Interesting Times






            In June of 1913 as the steamship Sierra Nevada sailed into New York harbor, Irmuska (a name she later Americanized to Irma), a twenty-eight-year-old Hungarian woman, stood on the deck with her three young children; Ilona, three; Laslo, two; and Kalman, a babe in arms;. Although Irma was a strong woman who had owned her own dress shop back in Arad, Hungary, she was worried about what this United States of America would be like. There was much uncertainty in her mind. Where would they live? How would she get along without being able to speak English? Would her husband find employment?

The two week voyage had been horrible. She could only afford steerage, where hundreds of immigrants were crowded into the hold of the ship. Before the ship personnel would allow her and her children to board, they needed to submit to a health inspection by the ship's doctors. The ship owners insisted on this because if a person failed his or her health inspection in America, they would have to transport them back to your port of embarkation. After Irma and the children passed the ship's health exam, they were separated from the first and second class passengers and could not board until their betters were settled in their cabins. After they were herded aboard like cattle, they were constrained to certain areas of the ship, mainly the forward section, and could only use the facilities provided for steerage passengers. Since she was traveling without her husband, she was assigned to the area for single women. Her sleeping accommodation was a bunk rack constructed of steel pipe with fabric stretched over the framework, three bunks in height. Irma slept in the lower bunk with little Karlman. The other two children slept in the middle bunk, and another woman, a stranger but one who was friendly and spoke Hungarian, took the top bunk. There were no pillows, only a thin blanket. Only two rooms were provided with toilet facilities, one for men and one for women. Irma spent hours every day waiting in the long queue. There was no sitting space or room in the passageways for more than a few people at a time. There were too few toilets, and no facilities for washing with fresh water. Although the steerage was whitewashed and disinfected in port, it quickly became filthy, reeking of old food, vomit and unwashed people. There was no privacy. The worst was in the North Atlantic when high seas caused a great many passengers to get seasick, making the crowded third class a hellhole of stink and vomit. The crew was no help. They simply shouted orders in an incomprehensible language.

After a day or two, the stench became terrible with the combined smells of. urine, unwashed bodies and vomit from the seasick. In steerage there wasn't even a porthole to open since it was below the water line. The hull plating was bare, and the steel sweated with condensation. The sound of the sea hitting the ship and the noise of so many people moaning, crying and snoring made it almost impossible to sleep.

When for a couple of days they ran into heavy seas, some people panicked from the cacophony of noise. Many more became seasick, including her two oldest children, which made the stench in steerage even worse. Except for the time Irma spent on deck getting fresh air, she felt trapped in the congested, noisy, smelly place with absolutely no privacy. To receive their meals, Irma had to stand in a long queue with the children. They were served soups or stews made from the cheapest cuts of meat from large tureens. Once they received their fare, Irma and the children sat on benches at a long crowded table.

To pass the time she watched the men playing cards or dominos. Sometimes a few musicians aboard entertained with fiddles and clarinets, playing waltzes and traditional Hungarian Czardas and other ethnic music. Some couples danced. Irma would have liked to join them, but was too occupied with the demands of her children, and had no man.  On sunny days, Irma went up on deck to get away from the stench and crowded conditions below. Despite the cinders from the smokestacks, she enjoyed the fresh salt air. Sometimes there was a moment of excitement, such as when a school of dolphins were sighted. During the journey, she had helped a woman give birth. Alas, the child was stillborn and was buried at sea after a brief ceremony.

When wind and chilling rain made it impossible to go up on deck, Irma had to suffer the stifling atmosphere of steerage. She thanked her luck stars that she had not become seasick, like many passengers who lay in their bunks for days unable to face the meals of stringy boiled beef, salt herring and thick slices of stale black bread. All the children aboard cried incessantly. There was no room, no air to breath, no way to fall asleep.

Irma also missed her mother and her two sisters, especially knowing that she would in all probability never see them again. Sometimes at night it became unbearable, and she spent the night sobbing. She recalled the sad faces of her family, friends and neighbors as she climbed aboard the train to Bremen where she met the steamship. Leaving the home she had lived in for twenty-eight years was traumatic. She had brought along little, a few clothes for herself and the children, a couple of family photographs and other treasured possessions. Everything else was left behind, the dress shop her family owned, her furniture, so many little things she would never see again.

* * *

            The passengers crowded against the rail to view the Statue of Liberty. The sight of the great lady in the harbor gave her new courage. She smiled for the first time that day. Something about the great statue emitted hope. It was like being greeted by a friend. She spoke to the three-year-old. “Look Ilona. The Statue of Liberty. Soon we will be in America and see Papa again.”

