I dedicate this book to my birds, Hera and Venus, and to the memory of my great-great grandfather, Benjamin Mandel.
A glowing sun set behind the safe boundaries of my farm. Before the sun sank below the grassy hills, I would bring fresh water from the well to my impatient chickens. My name is Benjamin Mendelson. It was 1883, and I was 29 years old. I was born in Lithuania, Russia, on a poor farm. I lived with my wife Rosa and my four-year-old son, Emmanuel. Life was a struggle on the farm. Sometimes the well broke, and we would have to buy water (which was very expensive). Or sometimes it did not rain for a long time, so the crops did not grow. On those nights, we would have to share one or two eggs and a few saved up wild berries. Places where Jews lived all over Lithuania were being raided by Russian soldiers. Either they would kill us or we would be forced from our homes to live on the sidewalks. We were hoping they would not find our village.
In my town, I was a Jew. Most of my neighbors were also Jews. We followed the teachings of our Rabbi. Then one night, we heard horses hooves pounding on the dirt road. The sound was just too loud to be villager horse hooves. I ran to the window and peeked through the curtains. Dressed in red silk coats and maroon feathered hats, I saw the Russian soldiers come striding into town. Rosa hurried Emmanuel to a friend who owned a horse so they could ride to Klipeda, one of the docks in Lithuania, to board the ship to America. Maybe it would be better there. I rushed to pack a sack full of our best clothes and the candlesticks that we used at the Sabbath. When I was done, I tried to leave, but the soldiers were searching around my farm. I quietly tiptoed out the door to hide in an old scratched-up wagon that one of my neighbors had to abandon. It started to rain. Oh drat! I had a long way to go.
Finally, the soldiers were satisfied that no one was there. They left to go and check one of my neighborâ€™s houses. I crept out of the rusted wagon. It had stopped raining. I quickly found my old donkey and started riding to Klipeda. As I rode, I noticed that the streets were deserted. Everyone was either at the dock or dead by now. Clump clump. It was a soldier. Uh oh! Quickly, I slipped behind a house, but the soldier did not seem to notice. He just kept riding. That was a close one, I mumbled to myself. There were no more delays after that. At last, I came to the dock where I found Rosa and a sleepy-looking Emmanuel. Since we were very poor people, we could only afford to be in the steerage part of the boat. For two months, we got no fresh air, and the few bathrooms there were, after two weeks, smelled of vomit. In the steerage of the boat, we were all crowded together. We were bored of fish, we were cold, tired and most of us were sick. The worst part were the storms. The waves would throw us around like sacks of potatoes, from here to there, from side to side. Soon we were all seasick. And home sick. I missed my farm. The safety was all gone now. We were on our own.
After two months at sea, someone up on the deck called out, ”Land!” Word got passed down and down until the news reached the steerage. By then, everyone was up and around, and had a good feeling inside of them. Mothers started packing in hopes of leaving the stench of the boat. Fathers crowded around in groups of two or three, talking about better times and wondering if in America, the streets were paved with gold. Even the children ran around the boat, skipping and singing. Their joyful laughs filled the once sullen ship. Later in the evening, when all the partying had died out, the ramp and the anchor were lowered. The sleepy travelers filed out one by one, each person wearing his or her best clothing. “Look, it’s the liberty of statue,” said Emmanuel. I laughed. “Emmanuel, you mean the Statue of Liberty!” “She is so beautiful!” Rosa exclaimed. And so she was. The torch! the book! It was all real! We really were in America! Just then, an officer strode over to us. Were we in trouble? “If you want to get into Ellis Island, please stand in line over there.” He pointed over to where a couple of people were standing near a brown building, with large arched doors. We, of course, did not understand anything he said. But he seemed friendly enough so we grabbed our bags and headed where the officer had pointed. Sure enough, as soon as we got near the group of people, we could clearly see that they were now being told by another officer to form a line. This officer spoke Lithuanian. As soon as we got in, a doctor wanted to see if we were healthy enough to stay. I told them that we were healthy enough, thank you very much. But the look that the doctor gave me made me shut my mouth. He wanted to check our heartbeats and our temperatures. He also asked if we had ever had any injuries. Then he casually picked up a piece of chalk and wrote some numbers on our backs. My best coat! The next man luckily was not a doctor. This man made us fill out some immigration paperwork and asked us, “How much money do you have?” We told him we had fifty dollars. “Hmmmm.” He scribbled something on his clipboard, and said, “You are free to go.” Finally America! The promised land! Here we were!
The first few days in New York passed quickly. Unfortunately, the streets were not paved with gold, but bricks were good enough for me. Most of the houses there were called tenement houses. We lived in one. Rosa started her new job in a sewing factory. It was hard work but better than in Lithuania. In our tenement house, there were only three rooms. In the bathroom there was a tube in the side of the wall called a tap, that squirted water whenever you wanted! For breakfast, I would go to the market and buy some fruit called “peaches” and “oranges.” I found a job as a peddler. Everyday I sold mouth-watering fruits and vegetables. Spending time talking to the strangers of America helped me learn English. I changed my name from Mendelson to Mandel so it would be easier to pronounce. After two months, we had saved up enough money to send Emmanuel to school. And right then and there, I knew that all my other days in America would be the best days of my life.
About the Author
Leyla Mandel is in fourth grade in Mrs. Mattson’s and Mrs. Graves’ class. She is 9¾ and lives in Watertown MA. Leyla lives with her mom and dad, and her two parakeets. This story is her first work of historical fiction. Her favorite things to do are read, and play basketball with her dad. Leyla has appeared in seven Watertown Childrens’ Theatre productions and she would like to be an actress in the future.