In Part I of the saga, “Coming to America Through Hamburg and Liverpool,” in AVOTAYNU, Vol. XXII, No. 4, (Winter 2006), pp. 15–22, we tracked the six Boonin children across Europe to Hamburg, their crossing of the North Sea, their train trip to Liverpool, England, their travails in Liverpool during the Transportation Strike of 1911, and their eventual departure from the Old World. This article picks up as the S.S. Dominion leaves the Mercy River for Cobh, Ireland. Now we learn how the immigrants lived on the steamer crossing the Atlantic. This article relies exclusively on my Uncle Leon Boonin’s memoir and my thoughts [shown in brackets].
Some nostalgia must have crept into my uncle Leon (Laibel) Boonin’s memoir, written between 1940 and 1944, about 30 years after the crossing. How much, I don’t know. Some stories in Leon’s memoir strike me as true, but they certainly fly in the face of other descriptions of Atlantic crossings. Following are excerpts from his memoir:
We were very happy when the ship raised anchor [on September 1, 1911, at Liverpool, England] and got under way. We were beginning to settle in our new quarters while all the steerage passengers were excitedly running about their quarters and on deck making new acquaintances and renewing acquaintances made earlier on the trip.
The following day we began to notice the poor food served us and also that many people had brought with them bundles of all kinds of fruits and other edibles to supplement the diet. [They were sailing on a ship of the American Line.] We had not brought with us anything extra in the way of food because we feared that we might again be rejected and thus prevented from sailing. But our steamer stopped at Cobh, Ireland, to take on more passengers. The tender also brought vendors with fruit and bakings [sic] to sell. A large crowd—myself among them—flocked to that side of the boat to purchase the precious wares. [It appears logical that most families would have heard from friends and relatives who made the crossing that the food on board was not first class, and they brought their own food. This appears to have been the rule.]
Leon got nowhere trying to buck the crowd. At this point, his 14-year-old sister, Sarah, who you may remember from Part I, was surrogate mother to her five-sister-and-brother shipmate siblings, said:
“Where are the things that you bought?” I, of course, tried to explain that I could get nowhere near the vendor in that crowd. But Sarah was not dismayed and quickly sizing up the situation she yelled: “Let me have the money.” I handed her the handful of change that I had in my hand and she disappeared into the crowd. [Leon did not think she would be successful.] But to my great surprise Sarah shortly re-appeared carrying her apron full of fruit and cakes. She said that she had spent all the change I had given her and added that she could have bought more had she had more cash.
My uncle’s comment did not focus on his sister’s success. He wrote:
The above described incident might illustrate Sarah’s youthful resourcefulness, as she has through all these later years lived up to her then established record of having been able to dispose of all the money in her possession with the greatest of ease, regardless of any difficulties involved..
I find a deeper lesson here. Most of our female immigrant ancestors were tough, in business and with the family. Some might think this toughness came from years behind the counter in some little store in some backwater town in America or in a shtetl in Europe. But the toughness, resolve, practicality and resourcefulness of these women in the face of anything may have been bred into them or learned at a very early age, much earlier than we realize. It may have had nothing to do with their having scads of children later in life.
Leon then continues his story about the food on the ship:
The extra delicacies did not last us very long, and we were soon compelled to make the best of the matter and to subsist on the regular ship’s meals. Certain food items, such as sugar and fruits, were served in miserly quantities, and those who were a little slower in their eating habits very often failed to receive their due share. This very soon developed into a rush for scarce foods, and everyone tried to grab them when served.
This state of affairs put us at a great disadvantage because our family was not used to such rough methods. We tried to complain, but our difficulty with the language and the general treatment we had been receiving were convincing enough proof that we could not expect much consideration for any improvement in matters.
Just when our situation appeared to be most discouraging, we chanced to make the acquaintance of a fellow immigrant by the name of Abe Resnik. Our children called him the “Soldat” [soldier] because, as he told us, he had just completed his four years of military service with the Russian army and was now on his way to America. The “Soldat” was tall and well developed physically—really taller than average, broad shoulders, with fair complexion and rosy cheeks and of an athletic build. He came from a little hamlet near our town and took a fancy to our family. The “Soldat” was rather quiet and reserved in his manners, but his ability in obtaining the much coveted delicacies at the dining table was remarkable. Our children were quick to appreciate the “Soldat’s” company and he soon became like one of our family, and proved to be very helpful to us.
