Vail Daily column: Peering into history at Ellis Island
July 11, 2014
From where I’m standing in Battery Park waiting for the ferry, I can simultaneously see the Freedom Tower and the Empire State Building. The brass and steel globe that used to stand in the courtyard of the World Trade Center was moved into Battery Park after the towers were destroyed. I remembered putting my arms onto the now mangled globe during the summer when I was 10 and flinching at the heat. A short ferry ride later, I’m standing in front of panel 116 and 515 of the wall of a small percentage of names of immigrant who came through Ellis Island during its peak years between 1895 and 1926.
Herman was married in his youth in Odessa, but as the Cossacks began to systematically drive the Jews out of Eastern Europe, he decided to do what many did in 1895 — he came to America. He didn’t speak the language or have a job lined up, and he left his wife behind, hoping he would earn the money to bring her to this country. Eventually, he would become the head window dresser at Macy’s. He didn’t bring her, for whatever reason. Little did he know then that his wife in Odessa was pregnant with a boy, Lazer, who would later hide his Jewish beliefs to fight the Nazi’s in World War II as a Russian tank commander.
LONG-LOST FAMILY MEMBERS
After the war, sometime during the 1960s, Lazer would somehow hear that there was a Gochberg associated with the University of Wisconsin. Herb, my grandfather and Lazer’s long lost half-brother, would be handed a letter from a professor in the Russian department (Grandpa taught French). Through correspondence, they reunited. I met one of Lazer’s sons, Pietra, shortly after he immigrated to Minneapolis from Kiev in the early ’90s. He gave me a children’s book of Ukranian stories and spoke of his preference for tequila over vodka in a beautifully dark accent.
Ben and Tema would come as children from Poland to America sometime between 1915 and 1920, as World War I erupted in Europe. Ben in his early 20s would strap his feet and ankles onto the wings of biplanes as part of the entertainment on Coney Island. After his time as a wing walker, he would go on to form Washington Electric, one of the principal electric contractors for the Empire State Building during its construction. Ben’s firm would survive the Depression, and exists today as an electronics and computing firm.
At age 17, Tema walked into Washington Electric with a brazen offer. She would work for free for one month, at the end of which, Ben could hire her and pay her for the month or tell her to take a hike. Ben kept her around. After both lied about their ages, Ben underestimating and Tema overestimating, they were married. Tema, my great grandmother, watched fireworks with me in Queens over the Brooklyn Bridge just a few short years before her death in 1994.
Now, as I see their names inscribed here on Ellis Island, I can’t help but feel grateful for my time. I’ll likely never be faced with the choice of leaving family behind to go to another country. I won’t ever have to learn another language again if I don’t want to learn one. I’m not being persecuted because of my ethnicity or beliefs. I’m in the comfortable educated majority, with access and mobility. It took me four hours to fly from DIA to JFK — I didn’t have to come by boat over the Atlantic.
Back to Battery Park, I notice that English is only one of a dozen languages spoken. Sikhs, Palestinians, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics — they are all here with me. I realize the only reason I speak English is because I’ve been here longer. I’m sitting among immigrants who left their countries for the very same reasons that my great-grandparents did. About the time that this thought crosses my mind, I see the Statue of Liberty out the portside windows, and I try to imagine what Herman would have felt when he saw her in 1895 after being on a ship for a week or more.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free.”
Ben Gochberg is a commercial lender and business finance consultant. He lives in Eagle County. He can be reached for business inquiries or free consultation at 970-471-3546.