Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Notes for a family history (2). Deducing a coherent narrative of immigration from recollection and record (i)

Exactly 85 years ago, on 25 November 1924, the White Star Line steamship “Majestic” arrived in the Port of New York; on it were a 32 year old self-professed housewife, Melanie Klein Grünberger Paktorovits, and the first four of her five children, Josef, Jolán, Alexander, and Edith. They had come all the way from Užhorod, in Carpathian Ruthenia, then the easternmost region of the young nation-state of Czechoslovakia, to join Melanie’s husband Salamon, who had arrived in the US four years earlier, and was living in the Roxbury area of Boston, Massachusetts (for an earlier take on the story, see my previous post in this series, "What's in a business card?"). Jolán, who was 8 years old at the time, was my mother. In the photograph below, which I believe was taken within a year before the family left Czechoslovakia, she is in the center; Josef and Alex are on the left, and Edith is on the right, her head resting on my grandmother’s left shoulder. The family was not quite complete until a fifth child, Rosalind, was born to my grandmother in the US, in 1927.

My grandmother, Melanie Paktorovits, with the first four of her five children: (from the left) Josef, Alexander, Jolán (my mother), and (on the right) Edith. This photograph was taken some time around 1923-1924, just prior to their emigration from what had formerly been the city of Ungvár, Hungary, but was by that time Užhorod, Czechoslovakia [1].

About the journey, I have the following fragments of my mother’s recollections, as I rather dimly remember them. One thing I recall my mother telling me is that their voyage was delayed when her sister Edith initially failed to pass a pre-immigration medical exam. In the story as I remember it, Edith had presented with some condition that was curable, but precluded the family’s immediate immigration to the US. A second related fragment I remember is that they spent time in England while they were waiting. A third fragment of the story is that they had to make the train trip from Užhorod twice before finally getting on the boat to the US. The second and third fragments don’t necessarily contradict each other; they could have journeyed twice from Užhorod and also spent time in England. On the other hand, it seems like doing both would have made for a rather complicated contingency plan. After all, it’s not like they were on a sightseeing holiday. In any case, I attribute any inconsistencies or inaccuracies in this fragmentary story to my imperfect recall, not my mother’s.

Another story related to the journey came from my Uncle Alex, who was 7 years old at the time. In this case I have the conversation on tape from a “phone interview phase” I went through in the late 1990s. When I asked him about his earliest memory, he said that he could recall standing next to his older sister, my mother, on the deck of the ship as it left Cherbourg, waving goodbye to their grandparents, who were standing on the dock to see them off; these would have to have been my grandmother’s adoptive parents, Elek Grünberger and Regina Berkovits Grünberger [2]. Alex remembered that he had continued to wave at them as they grew smaller and smaller and finally disappeared from sight.

At one time or another my mother described many more details about her childhood and the journey out of Užhorod, but I’ve forgotten almost everything she related to me from that time. Realizing this years ago, I had begun to question her more closely, trying to pay more attention, even recording our conversations; I made resolutions to go over with her again, at the earliest opportunity, the oldest photos in her albums, making sure I knew who everyone was, and what she could remember of their stories. When she died suddenly in 1998, that phase was over; there would be no more chances to revisit her past in the more organized, systematic fashion I had planned. At the same time my brother Philip and I found ourselves in possession of her cache of family documents, of whose existence we had been completely unaware. Since I had already nominated myself the family historian, and was particularly interested in the tasks of preservation and research, my brother generously agreed to let me take full possession of all the documents and photo albums [3].

The documents we inherited included some fascinating items, such as records of pre-emigration medical exams for our grandmother and her children in Svatobořice, Moravia, that were issued on 20 August 1924; and the White Star Line steamship ticket my grandmother bought for the trip the very next day in Prague. More recently, I acquired access [4] to pages of the “List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival” for the relevant voyage of the SS Majestic, which sailed from Southampton, England, on 19 November 1924, stopped at Cherbourg to pick up passengers on the Continent, and arrived at the Port of New York six days later.

The examination certificates and steamship ticket, along with the early photos from my mother’s albums, and her laconic, sometimes cryptic, occasionally incorrect annotations, brought a wealth of new questions concomitant with the loss of the person best able to answer them. One of the first things I noticed was that among the original medical examination reports, issued at the “Government Emigration Station in Svatobořice, near Kyjov (Moravia)” on 20 August 1924, there was one for my grandmother (reproduced below) and one each for three of her children, Josef, Alexander, and Jolán, but there was none for Edith. Why is that? I asked myself at the time.

