By Lillian Belinfante Herzberg
(an edited excerpt from the book: KINDNESS OF STRANGERS)
Kremnica, Czechoslovakia, with its castle, its 7 peaks, and its gold
mines was a pleasant enough place to grow up in the late nineteenth
century. This is where Erna Kohn had enjoyed a comfortable childhood.
Her professor father, Jacob, often read stories to his three daughters about
distant places and different cultures.
While listening to these
wonderful tales, Erna dreamed about boarding a ship or a train to
somewhere new, somewhere beyond the borders of Kremnica. Listening to
Jacob reading about other countries fascinated
Erna more than it did her domestically inclined sisters. She wanted
to grow up in a hurry and see these wonderful places.
Her mother Bertha could see how restless her oldest daughter was.
After talking it over with Jacob, Erna’s parents decided to give Erna
the opportunity to test her wings.
“You know, maybe you should write to my German cousin Lily in New
York. Tell her you’d like to come for a visit and see what she says.”
“Matka,” Erna said to her mother, “I didn’t know you had a cousin
“Well, she’s not exactly a cousin, but she’s in the family, so to
“Okay, I will. Now is the time to do or die,” Erna told her
mother and she composed the letter that would change her life. Notifying American relatives of the writer’s desire to
make a new start in America, was common practice and
nothing unusual in those days. The writer assumed all would be well
once the letter arrived.
“Dear Tante Lily,” Erna wrote in German, “I am Bertha’s daughter and
I am coming to America and will be sailing there soon. Will you
please put me up and help me find a job when I get there? Your
loving niece, Erna, Bertha and Jacob Kohn’s daughter.”
As it turned out she was so anxious to begin her journey she
decided not to wait for Lily’s answer. Her parents generously gave
her money toward the passage, so, she packed a few clothes, promising herself she would buy Americal clothes with her first pay check. In a second suitcase she placed a few family pictures and started on her way.
Crossing the ocean in steerage was far from pleasant. People were
lumped together in a small space under the deck. The ship hadn’t
provided enough food and fresh water for the travelers. Toilets were
inadequate. People knew enough to bring food with them, but had no
way to keep it from spoiling. By the second day, with all the heat,
the food began to rot. The stench was overwhelming. Adding to the
discomfort many of the passengers moaned and groaned when they
started to feel ill from the motion of the boat.
Finally, Erna’s ship sailed into New York Harbor, and everyone went
on deck to get aa glimpse of their new country. Many people pushed
their way to the railing to catch the first glance of their future.
“Look at those tall buildings,” one girl shrieked in her excitement.
“They look like they can reach the sky,” Erna yelled.
“See all those boats floating around,” said another. ”I’ve never
seen so many boats before.”
“Look, there’s the Statue of Liberty,” Erna screamed. “And the sun
is just now shining on her face. She’s smiling at us. Look! Oh, just
look at her. It’s a good luck omen for sure.”
She had finally arrived. Suddenly, tears of relief started trickling
down her cheeks. She looked around, and a sea of teary faces stared
back. Men hugged their families and actually sobbed aloud. What she
didn’t realize was the ordeal she was about to face.
When the ship finally docked, the first class passengers were led
aboard the ferry to Manhattan. From where Erna waited on deck she saw
how respectfully those people were being treated and expected no less.
After a long delay the people in steerage were rudely rushed down
the gangplank, yelled at in a language few of them understood and
delivered to Ellis Island. Most of these passengers were not used to
being treated in such a degrading manner.
On the Island they were marched into a great, vast hall. The noise
inside was deafening. A hodgepodge of different languages filled the
air adding to the confusion. Families desperately clung together
fearing they would be separated. In her wildest
imagination Erna was not prepared for this type of experience.
My God, we are being treated like cattle, she thought.
People were shoved into a line and cursorily examined. “Move
along. Move along, shnell, shnell,” the immigration workers yelled in
the only foreign word they knew.
“Wira gehen so shnell wie wir koennen,” told a nearby worker when he
thought the man understood German and told him they were moving as
fast as they could.
They were led to the examining station. The doctors were far from
gentle; they couldn’t take the time to be considerate with all the
people they had to see. Remarks like “oy,” and “was Sie tuend zu mir
sind” and “Quello lo fa soffrire,” people complained when the
immigration doctors jabbed them too hard.
Erna saw someone shaking his head, emphatically, insisting, ‘No, no,
no consumption in family. We all healthy.”
