Robert Gray Middle School Project Reach (R.E.A.C.H.)
Respecting our Ethnic and Cultural Heritage

 

My Great Grandfather’s Immigration to America from Vilna, Lithuania

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.

Jonah 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 army.  
 
Jennifer's Great-Great Grandparents, Nehama and Jonah Kalmonichus.

Jonah 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.

In 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 S.S. Gellert.  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.  

As 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).  

Nachama and the children were met by Jonah, Becky and Harris in the immigration offices.  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.

There 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 his graduation.                                                         

Chaim 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,
taken during their four year courtship. 

Julius 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.    

 

Wedding photo of Julius Cohen and Yetta Rife.

Abner 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.  

Jerome Cohen, with his three sons, Abner, Julius and Sanford in Portland, 1985.

Bibliography

  1. Cohen, Abner.  Personal Interview.  February 28, 2001.
  2. Cohen, Abner.  (1990, July 3).  The Sabbath Stroll. The Jonah and Nachama Kalmonichus Family: A Book of Reminiscences.  Silver Springs: Abner Cohen Library.
  3. Cohen, Ephraim.  (1992).  Centennial Anniversary. Family Newsletter, June, 1992 Volume 2, Number 5.
  4. Cohen, Ephraim.  (1991)  The Decision to Leave Russia--No Regrets. The  Jonah and Nachama Kalmonichus Family:  A Book of Reminiscences.  Silver Springs: Abner Cohen Library.
  5. Ellis Island Experience
  6. Ellis Island History 
  7. Ellis Island Inspection  
  8. Ellis Island Journey   
  9. Ellis Island Passage  
  10. Sagan, Miriam.  (1993);  Tracing Our Jewish Roots.; Santa Fe;  John Muir Publications.
  11. Samuel, Joseph.  (1914);  Jewish Immigration to the United States;  New York: Columbia University.