by Magdalena Ball
The Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society is open day and night. (On the boat’s lower deck above the closed hold, it was impossible to know if it was day or night - no light entered.) Immigrant Jews should go exclusively to this Society for information otherwise they are likely to be swindled. (The trip was 70 rubles - all she had - there was nothing left to swindle.) Immigrants may use the Society as a forwarding address for letters. (No one wrote - they could not.) A physician and a nurse are in attendance. (Illness is forbidden - if you’re marked as sick you will be sent back.) Prayers take place at the synagogue three times a day. (She was done praying.) The Clara de Hirsch Home for Immigrant Girls meets immigrant women and girls at Ellis Island. (Was she a girl or a young woman - would she ever be safe?) America is a land of opportunities If you work faithfully you will have many chances (How, she wondered, in the tiny space she occupied - huddled with so many other bodies in Steerage - does one work unfaithfully?)
Much of the text in this poem comes from the Guide to the United States for the Jewish Immigrant: A Near Literal Translation of the Second Yiddish Edition (1916) by John Foster Carr, Immigrant Publication Society. This poem is part of a series I’m working on that explores my maternal great-grandmother’s migration from the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire to New York in the US. The migration took place in 1907, in which some 1.3 million immigrants arrived n the US that year, 19% of which were Jews from the Russian Empire, escaping the rampant pogroms by the Tsarist Russian secret police (the Okhrana) following the publication of the Tsar’s Manifesto of October 17, 1905. The Guide was known to be in circulation through the Pale of Settlement where my great grandmother lived before she left. I imagined her reading a well worn copy on the boat trip, which she took on her own at the age of 13, her thoughts in italics.
Magdalena Ball is a novelist, poet, reviewer and interviewer, and is the Managing Editor of Compulsive Reader (compulsivereader.com). She has been widely published in literary journals, anthologies, and online, and is the author of several published books of poetry and fiction, including, most recently High Wire Step (Flying Island Press, 2018), and Unreliable Narratives (Girls on Key Press, 2019). Find out more about Magdalena at http://www.magdalenaball.com