The sour breath of the old man whose head had fallen on her shoulder awakened her, along with the stirrings of the other passengers. The train’s steam-powered whistle and the screeching of its brakes let Rosalia know that she’d reached the end of the first leg of her trip to the new world. Fear, combined with excitement, filled her as she followed the crowds. One after the other they climbed down the steep steps of the overcrowded train cars to join the endless lines of emigrants who now had to prove that they had a sponsor in the United States and a job. Even scarier, though, was the thought that this would not be enough. Clothing, baggage…even people were fumigated lest they carry any vermin. Eye lids were turned back while medical people looked for signs of trachoma. Doctors analyzed passengers for the signs of mental illness that officials believed could be detected by appearance. America’s immigration officials would not allow entry to anyone who might be unemployable, and steamship companies were required to pay for return voyages.
Then came the dreaded interrogation Rosalia had heard so much about. Like her fellow travelers, she had memorized responses for the questions that would be recorded on manifests before boarding: name, age, sex, marital status, occupation, nationality, ability read or write, race, physical and mental health, last residence, and the name and address of the nearest relative or friend in the immigrant’s country of origin. Rosalia’s hands shook as she offered proof that she had paid the $30 to board. No, she’d never been in prison. She’d never been in an almshouse. She’d never been a polygamist or an anarchist…words for which she needed definition.
It was with great relief when yet another official told her she had passed…relief that was quickly replaced by mortification when she discovered that her bladder had let loose.
It might have felt good to be away from the inquiries into her physical and mental heal and her suitability for life in America, but once outside, the train station clamor of iron wheels on iron rails and the hundreds of voices of people making their way to the ship,
made the voices shouting instructions in Polish and German hard to hear. The noise was overwhelming to someone who had spent her life in the quiet of a farm where the loudest sounds came from hens, pigs, the family cow. Eerie screams of seagulls added to the din. Only by concentrating could Rosalia finally pick out shouted instructions: “Line up over here! Have your tickets and passports ready! And your medical clearance! Move along now!” Her fears eased a bit when an official winked at her; maybe things wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Rosalia looped the leather straps of her carry-all over her cramped shoulders and dragged it behind her. Earlier she had watched as other passengers had done this, thinking that they looked like beasts of burden. Now she swallowed her pride; she shuffled along with the crush of people ahead of her and more behind. She boarded the ship that looked to her as if the entire city of Warsaw could fit inside. Official looking people with Hapaq insignias on their shirts and hoarse voices issued each emigrant a fork, a spoon, a plate…and a pail.
It seemed as if only she were without a friend or family. She felt alone, small, scared. But there was no turning back now, if only because the line behind her was packed with people eager to get this trip started. Nevertheless, she knew she might have to wait days, weeks and even months at the port, either for paperwork to be completed or for the ship to arrive: train schedules were not coordinated with sailing dates.
Rosalia found herself praying with others that such a wait wasn’t in their future.
Prayers were answered when two days 1200 steerage passengers waited to boardthe crowded gangway.