A pre-emigration medical examination and vaccination certificate, signed on 20 August 1924 at the “Government Emigration Station in Svatobořice, near Kyjov (Moravia)" (the city of Kyjova is in South Moravia, in the modern Czech Republic). This particular document was issued for my grandmother, Melanie Paktorovič; I have similar certifications issued on the same day for three of her children, Josef, "Julie," and Alex Paktorovič, all born and last residing in Užhorod, Podkarpatská Rus (a version of the name of the semi-autonomous region of eastern Czechoslovakia at the time).

Second, their steamship ticket, issued on 21 August 1924, specified their departure from Cherbourg, on 26 August, yet the Manifest of Alien Passengers shows their actual point of departure as Southampton and the embarkation date as 19 November (the sections listing their names, ages, and genders are reproduced below). For over ten years, before I gained access to the Manifest, I had only the ticket specifying the date and place of departure, and had no reason to assume anything other than that represented their actual itinerary on the way to the US. Now I had new questions. Why did they miss the 26 August voyage out of Cherbourg? What were they doing from then until 19 November? And why is the family listed on the Manifest as sailing from Southampton?

Passenger name section of the steamship ticket to the US for my grandmother and her children, made out on 21 August 1924. The document lists Melanie Paktorovits, 32 years of age, and her children, Josef (9), Jolan (8), Alexander (7 — he was actually a month short of that age), and Edith (4). The Czech headings are easily interpreted without need of a dictionary: Surname (Příjmení); given name (Jméno); age (Věk); sex (Pohlaví); male (muži); female (žena). They were scheduled to sail from Cherbourg (Cherbruken) to New York City (Newyorken) aboard the White Star Line ship Majestic II [5], departing from Quai Alexandre 3 on 26 August 1924.

Passenger name section (colums 1-7) of the List or Manifest of Alien Passengers for the United States Immigration Officer at Port of Arrival showing entries 21-25 for my grandmother and her children, made out for the Port of New York arrival of the SS Majestic on 25 November 1924. The document lists Melania Paktorovits, 32 years of age (she was actually 33 by this time), and her children, Josef (10), Jolan (8), “Alexanfra” (7), and Edith (4). The name and gender for my Uncle Alex are plainly incorrect. The listing of the older children’s “Calling or Occupation” (column 7) as “Scholar” rather than “Student” looks odd, considering they were still of elementary school age, while the corresponding entry for 4 year old Edith as “Child” seems like an unintentionally comic redundancy.

I reasoned that the answers might lie in the old stories about my Aunt Edith’s failure to pass her medical examination. This could explain why there was no certificate for her in the bundle I inherited. Assuming she passed a subsequent exam, perhaps the paperwork ended up in a different place. The 3 month delay would be consistent with a layover necessitated by some unforeseen medical contingency; so, unable to board the Majestic on 26 August, they had gone back home, or to England, and were simply waiting for Edith’s condition to clear up before finally getting on the boat to the US in November. But, I still wondered, were they waiting in England or Užhorod?

As mentioned above, the usual itinerary for the Majestic’s trans-Atlantic run called for a stop at Cherbourg to pick up passengers on the European mainland before setting out for New York. It occurred to me at first that perhaps all the passengers were listed collectively on the Manifest according to the Majestic’s point of origin in Southampton, regardless of their actual point of embarkation, but a quick check of the rest of the Manifest for the voyage showed that passengers who boarded the vessel in Cherbourg were listed on separate pages (as were those in other cabin classes, as well as shiphands and other employees). Either version of the family's itinerary raises questions, but in any case the fact that they are all listed explicitly among passengers who boarded the Majestic in Southampton confirms that the final leg of their journey began in England [6].

Then again, if it is true that Edith had no medical certificate on 20 August, did my grandmother realize, when she purchased the steamship ticket the next day in Prague, that they would not be allowed to board the ship bound for New York on 26 August? Was she hoping that somehow it wouldn’t be considered a serious problem if they got as far as Cherbourg, and was their failure to get past the emigration authorities a rude surprise that called for working out a reasonable plan B on the spot?

