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Letters to Leon
September 2, 1904
My Dearest Leon,
Leaving you behind that frigid summer night with those schmuzik armei manzbil was like abandoning my heart and giving it away to be beaten and taken advantage of. If only I had listened to you about making the journey to America together, maybe I would not be traveling on this ship alone to Ellis Island. Maybe we could have been Jews in the land of the free with no religious persecution. Maybe we could have finally gotten married. Maybe we could have had the son you always talked about, and he could have gone to a proper school to learn to read and write in English, and then he could have taught us to speak the language you always wanted to learn. If I had listened maybe you would not have been attacked by Cossacks that summer night, and I would not have obeyed you when you yelled to me, “Save yourself Dessa! Escape to America!” Maybe if I had listened to you earlier I would not be wondering if I would ever see you again. Every moment away from you, my love, seems like a thousand years.
When the Cossacks invaded our shtetl in Odessa, Russia the first thing that came to mind when I thought of safety was that beautiful land you told me stories of. The land, you said, where no one was harmed for being Jewish, and jobs were available to Jews, where loads of gelt was made, and there were no wicked soldiers spitting in your face and calling you “Filthy dog.” And because of these silly ideas of hope and freedom you have filled my head with, I have now spent a fort night on a grimy ship with other poor immigrants like myself as sick as the dogs that the Russian soldiers call us. We are all risking our lives on this contaminated vessel to sail toward Ellis Island, toward America, toward a better future for our generations to come.
I am ill. The only doctor I have now to treat me is God, and I pray to Her every night to heal my soul and body. My soul yearns for you, and my body craves for decent food. Because I am a nonentity, I, like all the other immigrants here, am given a filthy biscuit to eat every day. Yet, I usually break the stale biscuit in two and give one half to a sick girl who just lost her mother from this sea-disease that every one seems to have. If I am lucky, occasionally a rat will scamper down through the floor boards and I can catch it for dessert. My stomach is so hungry it feels as if people are kicking inside of me. I am constantly refraining from vomiting in the steerage for I am afraid of loosing what little food I have left inside of me, although my stomach looks quite large.
Unlike us, the aristocrats who wear fancy clothes are fed REAL beef, and must be provided with fresh fruits and vegetables to eat. They also sleep in beds on the top deck where there is sunlight, whilst about 850 of us are herded together in the dark steerage like brainless sheep. The only time any one of the immigrants goes to the top deck, is when their body is to be thrown into the sea because they have died from disease or malnutrition. I have never seen the light on the top deck, but I never wish to.
There is no kloset on this boat, there is only the plumbing of the sea. Often parents cannot get small children up to the top deck though, and the stench horew* of is mixed with the spoiled-food-vomit-perspiration-body-odor-murky-sea-water-smell. I have managed to sneak up to the stairs by the top deck to write you this letter with a sufficient amount of light. Although I sleep on a floor covered in human feces, and have not bathed in two weeks, or practically eaten, I feel most sorry for you because you are the one who is being beaten for believing in the God that is now keeping me alive.
Ich lib hobn du,
October 21, 1904
My Dearest Leon,
These past three weeks have been nothing but meschuge. I feel terrible for not writing as soon as I got to Ellis Island. I know this is what you probably want to hear most about, because you always found Ellis Island ever so interesting. And let me tell you, my experience was so much more than JUST interesting.
The grueling journey I spoke of in my last letter to you lasted over a month and a half. 850 immigrants like myself boarded the ship to Ellis Island from Odessa, Russia last summer, and this fall only 300 of us actually set our filthy shoeless feet on The Land of the Free. And we were certainly free; free from sea sickness, stale biscuits, and the unsanitary dark steerage. Yet although those aspects of ship life were extremely uncomfortable and painful, I was mostly thankful to be free from the dark, old life of hatred and violence.
