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
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
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.
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
* * *
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
The young child, small and thin for her age, merely stared with large eyes.
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
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
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..
she walked down the crowded gangplank to
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
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.
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
little Ilona, although she recognized her father, the tiny child was bewildered
by all that happened since they left their home in