How My Grandfather Came To America
By Sally Rogow
Joseph Weinberger, my grandfather, was my mother’s father. He was only ten years old when he came to America. He traveled all by himself. His story illustrates the strength and determination of Jewish families to live in a land of freedom and opportunity.
Joseph’s family lived in a small town near the city of Budapest in Hungary. Joseph’s father worked in a circus, he died when Joseph was a small boy. The family was poor, but Joseph’s mother wanted her children to live in a free country and go to school and be educated. She scrimped and saved every penny until she had enough money to travel to America with Joseph’s younger brother and two sisters. Joseph was ten years old. The year was 1880.
“Soon you’ll be able to come to America too”, his mother promised. to send him money as soon as she could. Joseph stayed in Hungary with his aunt and uncle.
Josephs’ uncle owned a grocery store and Joseph helped him in the store Most of the time he worked in the cellar where the food was stored.
“People won’t buy potatoes with sprouts,” his uncle explained and gave Joseph the job to remove the sprouts from the potatoes. Down on his knees, Joseph took every potato out of the box and turn it over in his hand. If he found a sprout he pinched it off. The cellar was dark and airless, and Joseph did not like being there.
One morning, reaching into the box, for a potato he saw the black shining eyes of a rat and ran up the stairs out into the street.
“Where are you going?” his uncle called to him.
“There’s a rat in the cellar,” he yelled.
“Silly boy, You are much bigger than a rat,” his uncle laughed and sent him back to the cellar.”
Trembling, Joseph forced himself to go back to the cellar. But whenever he saw a pair of shining eyes, he ran up the cellar stairs and out into the street.
Time passed slowly. Joseph wondered if he would ever see his family again. It was almost a whole year before his mother was able to send him the money for the trip. Joseph had to take a train to Hamburg Geman where he woul d board the ship to America.
Joseph’s uncle bought him a train ticket and took him to the train station.
”You are a brave boy,” his uncle told him and gave him a bag with some food. “Just sit quietly and look at the scenery. The train will take you to the port in Hamburg Germany where you will take the ship to America.” Joseph’s uncle gave him his passport, a special paper from the government that gave him permission to leave the country, ten dollars for the boat passage and some extra money.
Crowds of people were waiting to board the train. Joseph waved good-bye to his uncle and stood on a long line to board the train. The train was a box car that had come from Russia. Inside the train, people were sitting on benches and on the floor. There was little space. It was hard for the boy who lived in a quiet town to feel calmamong so many people, but he knew he was on the way to join his family and made himself as comfortable as he could. For the first time, Joseph was not worried about rats, his mind was filled with thoughts of sailing on a big ship.
The train traveled across Germany to the port city of Hamburg. It was a long train trip. In Hamburg, all the immigrants were taken to an enclosure, where there was a large bath. Everyone had to bathe and give their clothing to an inspector.
“We search clothes for lice and make sure they are clean“ the inspector told him. Quietly, Joseph did as he was told, but his clothes now had a funny smell. The immigrants clothing was fumigated.
When Joseph came out of the enclosure, he saw a man selling caps and bought himself a salami, a loaf of bread and with the money had had left, he bought a hat with a feather. The immigrants had to board a ferry to get to the ship. The long line of immigrants moved slowly. On the ferry there were hundreds of people, nine hundred immigrants were coming to America.
The ferry pulled out of the harbor and sailed next to the ship. As they climbed aboard the ship, a woman carrying a small boy and a heavy suitcase, spoke to him in Hungarian. The little boy was squirming in her arms.
“Please hold my boy,” the woman said. As Joseph took the boy in his arms, the boy pulled the feather off his hat. “You are traveling all alone. You can stay with me.” the woman said. But Joseph wanted to get away from the little boy who ruined his hat. He did not want to stay with her. As soon as they were on the ship, he put the boy down and went to a different part of the ship.
It was a large cargo ship. The decks were crowded with people, and it was noisy. Feeling restless and uncertain, Joseph found a small space on the floor. He took his meals by himself, every day, he ate a bit of his salami and a piece of bread and calmed himself by standing close to the ship’s railing and watching the ocean waves. He knew it was to be a long trip, but he was on his way to America. and to his mother.
The ship sailed into the New York Harbor and dropped anchor. The crowd of immigrants stood at the rail. Joseph saw that that there were many other ships in the harbor. A group of men who were Inspectors climbed aboard the ship and questioned the immigrants. They had to make sure that no one had Yellow Fever or Leprosy. Sick people were not allowed to enter the United States.
Joseph explained to the inspector that his mother would be waiting for him in the harbor. Joseph was polite to the inspector who told him that everyone had to wait. He had to be examined again by a doctor. Joseph was told he passed the inspection and would be allowed to leave the ship. He was given a number and permission to enter the country.
The large crowd of immigrants were allowed to disembark in groups of 30. Joseph was assigned to a group and told to move slowly as they entered Castle Garden, the place where the immigrants were received in 1890. A few years later they came through Ellis Island.
Joseph could not wait to see his mother. As he went down the steps of the ship, he thought of all the time that had passed. He thought his mother would be an old woman.
A trim lady wearing a flowered hat approached him in the waiting room. Joseph barely recognized her. His mother called out to him and Joseph rushed to her. He was in America with his family.
Joseph went to school and learned English quickly. A good student, he read lots of books and made many friends. When he graduated, he looked for work. He became a singing waiter and a glassblower. Then he met my grandmother, Bertha,and fell in love with her. They were married in 1889.
Bertha came to the US when she was an infant. The family came from the Austro Hungarian Empire. Her father worked for the synagogue. Bertha and Joseph had four children, two girls and two boys. They lived in the Bronx. To support his family, Joseph decided it was best to own his own business and he established a laundry business.
from the October 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine