Barbara Balaj writes about her trip to Ellis Island in honor of the 70th anniversary of her parents’ arrival in New York.
As the date of the 70th anniversary of my parents’ arrival in New York approached, and after so many trips to New York, I thought it was finally time to visit Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
On the ferry to the islands and during the visit, I was struck by the multitudes of foreign tourists – catching bits of Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian and Spanish. It was heartening to see these visitors from around the world, witnessing the best of the spirit and history of America as a nation of immigrants. This was the America taking in the bereft and the broken to build new lives in a young and free country.
After the war, my parents, Manya (Maria) Waskobujnik Balaj and Boruch (Ben) Balaj, made their way west from Chelyabinsk, USSR, through Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria, eventually arriving in Germany. When traveling through Vienna, they spent several days in the Rothschild Palace, which had been opened to refugees. They slept on the floors, gazing at the splendorous remnants of a once magnificent home. They then spent several years in Displaced Persons’ (DP) camps in Wasseralfingen and Wetzlar, Germany.
An exhibit at the Ellis Island Museum reminded me of the reason they were finally issued a visa to the United States. The U.S. Congress had passed a special Displaced Persons Act in 1948, authorizing the admittance of 200,000 DPs. They then sailed from Bremerhaven, Germany on the US military ship, the General Harry Taylor, landing in New York on Nov. 7, 1949.
The exhibits and photos highlighted the many waves of immigrants throughout US history, documenting their lives and struggles. There were photos of Southern and Eastern European immigrants living in squalor and poverty, huddled together in small, dark, rundown New York tenements. The photos show the haunted and frightened faces of immigrants working 10-12 hours a day, six-seven days a week. The exhibits showed that immigrants were often employed in the most physically demanding, difficult, dirty and low-paying jobs — working as carpenters (“$3.75/day”), miners (“$2.50/day”), and farmhands (“$5/week with room & board”). And to think that this was better than what they left behind!
My parents bought a used Singer sewing machine in Germany and loaded it with them on the ship to America, thinking that my father could work as a designer and shoemaker, as he had in Poland. He eventually established his own business in Detroit, toiling those long, hard immigrant hours. Born in 1915 in a one-room, clay-floor house in the kleyn shtetl (small town) of Koretz, Poland, my father eventually moved his own family to a beautiful four-bedroom home in suburban Michigan.
Ellis Island displays many documents about the struggles of new immigrants to learn English and assimilate into American life, building their families and pushing their children to take full advantage of unimaginable opportunities in the places from which they originated.
With the outbreak of war, neither of my parents was able to finish their schooling. With only two weeks of English language lessons upon their arrival in Michigan, my mother and father struggled with English, their sixth and seventh languages, respectively. However, they greatly valued and supported education, and were so proud of their three college-educated children. Their family grew, and they were able to enjoy many years with their three beautiful and much beloved grandchildren.
When touring Ellis Island, I also remembered the surprise I had uncovered some years earlier while searching the Ellis Island ancestry records. There were the details of my paternal grandfather’s ill-fated exodus to America. My paternal grandfather, Tevye Balaj, aged 28, arrived in New York from Glasgow, Scotland on the S.S. Furnessia on Aug. 15, 1905. He moved to Boston for a year, where he joined his brother-in-law, who had come to the US some years earlier. Tevye did not find American life to his liking, missing the traditional European Jewish life of Koretz, then part of Russia. Instead of bringing the family to America, tragically, he returned to Russia only to face the eventual destruction of the family — except for my father who managed to survive after being deported to Siberia.
My parents survived Hitler, Stalin, World War II and the Holocaust. They created a loving family, finding a piece of the American dream. They fulfilled the promise embodied in the Statue of Liberty, the “Mother of Exiles,” in the words of the famous sonnet by Emma Lazarus.
Over the years, I recall my parents repeatedly saying, “This is the best country in the world, and don’t you forget it!” And as my mother said in her later years, “I came to this country with empty arms, and now they are full.”
Barbara S. Balaj, PhD, a native of Michigan, lives in Washington, D.C., where she works for the World Bank Group, a United Nations specialized agency, initially created to rebuild countries devastated by World War II. The World Bank now provides loans, grants and technical assistance to over 100 developing countries around the world.