Today is another crossover post with Do Svidanya Dad. This is about my dad, not yours.
Was I the only one who did not know about Grandpa’s trip to Russia as a boy? Uncle Dave sat down and made the video which showed the photos on the ship, so did Grandpa tell him the details that day? Did he tell Aunt Ar when they took the trip to Russia together? Uncle Mart is interested in history, so did he know?
I am thinking about it today, because on this day in 1931, Grandpa’s family was arriving in Europe from New Jersey after a week-long journey on a surprisingly luxurious ship—the Berengaria—which was built as the replacement for the Titanic.
The sea was rough during half of the trip, with a lot of wind and rain. Grandpa, his brother Pete and their mother got quite sick one day. Although travel in third class was not luxurious and they did not have a bathroom in their cabins, the dining room was quite nice and they were able to enjoy several movie days at sea.
Their ship arrived first in Cherbourg France at 4:00 in the afternoon to discharge some passengers and pick up others. From their ship they were able to see a French fort, some sea planes, a submarine, and several of the ships which had also from left New York. That must have been fun to see.
They took a short ride across the English Channel to Southampton, England, which is the same port from which the Titanic left. Dad and I took a train there from London last year and went to a museum, which had a replica of Grandpa’s ship. His family probably traveled on those same tracks to London, where they spent five days before the next leg of their journey.
I was surprised to learn that they were able to tour the city, visiting all the typical tourist sites of London such as the House of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, and Hyde Park. It was nice to see that my grandparents were able to give the family this nice little vacation before the big move to Leningrad, which I am guessing did not go over well with any of the kids.
Dad and I were able to see the hotel where Grandpa’s family stayed, which was in a very nice area of London. The hotel has not changed much from the outside (we saw a photo of the hotel at a nearby library), but it has now been converted into apartments.
They left London on the morning of December 23, traveling by train to the port city of Hull, which is on the North Sea. From what I learned based upon the diary I found, the rest of the trip was not as much fun except for Christmas Day. On that day, they spent the afternoon walking around the city of Copenhagen, where they were allowed to buy some candy.
They spent two very rough days at sea on a very small Finnish steamship, and everyone got sick. Even the dishes were rolling off the tables. Having been on several cruises where a rough day did not even approach that, you can just imagine how awful that must have been.
The trip ended in Helsinki, Finland on a very snowy and windy day. They disembarked the ship, walked around the city and bought some souvenirs before boarding a train for a thirteen hour ride to the Soviet Union. By 6:00 on the evening of December 29, they had arrived at a hotel in Leningrad, eighteen days after leaving their home in New Jersey. Were they scared, excited, or just too tired to feel anything?
For all of us familiar with U.S. History and our family history, today’s thoughts should be expected. This is the seventy-fourth anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. We all know about Grandpa’s repeated story that he learned of the attack six months earlier when he was passing through Japan on his way home after living in Russia for ten years.
He traveled across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Railway and then took a Japanese steamer from Vladivostok across the Sea of Japan. When he reached Japan, he boarded a train to Tokyo, and then a bus to Yokohama.
The bus driver got lost, so Grandpa asked to be dropped off at a police station for directions. The legendary story is that when one of the officers at the station learned Grandpa was an American, he warned Grandpa to leave Japan as quickly as possible because the Japanese were going to “boom boom” the United States.
After Grandpa’s ship docked in Honolulu, he went ashore to purchase some newspapers and was approached by a United States Intelligence officer named Sullivan, who was inquiring about troop movements Grandpa may have seen while on the Trans-Siberian. Naturally, Grandpa was anxious to pass on his news, but he never knew if he was taken seriously by Mr. Sullivan.
On the day of the attack, Grandpa had been in the army for one month. He was stationed at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, enrolled in a sixteen week medical training course. The rest of his family—his parents and three sisters—were at a train station in Yaroslavl, which was about 400 miles southeast of the city where they were all living when Grandpa left. The family evacuated in mid-August when their city was attacked by the Germans. The traveled on foot until they were finally able to reach a train. My grandparents were sixty-three and fifty-five at this time, and my Aunt Nancy was pregnant. At the onset of the journey they encountered heavy rains which made travel on the roads impossible, and then winter set in, with temperatures as low as -40 degrees. I cannot imagine the hardships they endured!