As we immigrants were finally released from the bottom deck where they stored us, we mustered all the stamina we had left within our frail bodies to climb the dark stairs into the warm sunlight to get even the slightest glimpse of the Promised Land. Hopefully, that land would lead us out from our darkness into the new shining light of opportunity. I could barely make it up the stairs. I felt out of breath, and as I struggled someone had called my name. I was so completely exhausted from that minor climb; I had thought it to be the voice of God calling, “Dessa, Dessa. Come into the light, it is beautiful up here. I will help you.” It was not God. It was a precious person sent by God to aid me. It was the poor girl who had lost her mother on the journey; I used to share my biscuit with her and I had learned her name to be Melora. Melora knew a fair amount of English. She had come down to lift me, now a large woman of 18 years, being pulled upward by a girl of merely 11 years old.
When I finally reached the upper deck, I collapsed onto the soggy wooden floorboards sweating profusely. Melora spoke again, in the perceptible Yiddish language we both understood, “That is so exciting!” she was not quite making eye contact. She was staring at my stomach. “It is exciting that we will be on Ellis Island in just one day.” I agreed. “No narisch!” she exclaimed pointing at my middle. “It’s exciting that you are going to be a mame!” I now felt completely out of breath, in fact, I could not breathe. As I looked down at myself in the direction Melora was pointing it finally all made sense. How could this small kind see the obvious fact that life was forming within me, and I was so unaware? Memories of sea sickness, stomach pains, hunger pains, and exhaustion all flooded back through my mind as I sat their, now finally enlightened.
That evening, as I rested on the dirty flooring of the ship for the last time, I prayed to God. “Dear God,” I whispered, “I am so terribly frightened. I am not sure of my Leon’s safety, I am not sure of my fate, I am not sure of my baby’s health, I am not sure of much. The only thing I can be sure of now is Ellis Island. Please God, do not let my child endure the hardships of warfare like his father. Please God, do not let my child face prejudice like his mother. Please God! Let my child be a free American! Amen.” I knew the only way for my baby to become a real American was to be a citizen. My child would never be called, “Filthy dog” by anyone. I was determined for my child to be born in America.
The next day I awoke to immigrant voices singing. “Ya dada dodo di dand! Ellis I-ya-land! Ellis Island! Hoorah!” I staggered up the stairs to the top deck again, with the help of Melora and two strong men. The once silent immigrants were now singing with heart. The once crying children were now laughing and skipping off the gangplank onto the concrete ground of Ellis Island. Full-grown adult men ran off the ship and hugged the trees sobbing onto the trunks. Women kissed the ground smiling up to God. I, on the other hand was crying for an entirely different reason when I got off the ship. Sharp pains stabbed at my stomach. I grabbed my stomach and wailed. No one paid any attention to my yelping though, as they got herded away and congested together into a large building to be evaluated because it was pouring outside. God’s tears mixed with my own as I was thankfully lead by Melora to what she called in English, “The Great Hall.”
Bless that child; she held my hand for nearly four hours while waiting in a line of thousands of immigrants from all over to be examined by the officials. Her soothing could not help prevent the pain I felt inside though. As we slowly progressed through the lengthy column the only thing keeping me from crying bloody murder was thinking of you. I thought of you facing the Cossacks* with courage, so I held back my screams of pain and tried to be brave. After what seemed like years, we finally reached the top of the line. I looked up to see a tall, white man with a brown mustache. He was wearing a burgundy suite with wide shoulder pads, navy hoisn and an official’s cap. A stethoscope was around his neck and he was holding a clip board whilst checking something off with a pen. His dark brown eyes, almost black, stared at me.
I felt like I was falling, and falling fast. As my whole body started to shake I realized I was falling into a nightmare, no, a reality. Suddenly, I was then and there. I am with you that frigid summer night again. We are in my room, and we both hear the crash of the door hitting the ground. Then that man in the officer’s cap with the burgundy suite and the deep chocolate eyes stares at me. His muddy eyes follow his hands as he reaches for my waist and you punch him in the stomach. He wails and I run. I run out of breath; stinging pains hit my inner thighs. “Dessa, Dessa…” your voice was faint, but I could hear you.