It was surprising to us to notice how the “Soldat” managed to grab the things at the large dining table for our children with such comparable ease. Then, too, he told us many interesting stories of army life and explained that he had learned his rude table manners during his four years of
soldiering. He explained how the soldiers had to resort to all kinds of methods in eating. Each soldier owned his own wooden spoon which he carried with him stuck in the side of his upper part of his boot [choliava] at all times. The more resourceful ones of the soldiers possessed a large size spoon shaped to fit his own mouth, for the purpose of making each spoonful count, as a number of them were made to eat from the same large bowl. They also trained themselves to swallow down food that was still boiling hot such as kosha and borsht which were the two main staple dishes of the Tsar’s army. He said he used to be half starved in the army until he mastered and adapted himself to the soldiers’ eating methods.
A number of humorous incidents resulted directly from the methods that some of the men used in trying to help themselves to extra portions of scarce foods and to save it for later use. Sugar was served to us very sparingly and at times we could not get any at all for our tea. So some grabbed sugar from the table and quietly put it into their pockets for possible later use.
One afternoon, as we were leaving the dining room, and following the people toward the stairs leading to the upper deck, the man in front of us tripped and fell on the bare wooden steps. As he slipped downwards, a mass of granulated sugar fell from his coat pockets. The sugar falling on the wooden steps caused them to become quite slippery and the man continued rolling downwards with the sugar still pouring from his pockets until he was at the bottom of the stairs. We could not control ourselves and burst into loud laughter and continued to make fun of the incident for the balance of the voyage.
Many descriptions of crossing the Atlantic are of a negative nature. Whether that is because the narrator may have been older or because the weather was poor or the sea rough, I do not know. This description I believe to be more in tune with the facts, for most of those we see on ship manifests were youngsters, coming to America to make their fortune.
Most of the young people among the immigrants came from small towns and villages where they lived under strict moral codes in their social relationships. Boys and girls were kept from associating with each other. Such customs as having a “date” with a girl [with the knowledge of one’s parents] was unthinkable. And the idea of a girl bringing or inviting a “boy friend” to her home was unheard of and would have brought shame to her family. The young immigrants thus found themselves on their way to a new home (aboard the S. S. Dominion in 1911) enjoying for the first time complete freedom of action in their relationship with each other. “We spent most of our time together on one of the ship’s decks on which only steerage passengers were permitted. At nine o’clock in the evening, we would be chased off the deck and ordered to retire. We were not allowed to assemble in any other place on board ship.”
We can see here the freedoms offered by America were already taken advantage of long before the immigrants reached Ellis Island or other ports of debarkation. And we can see that the thoughts of the young immigrants were not directed to the weather or the seas, but as you and I would think, toward the opposite sex. Although the sea and the sky may be magnetic attractions for some, as we shall see, the pull of the evening moon is stronger.
One evening, after having spent our time together in groups on deck enjoying a bright romantic moon, we were, as usual, ordered off deck at the regular nine o’clock curfew and retired to our rooms. [Note that at this time steerage passengers were in rooms.] The rest of our family [Laibel’s five younger sisters and brothers] was already asleep in their bunks and I was making myself ready to retire when I heard a light tapping at my door.
As I opened it, there was one of the young ladies who was with our group on deck that evening and was traveling together in company with her parents to America whom we might call Miss X. [Even 30 years later Laibel would not identify who Miss X was.] She quietly edged her way inside and closed the door. She was dressed in her bedroom slippers, as she later explained, in order not to arouse her parents. Miss X came up very close to me and in a hushed voice naively said that she could not possibly retire so early this evening and suggested that we could have a game of cards together in my room. I was taken completely by surprise at Miss X’s bold approach [Laibel was learning a lot on his trip to America] and at that moment did not know how to act.
Miss X’s almost pleading gaze prevented me from being rude to her, and (considering I had my own youthful feelings in the matter, for she was quite good looking) made the situation very delicate. However, the many experiences of our long journey had taught me much in the way of making quick decisions. So, I asked Miss X to have a seat by my cot while I should go out to get a deck of cards from a friend, and I promptly left the room. I went straight to Mr. Resnik’s room where I found him making ready for bed. I told him that I urgently needed him to come to my room at once. He quickly joined me and I told my story to him while we walked toward my quarters.