Grandpa’s family had not been in contact with him since he left, so they did not know he had been drafted or if he had even arrived back in New Jersey. How different from our world of instant communication where we become impatient when we cannot reach someone quickly enough!
The question today is whether Grandpa’s story was true. I did a lot of research and learned that reports surface each year on this anniversary stating that President Roosevelt, like Grandpa, was not surprised by the attack. One of the researchers at the National Archives told me he believed the story, telling me that many of the Japanese were aware of the plans. So what do you all think?
The sun appeared for the first time in a very long time yesterday. Bryce was coming for a visit, so I thought a trip to the zoo would be a welcome treat for him after being stuck inside for so many days. How wrong I was! Once a truck pulled into our driveway to do some repairs on our hot tub, the boy gene reared up in him, and he told me he did not want to see the the elephants or giraffes. He wanted to stay and watch the man with the truck.
He observed the repairman doing his job, and then he inspected the truck, peeking inside and admiring the tools. He spent the remainder of the day playing with his trains. The thing is, Bryce enjoys crashes and accidents. He purposely turns the straight wooded pieces of the track upside down, which are smooth on the underside. When he then builds his track using those inverted tracks, those smooth pieces always causes derailments.
He always smiles as the trains fall from the tracks. To me, it’s not fun and it makes the game difficult and unpleasant. Is this truly a boy thing, because as the mother of three girls, I am more familiar with tea parties, and Barbie dolls, and playing house?
But today was Veteran’s Day, so I decided to turn Bryce’s game of train crashes and derailments into a teaching moment about his great grandfather. I explained to Bryce that my Daddy rode on a train a long, long time ago not far from here. His train, like Bryce’s toy train, derailed as it was passing over a railroad trestle. The first two cars—two engines—passed successfully over the trestle but the remaining cars—the mail car and six passenger cars—left the trestle and plunged down an embankment.
Two civilians and one soldier were killed. Grandpa said the man who died had been sitting in his seat and asked to switch seats, so that man, Corporal Thomas Vest, died, and Grandpa survived with just a back injury.
Grandpa claimed that he continued to be reminded of that November day in Georgia for the rest of his life, because his back hurt whenever he tried to pick up his children and grandchildren. The thing is, he had fifty-six more years—“the rest of his life.” Corporal Vest did not, but that one request gave the rest of us life. Isn’t it interesting how one seemingly small action affected all of us so many years later?
One hundred and two years ago this week, my Russian grandma was at a train station in Libau, Latvia, a small port city on the Baltic Sea. She was waiting to board a passenger/cargo steamship with her brother-in-law Mark to join my grandfather in New York. They had not seen each other for many years.
Travel during that time was unpleasant. My grandmother, who we all called Baba, and great Uncle Mark, stayed in separate quarters between the lower deck and cargo area. The beds were narrow and dirty, and there was little air, hear, or light in that part of the ship. Seasickness was a common result of the rough seas and awful food.
We have all experienced seasickness on luxury cruises, so can you imagine what this must have been like for them? My grandmother was only twenty-seven when she left, and Grandpa’s uncle was a year older. I have a very hard time wrapping my head around what they did at such young ages. They couldn’t pick up a phone to “check in” with their parents or send them a quick text to let them know they were safe. There was no communication.
At that time of the year, the weather was raw and windy, since they were traveling along a northerly route . They stopped first in Copenhagen, Denmark, then Halifax, Nova Scotia before finally disembarking in New York on November 25, 1913, two weeks after first setting sail.
Their ship docked in New York Harbor where the first and second class passenger disembarked after a very brief medical inspection. Steerage passengers, which was what third-class passengers were called, boarded a ferry to Ellis Island. You all went there in fifth grade, so now you know that your great grandmother came through that building.
