The little boy gripped his sister’s hand tightly. The anxiety of the unknown seeped through his pores, forcing the boy to pull his hand away and wipe it on his coat. The great hall loomed over them all, its ornateness as intimidating as the men in uniforms, guiding the mass of humanity into separate lines. The little boy in all his life had never seen a building so big.
But he was glad to be off the boat. The La Savoie was a fast French steamer, with beautiful accommodations above decks, although those were for tourists. The little boy, his mother and his five siblings were most distinctly not tourists. They were refugees, fleeing Aleppo, Syria and the persecution of Jews. They made the crossing from Marseilles below decks with the mail.
The great sadness of the little boy’s mother had been pushed deep down as she tried to guide her children into this new world. She didn’t want to lose another one. She couldn’t lose another one. The face of her daughter was indelibly etched in her mind. It was in the face of other young women. It was in the face of other mothers, masking their own losses. The little boy’s mother couldn’t forget her daughter, left behind in Marseilles. Left behind because the customs agent said she couldn’t make the journey. She had failed her medical exam after being diagnosed with trachoma, a disease of the eye caused by crowded living conditions and a lack of proper sanitation. In the age before antibiotics, it often led to blindness. The cruel irony that the little boy’s sister may have contracted the disease in their passage from Aleppo to Marseilles, during the first leg of their flight to freedom, made no difference to customs officials. She could not board the La Savoie. She could not come to America.
The mother had a decision to make. Keep her family together and return to Aleppo. Or leave her daughter behind and bring the rest of her family to freedom and hope. It was no choice. As mothers from time immemorial had done, she would do what she had to do. No matter that it would rip her heart out, a piece of it forever dark. The only consolation was that the little boy’s sister would be able to book passage to South America. But for his mother, it was a small comfort. Very small. She would never see her daughter again. With just hours before the ship would sail, the little boy’s family gathered dockside. Their last moments together would be spent in tears and occasional laughter. Memories recalled and hope expressed. And then, with the unyielding hands of time working against them, they made their final farewells.
With that moment now burned into their family’s soul, the little boy, his mother and siblings, wound their way through the lines at Ellis Island, through the inspections and interviews, through the gates and into America.
The year was 1908. The little boy was my grandfather, Henry. His widowed mother, my great-grandmother, struggled with the six of her remaining children in New York City. Many saw them as degrading this great land, bringing foreign languages, foreign beliefs and foreign customs. Of course, they were just the latest wave of “polluting foreigners” to come to America. Like the Irish, Chinese and Slavs before them, they would overcome that perception and become Americans.
Henry started working full-time after eighth grade to support his family, becoming a salesman. He would eventually open his own linen shop on the boardwalk of Atlantic City, marry the daughter of Russian immigrants and have four children, all of whom he made sure went to college. They would become doctors, professors, writers and social activists. They would each have children of their own, passing down to each, as the little boy had passed down to them, the thoughts behind the words so eloquently composed many years before. Words inscribed on the statue that greeted the La Savoie as it sailed with the little boy and his family into New York harbor.
The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Of course those last lines are the ones we most remember, with their huddles masses and tempest-tossed homeless. But I’ve always gravitated to the command to ancient lands to keep their “storied pomp.” What kind of a country would willingly open its doors to homeless huddled masses, while simultaneously rejecting the glory of bygone eras?
And may it ever be so.