Ruth Ticktin: In The Same Boat
Image: Unsplash, downloaded (https://unsplash.com/photos/VZDNhQy6pRY) 17.12.2022.
Departing began with Semso’s move into the home of Georg, his former boss, his current father-in-law. At a meeting with the welfare officers, Semso and Georg identified a ship set to sail, bound for New York the following month. Dreamlike weeks followed the move and the meeting for Semso. For the first time he was lovingly taken care of. Refusing to consider what lay ahead; he basked in the attention he was receiving. Despite pressures and the unknowns, Semso walked those days with his head up. He floated, stepping outside of his tense body. Embracing the Post-Great-War future, he headed to the clean palette of another world.
“Mati told me to be patient with my novo sposa.” Olga, Semso’s dear bride, told him of the conversations she’d had with her mother. “She said your relaxed manner is good. I am to enjoy the warmth we share. Mati assured me that together we will figure out the rest.”
“Yes, I promise,” Semso took her hand in his. “Our life together will progress to perfection.”
Mati spent hours teaching Semso and Olga important lessons about life. She advised them to eat as soon as they awakened, at least some bites of bread, always with a hot drink of coffee or tea. She told them to never fold clothes if still damp; always keep head, hands, and feet warmly covered up when outside. Painstakingly, she showed them where to hide their money and their important papers. They sewed pockets inside their inner clothes for their secret stash.
Georg showed Semso a map of Europe and pointed to the roads leading north to the port. He gave him Dutch guilders and explained how they compared in value to the Italian lira, now used in Trieste. Semso had little understanding of any currency and no memory of the kruna of his childhood, having gone from childhood to war to work at the warehouse. Georg patiently answered Semso’s many questions, reminding him to always be polite with authorities just like in the army. He spoke to Semso, like father to son, about borders and the need to be clear and truthful at all times.
“I’m more afraid of the unknown territory across the ocean than the European guards we may encounter on the way.” Semso was practicing truthful speaking. His father-in-law, Georg, continued providing tidbits about the way of the world that he knew. Semso listened, wishing details could erase the worries seeping in, taking comfort from his in-laws’ care and loving from Olga.
“Take with you this memory,” Georg said, “You will travel from Trieste, a territory of gloom to America, a place of bloom; to a land untouched by all these warring empires.” Words Semso would remembered for years. Roaming the tracks of his heart, he wondered, “Why was gloom to bloom, sjeta do cveteti, never actually true?” Instead, fate dictated a return lap on the track for Semso, from bloom to gloom.
In bed, Semso and Olga spoke to each other quietly and kindly, whispering throughout the night.
“I want to cry when I reflect on our departure from Mati and Papi,” Olga told Semso. “We must not cry when facing them. We will display only our bravery.”
“Injured on the inside, yet strong on the outside.” Semso muttered. “I wish to practice this, to not be afraid of the future, of the new land, of anything.”
They were handed documents, such as they were, from the non-existent Austro-Hungarian Empire, with birthplaces noted.
“Trieste,” officials assured them, “though united with Italy, still has no signed treaty. However, your papers are in order.”
The plan was – bus to Munich, transfer, and bus to Rotterdam. Semso proudly showed Georg a small dictionary given to him in Slovenia when the army was gathering numerous new recruits for the regiment. The book translated Slovenian to German.
“I never used this, but now I can request black tea or bread as we travel.”
“You will need to use their money, marks and guilders and then dollars.” Georg noticed Semso’s forehead form lines and his eyes squint. “You my son, are steady and practical, I know this. Your little book will help. You mustn’t be timid. Ask, and good humankind will offer assistance.”
