In Part I of this series I listed some of the facts I know about my grandfather’s life. In this post I have turned those facts into a story
My grandfather’s story is in many ways an ordinary story. Grandpa’s is the Eastern European Jewish version of the story, but there is an Irish version, an Italian version, a German version, a Japanese version, a version for every ethnicity. If you are African-American it is a different story. Lack of choice changes the story, but mine is the ethnic story. You know this story, briefly, oppression in the homeland, leave everything and take a boat to a new country, arrive somewhere where you don’t speak the language, live in harsh, soul-crushing poverty, survive and thrive. These stories are common, yet I find them extraordinary. A million people or more arrived in this country every year between 1890 and 1910. These were primarily Eastern Europeans and my grandfather was one of them.
Why did he come? At the end of the 18th century Catherine the Great, Czar of Russia, created the Pale of Settlement where the Jews of Russia would be forced to live. The Pale included what is now the Ukraine, Poland and other areas. The laws became more and more restrictive over time. Even within the Pale Jews could not own land, paid extra taxes and could not attend university. Eventually Russian law demanded that large numbers of Jews between the ages of 12 and 25 serve 25 years in the Russian army. Any community that failed to provide its quota would be punished. The Silvers or Silvermans, as they were known then, left Russia forever when their oldest son was twelve. In light of the alternatives emigration to America looked good, even if the streets weren’t paved with gold.
In August of 1891 the Silverman family arrived in New York on the S.S. La Champagne having left Le Havre, France eight days earlier.
My grandfather traveled with his parents, Mendel and Lina and his brother Sam. I have no idea how they got to Le Havre, most likely by rail. They may have stayed in France for a while, my father recalls his father speaking of time in France. My cousin remembers being told they spent time in Ireland. Whatever their route and whatever the delays they came through the Barge Office in New York and started a new life.
There is much more to this story and there will be a Part III.