Washington Evening Journal
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FAIRFIELD — A Fairfield woman is publishing a book about her family’s journey from Ukraine to the United States, and all the struggles and triumphs they had along the way.
Rhoda Orme-Johnson has written “Anna: An Immigrant Story” about her grandmother Anna, who immigrated to the country a century ago with her five children. The book is set in one day of her life in 1951. The reader is introduced to family members coming and going through the house in Cleveland, Ohio, and rides Anna’s memories back to the Old World, to the “shtetl” or Jewish settlement where Anna grew up.
Rhoda said she got the idea to write the book after participating in a local book club where the members, after finishing a memoir of a Chinese American woman, noted they had no “ethnic tales” of their own to share. Rhoda piped up that she did.
“My mother came to this country in 1923 in a ship that arrived when the month’s immigration quota was full, and was nearly turned back,” Rhoda writes in her book. “I told them a few of the family memories that are reported in what follows in this volume. I thought, I do have a story to tell.”
Rhoda’s grandmother Anna was born in 1885 in the town of Okna, Ukraine. She was born in a Jewish settlement and grew up during a difficult period for Jews in Europe. There were many “pogroms,” or organized massacres, of Jews in Eastern Europe and Russia in 1905. That’s the year Rhoda’s grandfather Aron Belfer told the family it was time to leave, but he had no money and his wife Anna had a baby on the way, so he had to stay.
In 1913, Aron’s brother Abe is the first in the family to come to the U.S., settling in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Aron follows suit, and plans to bring Anna and the children the following year. But 1914 sees the start of the World War I, and it’s not possible to bring them. The Bolsheviks come to power in Russia in 1917. The Spanish Flu ravages the globe the following year. The world is in turmoil, and Aron remains disconnected from his family in Europe.
For 10 years, Anna raises the couple’s five children in a “shtetl” — a small Jewish Village — outside Odessa, Ukraine, when they’re finally able to obtain visas from the Russian government to travel to America. Getting visas was not easy, especially for Anna’s nearly 18-year-old son Lou. The Russian government wanted to draft Lou into the army, which was the last thing he wanted after learning from his Uncle Abe that soldiers were subjected to harsh treatment, and had to sleep outside with no blankets. The family took Lou to Moscow where a Jewish doctor purposefully gave him an infection in his leg, which got him out of the draft and allowed him to join the family on the ship.
Before they could leave, the family needed tickets, so Uncle Ben slept outside the ticket kiosk so he could buy some when it opened in the morning. The family was quarantined and deloused, and their clothes and blankets were baked in an oven to kill the lice. The family bought the cheapest tickets available, traveling in the steerage, near the bottom of the ship where the steering tackle ran.
When the ship docked in Ellis Island on Aug. 31, 1923, the passengers received frightening news: they couldn’t get off the ship because the U.S. wouldn’t let them in. The country had established strict immigration quotas in the early 1920s designed to limit immigration especially from Southern and Eastern Europe, and the quota for August had already been reached. Some people on the ship fell into such despair that they jumped off into the shark-infested harbor.
Rhoda said that, after an outcry in the press, the passengers were allowed in the next day under the September quota. They were given medical exams, and those with problems were turned away. Rhoda said if a doctor heard a heart murmur, he would put a line of chalk on that person’s coat, so those people tried to fool the authorities by turning their coats inside out after inspection.
Rhoda’s family adopted “American” names after immigrating here, which sometimes approximated their original names and sometimes not. For instance, Anna’s real name was Chan’tche. Avram became Abe. Idel was known as Jerry. Itzak went by Irv, Leizer by Lou and Fania by Fay.
To research the book, Rhoda talked to her cousins for information about their ancestors. She found diaries and letters from her grandmother’s sister in Moscow. She found information about her family from Ellis Island records, and discovered her Uncle Ben’s military record from World War II.
“He wanted to fight those Nazis,” she recalled.
She learned that her grandmother had a brother and sister in Ukraine she never heard from after the war. Rhoda said they were likely killed in the Holocaust.
Rhoda said her book is about her own family, but it sheds light on a much bigger story about the immigrant experience in America.
“Who doesn’t have an immigrant ancestor who went through this?” she said.
Rhoda has published a first draft of her book through Amazon, and hopes to have the final version ready for purchase on the site in about a month.
To learn more about Rhoda and her writing career, visit her website at rhodathewriter.com.