Semso and Olga departed for good on the morning of October 17th. Semso looked up at the gray sky, having rained the previous evening. He turned away from the sad clouds towards Olga, puffy faced and teary. Semso carried the two big suitcases, and Olga carried the two smaller bags. On the first bus, heading into Austria, Semso pointed out the striking mountain vistas to Olga. Her lack of interest in scenery or in eating, caused a pounding in Semso’s chest. In Munich, waiting two hours for the next bus, Semso again encouraged her to eat. She explained, “Food will make me vomit.” He bought Bavarian wafers, which she nibbled and drank black tea as he paced the bus depot.
On and off they slept on the stuffy night bus riding north. In the early morning light, Semso saw the Rhine River to his left. He knew, from studying the atlas with Georg, they were getting closer to Rotterdam. The bus stopped frequently in the dawn hours, filling up with passengers by arrival time in Rotterdam. Achy, they got off, retrieved their valises, and were herded together with others. Like an army march, but with women, children and baggage, they followed en masse to a warehouse for Holland America Line travelers. Inside, the fifty of them from the bus, joined several hundred others traveling steerage to New York. Sitting on their bags, they waited amid chatter, groups buzzing, babies crying and baggage scraping on the floor. At the end of daylight Semso and Olga were called up for inspection. Their papers were checked quickly, and the word “Slavisch” was stated by an officer. Another checked for disease, poking a flashlight into their throats, noses and ears. Officials speaking a West Slavic language, possibly Polish, questioned them about health. Olga requested an orator of Italianski. When Olga returned from a private clinic room with a bottle of pills, she thanked Semso for waiting. She explained, patting her stomach, that the antiemetic medicine should help her sickness. “And the doctor said this is safe for me to take.” Semso nodded believing that he understood the implication. He smiled at her middle, to the one coming along for this voyage.
As they gathered their belongings, Olga said, “I heard officials say we must wait until morning for steerage passengers to be allowed to board the steamship.” Semso noticed groups scrambling for spaces to lie down, using their valises to claim sleep areas. He looked around and didn’t recognize any of the bus passengers. He headed left towards a corner that appeared less crowded.
They found space next to a family, parents and their adult children. The two couples reminded Semso of Georg, Elena, Olga and himself. The men both wore glasses, and the women were dark haired. The younger woman welcomed them with “hah-lo” and a good evening that sounded like dober vecer, but with those extra /ee/ sounds. The accent reminded Semso of some of the soldiers from the north who had joined them on the Italian Front.
Semso nodded to the family in greeting and lay down his coat for Olga with the valise behind for her support. He sat, exhaled and took Olga’s hand. She leaned over giving him a kiss on the cheek which strengthened his spine for whatever lay on the path ahead. Glancing at the woman next to Olga, he considered her like a younger sister to his mother. Her striking black eyes and eyebrows familiar, yet he could no longer picture his mother. She introduced herself, “imie Sarah,” and then her husband, mother and father. The husband was sitting behind her and had his face in a book. The mother was busy packing or repacking the valises and the father was also reading or possibly praying. He wore a hat and had a short beard, but seemed to be wearing modern clothes, Semso noted.
Semso heard Olga’s side of a friendly conversation with Sarah, speaking slowly and clearly. “Oh yes, I have a new spouse also… Your uncles are in Pennsylvania? I have a family clan there too.” As they talked Olga gained confidence in her own decision by hearing of Sarah’s circumstances. The father came over to Semso and suggested they walk to get tea for their families. He introduced himself as Efraim, in a gracious manner similar to Georg, yet there were differences. Efraim spoke clearly in an educated voice with pauses to digest the deep thoughts between sentences. “All of my brothers, and even my mother already immigrated to the US. But I wanted to stay in our small Polish village. My brothers succeeded in business in America. They insisted again and again that we must join them. Finally, I had to agree.” Efraim’s tone deepened to a raspy seriousness while speaking of the conflicts in Europe after the Great War and his fears for disregarded ethnic groups and the Jewish people.
Semso and Efraim returned from their walk and sat behind the women drinking their tea. Semso turned to Sarah’s husband and Efraim.
