My Great Grandfather’s Immigration to America from
By Jennifer Subotnick, 3/15/2001
|Chaim Udel Kalmonichus was born July 14, 1891 in Vilna, Lithuania. He and his family came to America for a better life. They were one family among hundreds of thousands who immigrated during this period of restrictions for Jews in Russia. Chaim was my Great Grandfather. Chaim’s father, Jonah Kalmonichus, was born in 1852.||
This shows the entire family taken in 1893, shortly
after they were reunited in New York. The baby sitting on Jonah's lap is
Julius Cohen, the subject of this paper.
Market in Vilna, turn of the century.
was raised in Vilna, Lithuania, which bordered the Baltic Sea.
Vilna was the Lithuanian center of Jewish study.
Jews were forced to live in one area, called the Pale of Settlement.
Most towns (shtetls) that Jews lived in those days were small.
Jews would work as butchers, bakers, cobblers, or seamstresses.
Jonah was a furrier: he made fur coats.
He did not earn a lot of money and often worked 14 to 16 hours a day.
This was a tiring regime. Children
in these shtetls studied religion, Hebrew, Torah, and the Jewish law.
Jonah himself was well versed in Torah and Talmud and he was also
orthodox. Because Jonah was
an only child, he was exempt from being conscripted into the Czar’s
|Jennifer's Great-Great Grandparents, Nehama and Jonah Kalmonichus.|
married his wife, Nachama Leah Glaser, in 1874 when he was 22 and she was 19.
They had seven sons and three daughters in Lithuania. Chaim was the tenth child
and he was born eleven months before the family left for America.
Their last child, Elinore, was born in America.
Jonah and Nachama realized that they could never provide for their ten
children adequately in Vilna. Jews
in Vilna were second-class citizens and the Czarist anti-Jewish laws were
oppressive. Education was expensive
and hard to get. As soon as boys were old enough to work for the family, they
quit school and got a job. Girls
helped their mothers around the house. Rumors
of looting, pillaging, and killing were well known to Jonah and Nachama and
often Jews lived in constant fear. Jonah
and Nachama wanted tranquility, economic opportunity, and protection and they
realized they could not get this in Vilna(4).
Turn of the century postcard shows the main Synagogue in Vilna.
late 1891, Jonah journeyed to America with his two oldest children
Rebecca and Harris. They
lived in a few rooms in a tenement, and decided that the rest of the
family should join them.
Less than a year later, Nachama and the remaining eight children began
their journey. They boarded
a train in Vilna and traveled to Hamburg, Germany where they boarded the
The passage to America over the Atlantic took about two weeks.
Up to 2,000 people could be crammed into steerage and it was not
pleasant. The air would
become rank with the smell of food, seasickness, and people.
There was almost no privacy and the lack of adequate toilet facilities
did not make the trip fun. If you were lucky the ship would provide kosher food, but
most steamship lines did not. (9). The
S. S. Gellert reached New York’s harbor June 3, 1892. Once the family arrived at the mainland they were immediately
ushered onto an open-air ferry to go to Ellis Island. The harbors at Ellis Island were always full and perhaps the
Kalmonichus family had to wait for hours standing in the ferry before
they got to Ellis Island.
they looked about the Registry Hall, they saw people of all religions and heard
languages from many different countries. There
were Russian Jews, Irish farmers, Greeks, Italians, Cossacks, English, and
Arabs-all these people flocked to this great country to seek their fortune.
The nine members of the Kalmonichus family were among 81,511 immigrants
from Russia to America in 1892 (11). Most
people were allowed in America, but about two percent were excluded for various
reasons, often up to 1,000 people a month (7).
The immigrants were given numbered tags showing the manifest page and the
line number on which their names appeared.
Doctors would look at the immigrants for signs of illness as they walked
into the Registry Room. The primary
diseases that the doctors looked for were cholera, favus, a scalp and nail
fungus, insanity and mental impairments (7). Chalk marks were created to
distinguish what illness each passenger might suffer from.
From these chalk marks, doctors would know if further medical examination
was necessary. Sometimes
intelligence tests were used. The
Registry Hall was huge and confusing. The
immigrants were asked their age, occupation, if they were married or not, and
their goals and morals. After inspection, people would go down the Stairs of
Separation, and this marked the parting of many families and friends from the
old country (7).
and the children were met by Jonah, Becky and Harris in the immigration
There was a wonderful reunion. After
all the legal ends were tied up, the family of twelve got an uptown
horse-drawn trolley in Manhattan’s Battery Park area.
They then went to settle into a walk-up tenement on East Broadway. This was a popular section for Jewish immigrants to live.
By 1895 there were 3,000 Jews living in New York (11).
