A Child’s Journey Through Ellis Island- Shmuel Menachem Kanievsky’s New World

I wrote this essay for the Daughters of the American Revolution contest, and I actually won for my grade in my chapter! It is now going to the state finals.


July 7, 1892


My Dearest Cousin and Friend, Moshe Shlomo Kaganovich,


I am writing this letter from Zeide’s home in Flatbush, New York. I have successfully passed through the trials of Ellis Island. You would not believe everything that I went through just to escape persecution. However, it was surely worth it. The old world of Russia is gone; a new hope in dy gyld’n’ l’and is dawning.

I immediately packed a few bags and left without saying goodbye. I walked to Sevastopol, and travelled across the Black Sea to Constantinople. When I got to the city, I realized the Saviour, my ship, left two days earlier!  I was devastated and overwhelmed with hopelessness. I wandered the streets for days and  prayed daily  “Let me go to America!” I suppose, as I am only thirteen years old, God answered me. Two days later, a man approached me, and offered to trade my ticket for a ticket on the Le Voyageur, a French ship that would be leaving the next day. I gladly accepted and found my way to the ship’s steerage area of filthy rooms and screaming children. I put my luggage down, remembering the clean ocean air.

We left the harbor of Constantinople at 5:00 P.M. The next day, as I said Shacharis, I was able to see the coastline of Greece. A week later, the Le Voyageur left Cadiz, Spain. The trip through the Mediterranean was beautiful and uneventful.  However, once we got to the Atlantic we didn’t see land for two weeks, and then everything went downhill!

Almost immediately everybody felt seasick. They went down to their beds to try to feel better; but the hull was no improvement. Our food started to run low because we had thirteen stowaways. By the time we neared New York, we did not have any food left in steerage, and we smelled horrible. Entering the harbor, we were allowed on deck to see Lady Liberty welcoming us into her country. Soon after, we headed towards Ellis Island.

A doctor came aboard our ship for a quick check, making sure everybody looked all right. We then began our wait for a ferry to Ellis Island, two more days for me.  During that time, American workers brought us meals, the first real food I’d had for a week. Eventually, the ferry came.

When I walked across the gangplank and stepped foot on the soil, I could not believe it. The building looked like a castle! I thought to myself, If this is a normal building in the United States, then what do mansions look like? I never saw anything like it in my life. I walked up to the door and saw a policeman. In Russia, this was a bad thing; the police meant evil. However, before I left, Zeide sent me a letter. He told me that the police here would help me. He also arranged for me to learn some English.

The police officer walked up to me. “Do you speak English, boy?”

“Yes, I know basic words.”

He responded, “Great. Place your bags here. I’ll move you to the Registration Room immediately. What ship did you come on?”

“The Le Voyageur.”

“Right this way.”

The policeman led me to a large building and up some stairs where I saw thousands of people in a gargantuan room. Everywhere I saw men in white coats-doctors-looking over new immigrants for a few seconds, scribbling something on a piece of paper and then saying, “NEXT!” I later found out that this was called a six-second physical.

After an hour, there were still 300 people ahead of me. Finally, I entered the Registration Room, where doctors were everywhere, checking our health. The doctor, a short, pudgy man, looked up at me. “Well, well, well. What do we have here? Another young immigrant?”

“I suppose so,” I said, as he checked my ears and mouth.

“Ah, you also speak English. Well, you’re quite healthy. Good luck and welcome to the United States.”

“Thank you”, I said.

I was ushered by a different policeman to a seven-hour line, where I waited for the legal test. I was given lunch while I waited. Soon enough, my turn came. I was met by the interrogator. “Do you speak English?”


“Let me see your tag.”

“I see,” he said after looking at it. “I am now going to ask you twenty-nine questions. First off, What is your name?”

“Shmuel Menachem Kanievsky.”

“Where were you born?”

“Ovruch, Russia. In Ukraine.”

“Did you come with anybody?”


“Is anybody expecting you?”

“Yes, my grandfather.”

The questions went on and on until I was cleared. I went up a set of stairs that said “To New York” and exchanged my Russian currency for American money. I had fifteen rubles and fifty-six kopecks. I gave that to the man, who in return gave me two crisp bills that said “Five Dollars,” and two coins that said “Nickel.” I exited and went to get my bags.

I walked around the courtyard, looking for Zeide. Eventually, policemen began to usher those still waiting, back inside for the night. “Please, just let me wait a little longer,” I asked.

“Five minutes, son.”

I waited, staring into the darkness. I saw a large shadow. I screamed and ran… into my Zeide. “Oof! Not so hard, Shmuli!”

“Zeide! You’re here!”

“Of course! Come back with me to my house. There’s a shul on the same street, and lots of kids your age. You’ll love it.”

And he was right. I enjoy everything about America. I am now in school with other kids with whom I have made friends. I’m still a frum Jew in all aspects. I highly suggest for you to come to America, Moshe. Convince your parents, because in this world, America is the only hope for life, happiness, peace and prosperity.

I hope to see you soon,

                                                                                                      Shmuel Kanievsky

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