“I wish that my wife’s parents had travelled with us, like your family. This is so lovely.” Mumbling through his gravelly throat, “lovely that you are together.”
“My son,” Efraim came over to place his arm on Semso’s shoulders. “Do not be sad, for the joy from God is your strength, as the prophet Nehemiah says. My prayer for you is, may you discover satisfaction from Adonai our God.”
Semso exhaled with a sense of relief. He thanked Efraim and went to sit with Olga for the remainder of the night. They whispered with each other briefly and closed their eyes.
All too soon they were awakened by sounds of people all around them engaged in bustling activity. Packing, pacing, calling out, eating, up-and-down chaos rang in the air as everyone prepared for another long day. In and out of the warehouse they watched as the first and second-class passengers embarked. Semso had never imagined the magnitude of the steam ship in front of him. The smokestack and masts reached the clouds. He walked around to examine the workers on the deck, fascinated by the tasks they had to do. In painstaking step by step actions, their duties were completed in a prescribed organized order. One group of stevedores tied parcels and knotted them securely. The parcels were passed along the line of stevedores who loaded the items from the dock onto the ship.
Sarah and Olga continued talking, walking to the bathroom, and preparing meals together throughout the day. In the late evening, the third-class, double the number of 1st and 2nd class passengers, was given the go-ahead to board. The women had managed to get adjacent cabins. Each cabin had two bunks, bedding for four. The Efraim Sarah family were in one cabin and Olga and Semso were in a cabin with two young men, brothers from Vienna. Both cabins were assigned the same shift in the dining room.
Over the next eleven days, the three groups became a larger family that shared fears and hopes. Over meals they discovered their commonalities. All were leaving a known life for an unknown future with a promise of opportunity. At the first breakfast, Sarah’s husband conversed with the two brothers speaking in German, which the other corner of the table didn’t understand. Olga told Semso later that Sarah’s husband had been a German teacher and was proud to be able to speak with them. Sarah’s husband was glad to leave his hometown and hated Poland, but seeing the brothers made him miss his own brothers. All of his siblings were in the process of departing Europe – for South Africa, to Palestine, America or on down to Mexico. The brothers told Semso that they didn’t hate their Austro-Hungarian birthplace, but they did fear a continuation of war in Europe.
Semso found the translation book that he’d received as a soldier and showed it to the brothers when they were all together at the dinner table. The soldiers explained that in fact they were not from Vienna, but had gone there after serving in the army. They were able to talk superficially about their experiences in the war. Semso and the brothers had fought for the same empire, but they had been stationed in opposite territories. The brothers fought up north in Galicia against the Russians. Semso told the group that he was in Slovenia on the Italian front, fighting the battles of Isonzo, and eventually captured by the Allies.
Sarah’s husband interrupted, “Why were you there? Where are you from?” Threatened, Semso stood up, managed to utter, “scusi” and left. As he walked up the stairs to the upper level, he was surprised at the question and his reaction. Did this man feel a hatred for Poland that was so different from his own emotions? He could not remember persecution in Bosnia, nor in Trieste. Semso began talking in his head to Georg and Elena. Certainly, we were poor but so was the community around us, no? Thinking about non-judgmental Georg and Elena and missing them, Semso turned his palms up questioning why.
Pacing laps on the ship’s promenade, upset from what was said at the dinner table, Semso sensed the presence of an elderly man breathing heavily next to him.
“Oh, hello Efraim,” he said surprised to see his table-mate had made it upstairs from the steerage-class dining room so quickly.
Putting his hand on Semso’s arm, Efraim asked, “Shall we continue walking? But at a slower pace please.” Looking at Efraim’s kind eyes, Semso nodded together with a slight lift of his lips.
“I apologize for the offensive words said at dinner.” Efraim spoke clearly, “I believe no insult was intended. The negative tone however, with this bad habit of making assumptions of people based on where they come from, is unacceptable. Without prejudice, people must care for one another. You see, we are all in the same boat.” Shrugging his shoulders, Ephraim continued.