Many Jews lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side--in 1910 more than half
a million Jews lived there (11). Synagogues,
cafes, theaters, bars, and apartments fought for space in Manhattan’s
busy streets. The
immigrants spoke Yiddish and their native languages while learning
English as quickly as they could. Jonah and Nachama started out in a
small apartment on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Gradually
the family saved enough money to move into a large, roomy house!
Around 1900, they bought a two-story Victorian that was at 262 Stockton
Street, Brooklyn. Jonah
converted two rooms in his house into a small synagogue and
library/study. Neighbors often came over to attend services
Lower East Side, N.Y. early part of the century.
were many jobs available for hard-working men.
Kalmonichus was long and hard to spell, so Jonah changed their name to
Cohen. Jonah was a furrier and a
rabbi. Jonah’s sons had a variety of jobs. David worked in a clothes factory.
Conditions in these factories were awful.
David probably had to work in a hot, stuffy, badly lit room.
Wages were low: in 1914 workers earned only 35 cents an hour (11).
Samuel became a dentist; he did fillings, extracted teeth and made false
teeth. He often took care of the
dental needs of the family. Louis
became a high school teacher. Barnett,
called Barney, wanted to be a Civil Engineer but died from consumption before
arrived in America when he was eleven months old. He changed his name from Chaim Udel to Julius Harris because
he did not like his nickname, Hymie. He
was raised in a strictly Jewish home. They
kept Kosher and the family followed all the rules of Shabbot.
Once, on a Sabbath afternoon Julius and Jonah were walking and Jonah
spotted a coin lying in the street. Since
it was Shabbot, Julius could not pick the coin up.
So Jonah told Julius to push the money closer to the curb so it would not
be easily spotted by passers-by. Julius
later retrieved the coin, a whole half-dollar, no small sum in those days.
Julius left school when he was 14 and probably got a job in a store.
Julius was not a morning person, so to get up early, he tied a string to
his foot that led from his room to the kitchen several rooms below. His mother would tug on the string ensuring that Julius would
get to work on time. Julius wanted
to be an actor in the Yiddish theater, but was struck by stage fright.
Julius Cohen and Yetta Rife,
met his wife when he was 18. He had
gone to the store on his bike where he saw a 14-year-old girl who was crying.
He soon found out that the girl had tried to buy something but that the
storekeeper did not have change for a 20-dollar bill.
She had then given her money to a stranger to get change, and the
stranger had taken the money and had not come back. He walked the girl to his
house and introduced her to his family. Yetta
Rife soon became good friends with Julius and his entire family.
They were married a few years later in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
Together they had three sons: Abner Benedict, born October 6, 1914,
Sanford Milton, my Grandfather, born April 22, 1919, and their youngest, Jerome,
born June 12, 1924. To support his growing family, Julius cut cloth in a factory
and became a dress designer. Later
he worked as a trolley car conductor and then as a cab driver.
He also held jobs as an inventory technician and clerk in a hardware
store. Many years later, after his wife Yetta died in 1969, his son Jerome got
him a job in an Arts and Crafts store. Julius
also made craft items--he sewed aprons, baby bibs, and potholders and he made
tile trivets, which he either sold or gave as presents.
He retired when he was 80 years old from the Arts and Crafts store.
photo of Julius Cohen and Yetta Rife.
retired in 1980 after a career as a graphic designer in the private sector and
government service. He later
returned to the University of Maryland to get a B.A. in Studio Art and a Masters
in Fiction Writing. My Uncle Abner
is still writing and is active in various projects. Both Sanford and Jerome were World War II veterans.
Sanford was in the mopping-up operation across Europe in 1944-1945.
He was a postal clerk and retired from the U.S. Postal Service.
He died from cancer in 1994. Jerome
was in the Allied D-Day operation across the English Channel in France, and he
earned a Purple Heart. Jerome went
to Indiana University and became a Cost Accountant; he retired from the federal
government and died from cancer February 20, 1999.
Chaim Udel Kalmonichus left Vilna, Lithuania as an infant eleven months
old. He died in Silver Springs, Maryland at the age of 96 on
October 12, 1987. When he died, he was the grandfather of seven children and the
great grandfather of 14. As
Julius Harris Cohen, he had a long, successful life in America--he fulfilled his
parents’ dreams of living the good life in America, the land of freedom and
opportunity. His life was rich in
the love of his family and he was free to practice his religion and work in any
job he chose. He and his wife
raised three sons who were also successful and good American citizens.
His story shows how the journey to America from Europe gave Julius the
opportunity to have a better life than he would have had in Czarist
Lithuania--like millions of other immigrants to America.
Cohen, with his three sons, Abner, Julius and Sanford in Portland, 1985.