From Plotzk to Boston

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From Plotzk to Boston


Mary Antin


Israel Zangwill






The “infant phenomenon” in literature is rarer than in more physical branches of art, but its productions are not likely to be of value outside the doting domestic circle. Even Pope who “lisped in numbers for the numbers came,” did not add to our Anthology from his cradle, though he may therein have acquired his monotonous rocking-metre. Immaturity of mind and experience, so easily disguised on the stage or the music-stool—even by adults—is more obvious in the field of pure intellect. The contribution with which Mary Antin makes her début in letters is, however, saved from the emptiness of embryonic thinking by being a record of a real experience, the greatest of her life; her journey from Poland to Boston. Even so, and remarkable as her description is for a girl of eleven—for it was at this age that she first wrote the thing in Yiddish, though she was thirteen when she translated it into English—it would scarcely be worth publishing merely as a literary curiosity. But it happens to possess an extraneous value. For, despite the great wave of Russian immigration into the United States, and despite the noble spirit in which the Jews of America have grappled with the invasion, we still know too little of the inner feelings of the people themselves, nor do we adequately realize what magic vision of free America lures them on to face the great journey to the other side of the world.

Mary Antin’s vivid description of all she and her dear ones went through, enables us to see almost with our own eyes how the invasion of America appears to the impecunious invader. It is thus “a human document” of considerable value, as well as a promissory note of future performance. The quick senses of the child, her keen powers of observation and introspection, her impressionability both to sensations and complex emotions—these are the very things out of which literature is made; the raw stuff of art. Her capacity to handle English—after so short a residence in America—shows that she possesses also the instrument of expression. More fortunate than the poet of the Ghetto, Morris Rosenfeld, she will have at her command the most popular language in the world, and she has already produced in it passages of true literature, especially in her impressionistic rendering of the sea and the bustling phantasmagoria of travel.

What will be her development no one can say precisely, and I would not presume either to predict or to direct it, for “the wind bloweth where it listeth.” It will probably take lyrical shape. Like most modern Jewesses who have written, she is, I fear, destined to spiritual suffering: fortunately her work evidences a genial talent for enjoyment and a warm humanity which may serve to counterbalance the curse of reflectiveness. That she is growing, is evident from her own Introduction, written only the other day, with its touches of humor and more complex manipulation of groups of facts. But I have ventured to counsel delay rather than precipitation in production—for she is not yet sixteen—and the completion of her education, physical no less than intellectual; and it is to this purpose that such profits as may accrue from this publication will be devoted. Let us hope this premature recognition of her potentialities will not injure their future flowering, and that her development will add to those spiritual and intellectual forces of which big-hearted American Judaism stands sorely in need. I should explain in conclusion, that I have neither added nor subtracted, even a comma, and that I have no credit in “discovering” Mary Antin. I did but endorse the verdict of that kind and charming Boston household in which I had the pleasure of encountering the gifted Polish girl, and to a member of which this little volume is appropriately dedicated.

I. Zangwill.



In the year 1891, a mighty wave of the emigration movement swept over all parts of Russia, carrying with it a vast number of the Jewish population to the distant shores of the New World—from tyranny to democracy, from darkness to light, from bondage and persecution to freedom, justice and equality. But the great mass knew nothing of these things; they were going to the foreign world in hopes only of earning their bread and worshiping their God in peace. The different currents that directed the course of that wave cannot be here enumerated. Suffice it to say that its power was enormous. All over the land homes were broken up, families separated, lives completely altered, for a common end.

The emigration fever was at its height in Plotzk, my native town, in the central western part of Russia, on the Dvina River. “America” was in everybody’s mouth. Business men talked of it over their accounts; the market women made up their quarrels that they might discuss it from stall to stall; people who had relatives in the famous land went around reading their letters for the enlightenment of less fortunate folks; the one letter-carrier informed the public how many letters arrived from America, and who were the recipients; children played at emigrating; old folks shook their sage heads over the evening fire, and prophesied no good for those who braved the terrors of the sea and the foreign goal beyond it;—all talked of it, but scarcely anybody knew one true fact about this magic land. For book-knowledge was not for them; and a few persons—they were a dressmaker’s daughter, and a merchant with his two sons—who had returned from America after a long visit, happened to be endowed with extraordinary imagination, (a faculty closely related to their knowledge of their old country-men’s ignorance), and their descriptions of life across the ocean, given daily, for some months, to eager audiences, surpassed anything in the Arabian Nights. One sad fact threw a shadow over the splendor of the gold-paved, Paradise-like fairyland. The travelers all agreed that Jews lived there in the most shocking impiety.

Driven by a necessity for bettering the family circumstances, and by certain minor forces which cannot now be named, my father began to think seriously of casting his lot with the great stream of emigrants. Many family councils were held before it was agreed that the plan must be carried out. Then came the parting; for it was impossible for the whole family to go at once. I remember it, though I was only eight. It struck me as rather interesting to stand on the platform before the train, with a crowd of friends weeping in sympathy with us, and father waving his hat for our special benefit, and saying—the last words we heard him speak as the train moved off—

“Good-bye, Plotzk, forever!”

Then followed three long years of hope and doubt for father in America and us in Russia. There were toil and suffering and waiting and anxiety for all. There were—but to tell of all that happened in those years I should have to write a separate history. The happy day came when we received the long-coveted summons. And what stirring times followed! The period of preparation was one of constant delight to us children. We were four—my two sisters, one brother and myself. Our playmates looked up to us in respectful admiration; neighbors, if they made no direct investigations, bribed us with nice things for information as to what was going into every box, package and basket. And the house was dismantled—people came and carried off the furniture; closets, sheds and other nooks were emptied of their contents; the great wood-pile was taken away until only a few logs remained; ancient treasures such as women are so loath to part with, and which mother had carried with her from a dear little house whence poverty had driven us, were brought to light from their hiding places, and sacrificed at the altar whose flames were consuming so much that was fraught with precious association and endeared by family tradition; the number of bundles and boxes increased daily, and our home vanished hourly; the rooms became quite uninhabitable at last, and we children glanced in glee, to the anger of the echoes, when we heard that in the evening we were to start upon our journey.

But we did not go till the next morning, and then as secretly as possible. For, despite the glowing tales concerning America, people flocked to the departure of emigrants much as they did to a funeral; to weep and lament while (in the former case only, I believe) they envied. As everybody in Plotzk knew us, and as the departure of a whole family was very rousing, we dared not brave the sympathetic presence of the whole township, that we knew we might expect. So we gave out a false alarm.

Even then there was half the population of Plotzk on hand the next morning. We were the heroes of the hour. I remember how the women crowded around mother, charging her to deliver messages to their relatives in America; how they made the air ring with their unintelligible chorus; how they showered down upon us scores of suggestions and admonitions; how they made us frantic with their sympathetic weeping and wringing of hands; how, finally, the ringing of the signal bell set them all talking faster and louder than ever, in desperate efforts to give the last bits of advice, deliver the last messages, and, to their credit let it be said, to give the final, hearty, unfeigned good-bye kisses, hugs and good wishes.

Well, we lived through three years of waiting, and also through a half hour of parting. Some of our relatives came near being carried off, as, heedless of the last bell, they lingered on in the car. But at last they, too, had to go, and we, the wanderers, could scarcely see the rainbow wave of colored handkerchiefs, as, dissolved in tears, we were carried out of Plotzk, away from home, but nearer our longed-for haven of reunion; nearer, indeed, to everything that makes life beautiful and gives one an aim and an end—freedom, progress, knowledge, light and truth, with their glorious host of followers. But we did not know it then.

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