“Maybe we can learn from this story. Since before the Great War, the small towns in our region have been overrun with Russian bandit armies, looking to make trouble. About two years ago, an armed group of these robbers came to my home, where I was teaching a few students, and they took me hostage. Thinking that I was a wealthy president of the Jews in our little village, they announced that there was a ransom on my head. I was taken away, a prisoner. My captors traveled from town to town, dragging me with them. I had little to eat, mostly bread. I prayed yet I remained worried sick; uneasy day and night. More than five months later I was in a shack, I don’t know where. The guard told me I had visitors. I was led outside where the leader of the bandits stood in front of my wife. “Rochel-leh, a miracle,” I whispered, stiff in shock. The leader turned to Rochel-leh who handed him the ransom money. He praised her briefly, then lauded much praise on himself for keeping his promises.”
Having walked around the promenade a couple of times, Efraim motioned to the chairs. Semso helped him over to the corner, away from the stairs, and sat.
“I later learned,” Efraim spoke after some deep breaths. “My wife had left our daughter, Sarah, in charge of the home and the store. My courageous Rochel-le had been on the road raising money for several months. She’d found sympathetic Jews in several towns and managed to follow my captors, gathering funds along the way. People didn’t know me but they listened to Rochel-leh speak, “Getting ransom money for the bandits is the only way to gain freedom for my husband, a teacher, shopkeeper, and father.” She pleaded, traveling down south and back north; from the Dniester River to the Narew River. Money in hand, she found me in Grodno, three-days travel by horse and buggy from home. I am forever grateful and in awe. Rochel-leh is truly a woman of valor, for eternity.”
“Yes.” Semso sighed, “A most heroic woman. She will make sure the family succeeds in the new land.”
Efraim turned to look Semso in the eye. “The Jewish people are a receptive community. We must remember. We were banished centuries ago. All having picked up slightly different customs from various places, wherever we landed.” Ephraim shook his finger. “Yet we are all basically alike in our beliefs. Hear O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One.”
Semso recited the second sentence of the prayer in sync with Efraim, in similar Hebrew with slightly different accents, “And you shall love Adonai our God with all of your strength, and with all of your heart and soul.”
Sarah came over to the section on the promenade where they were sitting. Advising Semso that Olga was not feeling well, she told him, “Go down to your cabin.”
Olga was lying there, nauseous and dizzy on the cot. She continued feeling poorly for the rest of the week on board the ship. There were times of day when she could walk around, talk and eat with the others, but then she would get sick again.
“Nothing helps.” she told Semso. “I know this will pass, my love. Please, you mustn’t worry about me.” And Semso decided not to worry. Instead, he soaked-in the miraculous caressing and caring that they shared.
Upon arrival in New York, inspectors came on board checking everyone again for disease. More hours passed until the steerage passengers were able to leave the cabins and bring their belongings with them out of the boat and down to the pier. A holding room was set up where they waited some more. Finally, they were herded aboard barges to the immigration station. With hundreds of passengers on the barge, they lost sight of their friends. Olga squinted her eyes then turned to Semso teary-eyed.
“I didn’t have the chance to say goodbye. I considered Sarah my friend. And I want friends. Then, I won’t miss my family so.”
About the Author: Ruth Ticktin has coordinated international programs, advised and taught English Language Learning in Washington DC and MD since 1977. From Madison and Chicago, graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Ruth encourages sharing stories. Inspired by students, family and community, she is Author: Was, Am, Going; Recollections in Poetry & Flash (New Bay Books, 2022.) Co-editor: Psalms (PoeticaPublish. 2020.) Co-author: What's Ahead? (ProLinguaLearning 2013.) Contributor: BendingGenres Anthology 2018-19; Art - Covid-19, SanFedele 2020; WWPHWrites #4; PressPausePress 6.