I am not a superstitious person by nature. I walk under ladders easily. I adore black cats. But I do have one ritual I adhere to religiously to ward off bad luck. Before I leave on a trip, I always call my godmother, Aunt Phyllis. I need to hear her say, “Geyn gezunt aun kumen gezunt,” which is Yiddish for “Go healthy and come back healthy,” before I can leave my home.
Did Aunt Phyllis first hear this phrase from her mother? She’s not sure. One thing I am sure of is that Aunt Phyllis’ mother, Sadie, did not hear these words from her own mother, Taube. This is because, in 1911, when Sadie was 13, Taube put her on a ship to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to America so Sadie could have a better life. She would “geyn gezunt”—go in good health—but she would not “kumen gezunt”—come back in good health. She would not come back at all. That was the point. Eastern Europe was not a safe place for Jews at the start of the 20th century. Sadie was being sent away so that she might have a better life.
I don’t remember when Aunt Phyllis first told me the story of Sadie’s voyage to America—how she was given a piece of paper with the name and address of a relative and told not to lose it, and how she held the paper so tightly that by the time she arrived in America, all the ink had worn off on her hand. I also don’t remember when I first heard the story of Ruth, my maternal grandmother, who came to America in 1900 with her mother Fannie, bringing little but a pair of precious Shabbos candlesticks—which my grandmother gave me shortly before she died at age 99.
That’s something I love about being a writer; there are countless stories lodged inside my brain and heart waiting for the right moment to emerge and tap me on the shoulder. These two stories arrived in 2015 as I gazed at newspaper photos of Syrian refugees washing up on European shores. I stared at the faces of those in search of a better life, and something felt familiar to me. My family also had a history of fleeing persecution. It was time for those stories to be told.
All I had to go on were the bare bones of two family stories. I decided to combine Sadie and Ruth into one character, “Gittel.” I couldn’t bear to put her on a ship all alone (imagine how Sadie’s mother must have felt) so I gave her a traveling companion: a doll named Basha. I researched living conditions on the ships sailing for America in the early 1900s, and I read about the way new immigrants were “processed” upon arrival at Ellis Island. Just as importantly, I did what I call “emotional research,” asking myself questions such as, what would it feel like to be a young girl leaving behind everything I knew and loved? What would it feel like to arrive in a new country all alone unable to speak the language? What would I carry from my old life into my new life? What makes a home?
My hope is that Gittel’s Journey: An Ellis Island Story, a book based upon my own family history, will inspire others to tell their immigrant stories. And I hope my book will remind readers of all ages the importance of greeting new members of our society with open arms. It is our responsibility to provide them with what they are seeking: a safe place to call home. Which is something that everyone deserves.