Fitting Alex’s story into the narrative raises some additional questions. Clearly, it means that my grandmother’s parents accompanied her and her children on the trip to Cherbourg. But if they had to go from Užhorod to Cherbourg twice, did the Grünbergers also go with them both times? Or, if the family went to England instead to wait for the next opportunity to emigrate after 26 August, did the Grünbergers go there with them? And if the Grünbergers only went as far as Cherbourg, was my Uncle Alex then waving goodbye to them on a deck not of the Majestic but of some other vessel, a ferry perhaps, that was simply making its way across the Channel to England and not immediately to America? On the other hand, if he was really waving a final goodbye to them from the deck of the Majestic, as he seemed to remember, doesn’t this imply that the Grünbergers were at the time standing on a dock at Southampton, not Cherbourg? Either one of the two versions would be consistent with Southampton, rather than Cherbourg, as their actual point of departure on 19 November. But where does that leave my mother's story of two trips from Užhorod? And if they all spent nearly three months in England, where were they living, and how did that work? Again, I have no idea.

By way of reconciliation, I offer a third narrative summing up what could be consistent with most of the memories as well as the basic chronological outline given by the documents. At the first attempt, after Edith fails to pass the medical exam, my grandmother buys the ticket to the US anyway, still hopeful that perhaps they can talk their way onto the Majestic on its scheduled 26 August departure. On the way to Cherbourg, she and her parents develop some contingency plan if it doesn’t work out, which is what happens. Rather than subject her daughter to the more stessful train ride back to Užhorod, my grandmother takes Edith with her to England on a tourist visa. Perhaps they also feel that Edith can receive better (or at least very good) medical treatment in a more modern city in England. The Grünbergers are not poor, and can pay for this, but it's not practical for them all to stay in England indefinitely, so they take the older children, Josef, Jolán, and Alexander, back home. Then, when Edith recovers and is able to pass a medical exam, in November, they bring their grandchildren to England, where they can rejoin their mother and Edith. This is the second trip my mother remembers. On 19 November, Elek and Regina Grünberger now board the Majestic with their daughter and grandchildren in Southampton, disembarking at Cherbourg. There, my Uncle Alex can now stand beside his sister, my mother, waving to their grandparents from the deck of the Majestic as it sails away to America.


[1] The area, which had been Hungarian territory for around a millenium, was made part of the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia by the Treaty of Saint Germain (1919) and the Treaty of Trianon (1920), a result of Hungary's alliance with the losing side in World War I. Under the Czechoslovak government, Subcarpathian Rus, as it was called (in Czech or Slovak, Podkarpatská Rus) retained a significant degree of autonomy. In November 1938, the southern part was re-occupied by the Hungarians as a result of the Munich Agreement and the First Vienna Award; in March 1939, they occupied most of the remainder. Towards the end of World War II, Hungary, including its re-acquired territories, was occupied by the Germans. Before being overrun by the Red Army, the German SS and cooperating Hungarian units managed to wipe out most of the Jewish population of Subcarpathia. (In terms of pure numbers, Hungary as whole had the third most Shoah victims, after Poland and the Soviet Union; unlike the Jewish communities of Budapest and many other European cities, which have experienced remarkable resurgences, the Jewish presence in Subcarpathia has not only not recovered, it has actually declined since 1945.) The area has been since the end of World War II part of the westernmost province (Zakarpat'ska Oblast) of the Ukrainian SSR and, since 1991, of the independent state of Ukraine. If that sounds complicated enough, it's actually an oversimplification of the region's history, which has included several brief periods of interim governance and self-declared independence.

[2] My grandmother's biological mother, Yetta Moskovits Klein, died around 1894, when she was around 3 years old. Though her father, Zigmund Klein, was still living, she was adopted by Elek and Regina Grünberger (Elek was probably a relative of Yetta's mother, Rose Grünberger). Since my grandfather's mother, Hana Moskovovits, died in 1918, only the Grünbergers could have been present as a couple in 1924. My grandfather referred only to them in his writing, while my mother referred to them exclusively as her grandparents. With the exception of one picture of Yetta Moskovits, the only pictures in my mother's albums labeled as "grandparents" are of the Grünbergers.

[3] Except for our father's burial record. He planned to visit the gravesite, which neither of us could recall ever seeing.

[4] Through

[5] This was actually was the second ship christened "Majestic" (see, e.g.,

[6] This shows there is some additional value in being able to access all the pages of a document, such a ship manifest, not just the ones with the names of family members on them.