I added stories of immigration to my Story Menu recently, inspired by some news about my Great Aunt Adah (pictured above), who died in 1981.
Adah was married to Ted Lewis, the bandleader and showman famous for his battered top hat and asking audiences, “Is everybody happy?”
I wrote a story about my Uncle Ted a couple years ago and sent a copy to the Ted Lewis Museum in Circleville, Ohio, his hometown. That began a correspondence – and one long phone conversation – with the museum’s curator, Joseph Rubin.
Anyway, I received an email from Joseph last month, informing me he had found my Aunt Adah’s birth certificate, dated November 17, 1897, in the municipal archives in New York.
“The interesting part is that her parents were from Russia – not Germany as you had thought,” Joseph wrote.
This knocked me off kilter, like Kyle in the Ancestry ad, who had his DNA tested and traded his lederhosen for a kilt.
I had grown up believing my paternal grandfather, Adah’s brother, was of German descent. It made sense, since Becker was clearly a German name.
But Adah’s birth certificate, besides stating she changed her first name from Ida, shows her father and mother both came from Russia .
This sent me on a hunt through the online Ellis Island immigration records for a Jacob Becker and a Tessie (Bessie?) Becker (nee Harris?).
The only likely suspect was a Jacob Becker who arrived in 1892 on the SS Westernland, which made nearly thirty crossings between Antwerp and New York in the late 1800s.
Though poking around the dusty corners of the Internet is often interesting and enjoyable, this excursion proved unsatisfying – not only because of the uncertainly of my findings.
I never knew these great grandparents. Never thought about them before. Now, I wanted to know so much more than can ever be found in old documents.
What was life like for them in Czarist Russia? Were they like characters from Fiddler on the Roof and other tales of Sholem Aleichem?
Were they victims of the pogroms? Is that what sent them packing?
How did they even know about the possibility of a better life in the New World?
What was the journey like from their hometown in Russia to their port of departure, whether it was Antwerp or elsewhere?
What about the voyage across the Atlantic? Was it in the stinking “steerage” of the ship?
Entering New York Harbor, did they gaze awestruck at the Statue of Liberty, standing at the rail of the ship, among the rest of the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free?
(Did the immigration inspector at Ellis Island change their names, as he did in The Godfather: Part II, where young Vito Andolini, from in the town of Corleone, Sicily, became Vito Corleone? Does that explain my German name?)
How did they find a place to live? A job? Learn English? Assimilate into the culture?
What was life like in those early years of struggle?
These are the stories, the details, that intrigue me.
Yet, for me and my family, they are lost forever. I know nothing about my other three grandparents, all immigrants who died when I was young, beyond being told they came from Austria, Russia and Poland.
And while the generation of my grandparents is long gone, successive waves of equally courageous immigrants have followed – from every continent on Earth.
So, wherever you – or your parents or grandparents – came from, I want to tell your stories to pass on and preserve for your families.