We were herded into huge, crowded rooms and questioned, with interpreters translating our Polish into English.  What were our names?  Were we ever in jail?  Did we belong to any political parties in Europe?  Did we have relatives here in America who would be responsible for us?  The family still feared that I might say something about Harry’s passport but all went well. The health examinations were especially frightening.  We had heard many scary stories of people being shipped back to Europe for health reasons.  Warts, sniffles or any illness or rash struck terror into the hearts of immigrants fearing they could be denied entry into the country.  Morris worried for he had warts on one hand, so he showed only his “clean” hand.  Of course, he was passed through.

 We were finally released and we took the ferry from Ellis Island into New York City.  Waiting on the pier was my father and sister Eva.  I was so young when they left that I didn’t know either of them.  They looked nothing like the faded photographs I’d seen.  My father’s moustache was elegantly clipped, and he was wearing a modern suit, like those I’d seen in Liverpool.  I learned later that those were their best clothes and they’d saved for months to buy them.  Even today, I remember my first sight of my oldest sister Eva.  Dressed in a long blue taffeta gown with her thick, dark hair upswept beneath a large, stylish hat. She was, in my eyes, the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. She seemed every bit as magnificent as the women who traveled first class on the Corona and was the image of what my life in America would be.  It is hard to describe the joy of our family, reunited after almost seven years of fear, loneliness, oppression and deprivation. But even now, I can still feel the thrill of emotion of that day. 

My father had an apartment ready for us in Brooklyn.  It was a cold-water flat and we had to work hard for the streets were not paved with gold.  Yet the promise of the Statue of Liberty was kept.  We were here, our family was together, and we were free.  Our dreams had come true. 



  ShtetLinks   JRI-Poland


"My Trip to America" was first published in Chronicles, Vol. 22, no. 4, Winter 2003. Chronicles is a publication of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia. It is republished here with permission.

This research group, its mailing list, and this website are hosted by JewishGen, Inc. at no cost by JewishGen, Inc., the Home of Jewish Genealogy. If you have been aided in your research by this site and wish to further our mission of preserving our history for future generations, your JewishGen-erosity is greatly appreciated.

Copyright © 2004 BialyGen, Mark Halpern, Coordinator, All rights reserved.

Last Updated on 02 January 2005.