            The young child, small and thin for her age, merely stared with large eyes.

            Irma had traveled that long voyage without the comfort of her husband, Laszlo, who had emigrated the year before. For almost a year she had been on her own, with three small children to care for. She prayed that Laszlo would be at Ellis Island to meet her. The ocean terrified her. It had been frightening to gaze out day after day at the empty sea that stretched from horizon to horizon. In the forefront of Irma’s mind, there was the awful fear that the ship would sink for some reason. She had read all about the Titanic disaster in the newspapers. It had occurred the year before her own voyage on the high seas.                

            Soon there was a sudden change in the ship’s motion and the ceaseless droning of the engines quieted. Men and women from the United States Health Service came aboard and examined the passengers to ensure that no highly contagious diseases such as influenza, cholera, or smallpox were being brought into the country. After the medical people left, the Sierra Nevada sailed into New York Harbor to drop anchor at Ellis Island, where Irma’s feet would first trod on United States soil.

            The first and second class passengers were left off the ship first, which meant a long wait of another day and night on the ship for Irma. During this wait she did her best to keep the children amused and calm, although she was shaking like a leaf inside herself with a combination of excitement and dread. As the third-class passenger were finally allowed to disembark, the crew treated them like cattle, pushed and shoved them, shouting orders in English of which Irma knew only a few words..

            Finally she walked down the crowded gangplank to Ellis Island, receiving no help with the children and her luggage except from fellow passengers. She gazed around at an enormous hall. It was overwhelming, the hundreds of fellow immigrants, the size of the room, the bawling of orders in English by the authorities and the loud murmuring in many different languages. She felt faint, but took a deep breath and tried to be brave. Where is Laslo? she wondered. She did not know that she would need to endure hours of inspections and waiting before she would see her husband, who was waiting impatiently behind a barrier for her arrival.

            They were told to leave their baggage in storage on the main floor. Although Irma was fearful that it might be stolen, she left it as ordered. She checked her purse to ensure that she had her identification papers that had been issued when she’d boarded the ship in Bremen. Manifest tags were pinned to her and the children’s clothing. With the children, she climbed the flight of stairs to the second floor to the examination room. She entered one of twelve lanes that divided the crowds of immigrants into manageable queues. There were two doctors for each lane, and the immigrants were required to keep twenty feet between each other, which meant that she had to handle all three children herself. She noticed that the doctors put chalk marks on the clothing of people who limped or seemed ill in any way.  When it was her turn, the doctors examined her and the children and passed them on. The medical examination was brutal, embarrassing and painful. The doctors combed through her hair as though they expected her of having cooties. They looked in her mouth with a tongue depressor and peered into her ears. One of the worst part of the examination was when the doctors flipped her eyelid and the eyelids of the children which started them bawling loudly. She did not know that this examination was for trachoma, a disease of the eyes.

            When the awful medical examination was over, Irma was allowed to proceed down the line where the immigrants were divided by nationality as it was listed on the ship’s manifest. She waited her turn to answer questions -- name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, literacy, nationality, last residence, final destination, how she had paid for the journey, how much money she had, whether she was being met by a relative, whether she had been in the United States before, whether she had ever been in prison, whether she was married to more than one man, whether she was in the United States to do contract labor and whether she was deformed or crippled. Although there was an interpreter, he did not speak the same dialect as Irma, and she had trouble understanding some of the questions.

            Finally, all the questioning and prying was complete, Irma’s papers were stamped, and she was free to claim her baggage and continue past a partition, where the relatives of the immigrants waited. As she was brought out, she saw him, the handsome young man who was her husband. She was not allowed yet to run into his arms. Laslo was also examined and asked questions about Irma. When the inspector was satisfied, they were free to embrace. She held up the baby, Kalman first.

            With tears welling in his eyes, Laszlo held the child who had not seen since practically his birth. “He is a chubby baby. That is good. And Ilona and little Laszlo, they are getting so big.” He kissed each one, and then took Irma in his arms. They kissed passionately for a few moments. Irma felt safe in his strong arms. Finally, the agony of the voyage and the examinations were over. She burst into tears of happiness. Everything was going to be all right. She was in America, the land of milk and honey. Her new life was about to begin.

            For little Ilona, although she recognized her father, the tiny child was bewildered by all that happened since they left their home in Arad.      


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