Leaving Home for
the "Promised Land", 1894
In 1894 Mary Antin was a thirteen-year-old
Jewish girl living with her family in the "Jewish Pale" of the Russian
Empire. Jews within the Empire were required to live in this area that stretched
from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea and encompassed portions of the present-day
states of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova. Conditions were harsh
and the population poverty-stricken. Mary and her family lived on the edge of
starvation in the town of Polotzk north of Minsk in the modern state of Belarus.
|Mary Antin, 1915
Mary's father had emigrated to Boston in 1892 in search of a better life. A year
and a half after his departure, the family received a letter from him that
contained tickets that would transport them to America - to what Mary described
as the "Promised Land."
Mary kept a detailed journal of her experiences as she transitioned from life in Czarist Russia to American citizen. These observations were published as a book in 1912. We join her story after her family has received the tickets that will take them to America. She describes a bittersweet mixture of joy and sadness as the family prepares to leave for the "Promised Land:"
"Before sunset the news was all over Polotzk that Hannah Hayye had received a steamer ticket for America. Then they began to come. Friends and foes, distant relatives and new acquaintances, young and old, wise and foolish, debtors and creditors, and mere neighbors, - from every quarter of the city, from both sides of the Dvina, from over the Polota, from nowhere, - a steady stream of them poured into our street, both day and night, till the hour of our departure. And my mother gave audience. Her faded kerchief halfway off her head, her black ringlets straying, her apron often at her eyes, she received her guests in a rainbow of smiles and tears.
. . . The weeks skipped, the days took wing, an hour was a flash of thought;
so brimful of events was the interval before our departure. And no one was
more alive than I to the multiple significance of the daily drama. My mother,
full of grief at the parting from home and family and all things dear, anxious
about the journey, uncertain about the future, but ready, as ever, to take
up what new burdens awaited her; my sister, one with our mother in every hope
and apprehension; my brother, rejoicing in his sudden release from heder; [religious
education classes] and the little sister, vaguely excited by mysteries
afoot; the uncles and aunts and devoted neighbors, sad and solemn over their
coming loss; and my father away over in Boston, eager and anxious about us
in Polotzk, - an American citizen impatient to start his children on American
careers, - I knew the minds of everyone of these, and I lived their days and
nights with them after an apish fashion of my own.
But at bottom I was aloof from them all. What made me silent and big-eyed was the sense of being in the midst of a tremendous adventure. From morning till night I was all attention. I must credit myself with some pang of parting; I certainly felt the thrill of expectation; but keener than these was my delight in the progress of the great adventure. It was delightful just to be myself. I rejoiced, with the younger children, during the weeks of packing and preparation, in the relaxation of discipline and the general demoralization of our daily life. It was pleasant to be petted and spoiled by favorite cousins and stuffed with belated sweets by unfavorite ones. It was distinctly interesting to catch my mother weeping in corner cupboards over precious rubbish that could by no means be carried to America. . .
The last night in Polotzk we slept at my uncle's house, having disposed of all our belongings, to the last three legged stool, except such as we were taking with us. I could go straight to the room where I slept with my aunt that night. if I were suddenly set down in Polotzk. But I did not really sleep. Excitement kept me awake, and my aunt snored hideously. In the morning I was going away from Polotzk, forever and ever. I was going on a wonderful journey. I was going to America. How could I sleep?
. . . Half of Polotzk was at my uncle's gate in the morning, to conduct us to the railway station, and the other half was already there before we arrived.
|A market in Polotzk
The procession resembled both a funeral and a triumph. The women wept over us, reminding us eloquently of the perils of the sea, of the bewilderment of a foreign land, of the torments of homesickness that awaited us. They bewailed my mother's lot, who had to tear herself away from blood relations to go among strangers; who had to face gendarmes, ticket agents, and sailors, unprotected by a masculine escort; who had to care for four young children in the confusion of travel, and very likely feed them trefah [food that is considered unfit because it is not prepared according to Jewish dietary law] or see them starve on the way. Or they praised her for a brave pilgrim, and expressed confidence in her ability to cope with gendarmes and ticket agents, and blessed her with every other word, and all but carried her in their arms.
At the station the procession disbanded and became a mob. My uncle and my tall
cousins did their best to protect us, but we wanderers were almost torn to
pieces. They did get us into a car at last, but the riot on the station platform
continued unquelled. When the warning bell rang out, it was drowned in a confounding
babel of voices, - fragments of the oft-repeated messages, admonitions, lamentations,
blessings, farewells. 'Don't forget!' - 'Take care of - 'Keep your tickets'
- 'Moshele - newspapers I 'Garlick is best!' 'Happy journey!' 'God help you!'
'Good-bye! Good-bye!' 'Remember - .
The last I saw of Polotzk was an agitated mass of people, waving colored handkerchiefs and other frantic bits of calico, madly gesticulating, faIling on each other's necks, gone wild altogether. Then the station became invisible, and the shining tracks spun out from sky to sky. I was in the middle of the great, great world, and the longest road was mine.
Antin, Mary, The Promised Land (originally published, 1915, re-published 1969); Handlin, Oscar, The Uprooted (1951).
How To Cite This Article:
"Leaving Home for the 'Promised Land', 1894", EyeWitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2008).