“Dessa, Dessa.” This time it was not your voice calling me, but it was a man’s voice. I looked up to see the same man now wearing a plain white tattered shirt, but still wearing his stethoscope. His shirt looked as if it had been ripped apart by a lion. The man said something which sounded comforting, but I could not make out his English words. He was standing by my feet pointing to a small milk crate holding a bloody towel. I was lying flat on my back with a wet pillow underneath my head. My whole body felt wet, and a woolen blanket was on top of my naked legs. My long, ragged rekl * lay beside me, and Melora sat beside me. I sat up to find I had a pounding headache. Melora assisted me as I sat up. We were still inside the immense hall. I was aghast to see what seemed like 100 immigrants surrounding me in a large circle. One old woman, who looked to be in her 70’s was sobbing into her nostichl. I gave Melora a questioning look and in Yiddish she responded with, “This doctor was about to examine you after me. He asked you your name, and I told him Dessa. I do not know why, but you fell right onto the ground and hit your head pretty hard. You fainted, and started to give birth. You were shaking and sweating. You scared me a lot, but my mame told me to always be brave, so I was. You were screaming someone’s name. Leo was it?” she asked. I could not answer her, or even make eye contact.
At this point I was still staring at my flat belly. The crowd around me had slowly disintegrated. The doctor shooed away Melora and came around to my side holding the milk carton in front of me. He did not look as intimidating without his cap and suite jacket on. He glanced at me ever so slightly, as not to frighten me, and he shot me a half-hearted smile. He placed the small milk carton on my lap on top of the fardekn. My hands covered my mouth as my jaw dropped in reaction to the sight in front of my very own eyes. The carton held two beautiful babies lying in a burgundy suite jacket. Scraps of white cloth were wrapped around their tiny bottoms to mimic diapers. One of the babies opened his large sapphire eyes and kicked his legs into the air playfully whilst reaching out a hand toward me, his mame. He smiled up at me and he wrapped his kurz hand around my thin pinky finger.
I was about to laugh at his apparent joyfulness until I noticed the other baby was perfectly still, abnormally still. I gently touched my free hand to the female baby’s hand. The hand was icy. I quickly placed my palm on my baby’s chest; no heartbeat. I looked up to the doctor and he abruptly turned his head away. I closed my eyes in attempt to hold back the water, but a single tear managed to roll down my face, and onto my newly born baby’s heart. Even a mother’s love-filled tear drop cannot heal a broken heart. I know that one of my children might have died on this long tiresome journey, but I also know that hope will never die.
I was so absorbed in thought that I took no notice to the fact that Melora was leaning over my shoulder looking at the boy. “What’s his name?” I wiped away the remainder of my tears and thought about her question hard. I needed a name that showed everyone my son was an American. The name also had to stand for something important. As I looked around for ideas, one name hit me right in the face as I stared at a sign written in beautiful calligraphy, “Ellis Island” it said. His name would symbolize freedom and hope, and like his mame* he would be named after his birthplace. “His name is Ellis.” I proudly declared. I stood up and I lifted my healthy baby boy out of the carton and up toward a ray of beaming sunshine flooding through a sky light in the ceiling. He wiggled and giggled. I silently prayed to God again, “I am now sure of another thing; I will do everything in my power to make sure my son never sees the darkness.”
Ich lib hobn du,
October 1, 1909
Today is my birthday!!! I am five years old!!!
Mame says i am practicaly a big boy now!!! I
a birthday present!!!
Mame boughted me a box of crayons!!! I am soooooo happi!!! i am in skool, My Teacher Mises m iller sed im her bested student and Mame says i am
her bested sun. that s y im in furst graid cus im sooo smart!!! I teech mame everythin I lern at skool becus she dont no English good. Mi big sister melora walks me too skool ever
y day cus shes old. Melora is a big girl she is fifteen!!! I lern lots a stuff ther. I lern spelling and math. Mame tolded me storeez today bout wer I waz born. mame seded that is y i waz name ELLIS cus i was born on ELLIS island!!! it musta bin named after me!!! mame works at ELLIS island and I sawed the grate hall too. Ma me is a nurse ther. Mame sed she help peeple who r sic. Mame sed she love u a lot!!! Mame lovez mi and ebery nite she sayz too mi
may uneber C the darknes u aR mY free american boy. I dunno wat that meens.
i wisht I cud meet u daddy.