On Ellis Island, they waited for many hours for a brief medical exam and then some inspectors asked them a series of questions such as their nationality, previous addresses, the name of the closest relative “in the country whence the alien came”, and whether they had a final destination, sponsor, and enough money for their travel.
They had twenty-five dollars between the two of them, which turns out was not such a small amount back then. It is roughly equivalent to six hundred dollars today. The tickets and money were sent to them by my grandfather, who had been in this country since July, after traveling there from Argentina where he had been working for many years on a farm.
My grandfather met them at Ellis Island after all the inspections were complete. They took another ferry across the harbor to a train into New York City where they stayed a short time.
By the time my grandparents were reunited, my grandfather had a job in Dover, New Jersey working in a company called the “Ulster Iron Works. They lived in nearby Rockaway, renting a place for four years before moving into their own home.
So that is how the Russian side of our family ended up in northern New Jersey.
I am sad that I stopped sending the postcards to Grandma. This is the letter she sent to me after my final postcard in response to the questions:
1. What was your wedding like?
2. What kind of party did you have after the wedding and who came?
Your father didn’t tell me about converting to the Catholic religion. It was a surprise to me. He went through the process in Texas before we were married. He had been baptized at St. Cyril’s in Boonton because there was no Russian church in the area. So that made it easy for him. I was surprised because keeping a secret was something he wasn’t good at.
Our wedding was very small, fortunately, because he didn’t know when he could get home. We had immediate families only. Small ceremony, no mass, at 11 a.m., Mt. Carmel. His brother didn’t like the time so he didn’t come. He gave me a lot of grief over the time.
We had dinner in Denville—a place your father and I liked. It was very nice. We went back to the Birch Street house for wedding cake. I remember my mother writing out a check for the dinner. It was under $100. We went away for the night and left for Texas the next day.
So fifty-seven years later, here I am. This is it for now.
Grandma wore a yellow dress for the occasion. Although all her siblings had more traditional ceremonies, with big wedding parties and traditional wedding gowns, I think that was really what Grandma wanted. She never liked big fusses made over her. That has always been her way.
I am surprised at my Uncle Pete. After all they went through trying to become a family again, and all the effort Grandpa made at getting him back from Russia, I feel it was a slap in the face for him to complain at all about the wedding. He should have kept his mouth shut and came with a smile on his face. I do not understand Grandpa’s family.
I am sure you all remember Grandpa shuffling into his room and returning with a smile on his face and a piece of paper in his hand to show you. It was his report card, and he was very proud of it. After all, he did get into medical school based on those grades. He went to the First Leningrad Medical Institute, which was originally a medical school for women. It was, and still is, one of the leading medical schools in Russia.
Uncle Dave and I were able to get translations of his high school report card, and while his course of studies was rigorous, I was surprised to find only one grade of “A”, which was in English. Since he was accepted at such a prestigious university and he was always so proud, I expected many more A’s. However, Grandpa’s report card consisted of 11 C’s, and 4 B’s. The only surprises were courses in Engineering and Artistic Drawing. Perhaps the teachers just did not give out many A’s and B’s at that time. Grade inflation has been the subject of many discussions today. Several studies have shown a steady increase in the number of A’s during the last fifty years, leading me to believe those grades were considered very good during the 1930’s.
Grandpa told us that he attended school six days each week, with no vacations during the year except during the summer. Trips to the ballet and opera were regular occurrences on the weekend, an experience he was never exposed to in New Jersey. I wonder if he and Grandma had had the money, would they have taken us. Would I have been raised with more culture? I imagine Grandma turning up her nose at the prospect, but I bet he would have if they had the financial means.
I was most surprised to learn that he lived in a dorm while in college. Never did he mention this to me when I was a college student struggling with homesickness. Did he have a roommate or two he did not like? His college was in the same city where his family lived. Did he go home often? What was college like in Russia? I wish he had shared this with us.
It is sad that he was never able to complete his education after he returned to the U.S. We also all know that he was forced to leave school after refusing to become a Russian citizen, but even if he stayed, his dream of becoming a doctor would have been squashed by the war. Becoming a doctor just was not in the stars for him.