Mr. Resnik was one of our group and, of course, needed no introduction to Miss X. I then remarked that a three-handed game would be more interesting, therefore, I had asked Mr. Resnik to join us. Miss X and I sat on my empty cot and Mr. Resnik seated himself on the edge of the opposite cot where one of our children was asleep. We placed a suitcase in place of a table and proceeded to play a Russian game of cards, one similar to pinochle. Miss X did not show much interest in the game and instead she edged close to me and tried to have fun looking at my hand and showing me her cards. We played for about an hour, then I used as an excuse that we might disturb the children sleeping and got Mr. Resnik to escort Miss X to her room. So, the incident ended without undue embarrassment to anyone.
Are you, dear soul, satisfied with the ending of this story? Did Laibel do the right thing? Did Miss X? Did Resnik? Was it important to do the right thing? Who judges the right thing? What standard do we use to measure the “right thing”? I believe that this was a typical immigrant encounter with freedom. In the coming years, the immigrants would have to make their own decisions on many such matters. The children of the immigrants and the grandchildren could look back to standards set by the elderly family members, but who did the elder family members look to?
So the S. S. Dominion plowed ahead through the Atlantic.
We continued our voyage,” wrote Laibel, “without marked incidents. The steamer’s name was Dominion. It was an old crate. I can still remember how uneasy we all felt as we listened to its squeaky sound when the ocean became rough and rocked the ship madly. Later, the ship was sunk by enemy action in World War I.
And as they neared their final destination, Resnik’s easy- going ways took on a more serious turn and at time he “appeared worried.”
I at once suspected that something was troubling him [Resnik] and asked him to tell me what was wrong. Resnik at first tried to dismiss my query by saying that I was having enough of my own family troubles to think about at that crucial time. His reference to my own family was directed at the expected difficulty that we all anticipated in our final contact with the immigration officials. Resnik’s reference—to the fear of entrance restrictions—revealed to me that he also might be worried about some involvement with the immigration laws, and I told him that surely with his apparent excellent physic he had no cause to worry about being barred from landing in America.
But Resnik reminded me that there were also other restrictions besides having to have good health and eyes free from trachoma. He called my attention to the fact that each adult passenger was required to have twenty-five dollars in his possession upon entering America. [The articles on this subject are legion.*] This he confessed he did not have, and added that this problem of the (fifty rubles) twenty-five dollars, was the cause of his anxiety. I, at once, offered to help him solve his money problem and suggested that I could advance him the required sum and he might return it to me after we all had landed. But my suggested plan did not appear practical simply because he could be passed on and admitted as soon as the boat would dock, while our family might be detained by the immigration authorities for some time.
I then asked Resnik to let me have the address of the place to which he was expecting to go in Philadelphia, and I could call there so that he might return the twenty-five dollars. But this arrangement also proved unworkable because Resnik explained that he had no address at all in Philadelphia, and that he had a younger brother in Atlantic City, but had lost his brother’s address. Then, too, he was reluctant to accept the money from me as we were, after all, complete strangers and had only met by chance. I finally dismissed Resnik’s objections, gave him the money required together with my own Philadelphia address, and wished him a lucky landing.
We end Part II of this saga with a wish for a “lucky landing.” That is not a wish you hear much of in immigrant literature, but those were probably two of the sweetest words that an immigrant could hear. The ship headed into the mouth of the Delaware Bay.
*The oft-rumored requirement for each immigrant to have $25 upon landing had some validity to it, a little bit of lore, and a whole lot of misinformation. One of the best books that delves into the $25 requirement as it was applied in New York at Ellis Island and other U.S. East Coast ports is Keepers of the Gate: A History of Ellis Island, by Thomas M. Pitkin (New York: New York University Press, 1975).
Harry D. Boonin, the founding president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Philadelphia (in 1979), served as its newsletter editor for four years and is currently involved in the Society’s exciting planning for the 2009 summer conference in Philadelphia that will take place August 2–7, 2009.