Another voice asked, “Insanity? Vhat please means insanity?”
Officials asked, “How do you intend to support yourself and your
family? Do you have a job to go to?’
People felt humiliated as they were marked with chalk, separated
from their families and put in a cage with other singularized people.
Erna felt frightened, but there was nothing she could do. One of the
men examining her demanded, “Look down,” and with the type of hook
women used to fasten their high buttoned shoes, he lifted her eyelids
looking for any signs of disease. “Aye,” she said
She endured the embarrassing treatment; she wasn’t going to
complain. She tried to remain calm throughout the uncomfortable
An officer at the desk asked the man standing in front of Erna,
”What’s your name?”
“My name is Hymie Finklestein.”
“’Middle name?’ he asked.
The official didn’t realize that many European men didn’t have a
Since Erna had learned some English in school, she recognized the
printed letters the clerk put down. Hymie Finklestein started to
spell his name slowly, but the emigration officer was in a hurry, and
he wrote, ‘Henry Middlemen Gold.
Smiling, Erna thought, “Hymie Goldstein would forever be known in
his adopted country legally as “Henry Middlemen Gold” his new
Authorities continued to poke and prod and ask embarrassing
personal questions to assure themselves future citizens were
physically fit and psychologically sound to become Americans. Only
after what seemed hours of humiliating interrogations, more
examinations, especially of the eyes, were many finally pronounced
worthy to leave the island for their grand adventure in America.
It was about mid-afternoon when Erna plodded along the crowded
avenues of New York City toward the lower east side,
lugging her two battered suitcases. Occasionally, she looked up in
awe at the sight of such magnificent tall buildings lining the
street. I’m here. I’m really here, she thought.
People along the way were dressed in rich colorful clothing, unlike
Erna’s conservative dark brown. It was obvious to her how different
her own appearance was from all those smartly clothed, high spirited
people she passed. She resolved to look like those “real Americans”
as soon as she could. Several times she bumped into someone in the
crowds passing by. Some people in their hurry bumped into her. No one
seemed to mind.
Erna felt invigorated, almost electrified. I know I made the right
decision to come to America. God, this is so fantastic. These people
rushing along with such energy absolutely thrill me.
It never occurred to her to be frightened even though she felt a
little overwhelmed by the vitality all around. She noticed the
differences from the old country. In Prague, unlike in this place,
the buildings carried the grime of centuries on them. Here the
buildings seemed taller and cleaner. And she saw the people -
Americans. They moved faster and looked more interesting - more
dynamic than the ones at home.
Erna stopped a woman with a friendly looking face and asked
directions. “See, address in English on paper,” she struggled in her
limited English. Difficulty understanding the answers called for real
“Please? Vhere?” She soon developed a skill interpreting sign
“Go straight for two blocks, then turn right,” the woman explained.
“Ah, right,” Erna recognized the word, but pointed left.
‘No, no, right.” When Erna didn’t seem to understand, the woman
repeated herself only louder thinking Erna would understand if she
Hopelessly, Erna shook her head. The woman drew a line in the air
with her right hand, holding up two fingers on her left hand.
“Two blocks then turn right,” she gestured once more. Then she
shrugged guessing she still didn’t make herself understood and moved on.
Erna realized she had mixed up right and left, but with helpful
strangers' fingers and hands pointing the path, she managed to find
her way to the lower east side when she knew her aunt lived.
She soon came to a residential neighborhood where some women were
sitting on their front steps to escape the heat in their rooms.
Erna’s question, “Vhere please,” brought eager responses.
“You nearly there,’ a woman with a heavy accent Erna couldn’t
identify told her, also directing her with hand gestures. Another
woman insisted there was a shorter way and walked Erna to the next
corner and seemed to push her in the direction she thought best.
At last, Erna found the building she was seeking, a wooden six
family tenement with two stores on the street level and a metal fire
escape running down the outside of the building. She saw Lily’s name
written in the slot of the mailbox with the apartment number. It was
up three flights.
The hall was clean enough, but between the summer heat and the
combination of odors from the cooking of onions, meat, fish, chicken
and garlic, the air was stifling. Erna nearly passed out. Walking
for blocks, she had lugged her two suitcases and was exhausted. She
struggled up the narrow wooden stairway dragging her luggage. By now
they felt twice as heavy. She knocked on the door.
She had memorized her introduction in English, so when the door
opened she said, “Hello Tanta Lily. I’m Erna, Bertha’s daughter.”
from the August 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine