All around me are signs of life. An exercise class is being conducted to my left, and to my right, tourists are awaiting their cruise ships. Behind me is a bustling cafe aside the ancient Holland Amerika Lun (Line) building—now the Hotel New York—and photographers along the seaside walkway are snapping photos of the picturesque River Maas and the Rotterdam skyline.
A large Marco Polo cruise ship passes by, cut off by a small bright yellow SS Rotterdam water taxi.
And I am lucky to be here.
Nearly 100 years ago, my maternal great-grandmother, Alice Goldman Sherman, got on a boat at this dock with her four children, one of them my grandmother, Jennie. In order to get here, they had walked all the way, in winter, from a Ukrainian village called Yumpelah. No one from my family has been here since.
“Between 1873 and 1971, the emigrants departed with their suitcases and children from the Wilhelminapier. On [sic] their way to a new place in the new world,” I read on a nearby display, and I knew that I was in the right place. “Nearby is the Lost Luggage Depot sculpture created in 2001 by Canadian historian and visual artist Jeff Wall. It is a symbol of the lives the emigrants left behind.”
With tears in my eyes, I walked over to the sculptures of old-style pieces of baggage next to where the exercise class had been going on.
Alice’s husband, Louis, had been in America for eight years, starting a grocery business on Blossom Street in Boston’s old West End. By the time he finally had enough money to send them for passage, things had become perilous in their village, where Alice made whiskey for the local soldiers in order to make ends meet.
Their neighbors tipped them off that Russian soldiers had learned about this and were on their way to arrest them.
But my brave and quick-thinking great-grandmother outwitted them. She put the liquor-making apparatus under a bed and my great-uncle Jack on it, wrapped a makeshift bandage around his head and put something red on the bandage. When the soldiers knocked at the door, she told them that she could not go because her son had been injured. They saw this, and told her that they would be back in the morning.
Alice gathered her children Jack, Harry, Dora and Jennie and their belongings and fled. She pinned their visas and money under her dress, and in the dead of winter, they took off on a long walk that, according to Google Maps, is 17 days straight. As they left, Dora witnessed firing squads aiming at villagers.
The Shermans walked across frozen lakes, stopping in villages where they were helped by townspeople, through Poland, Germany and finally the Netherlands.
Once there, they boarded a ship where I now sat, looking to my left where the river winds to the Hook of Holland, into the North Sea and finally, to the Atlantic.
Their passage was safe, the family was reunited and they added another daughter, Rosalie.
I carefully placed five stones on the walkway edge over the ocean and was saying kaddish when a white swan appeared in the water beneath. I had not seen a swan all day while at the port! Was it a sign?
I am in the Netherlands and Belgium to attend and report on the five-day W-Festival of ’80s post-punk and new wave concerts outside of Brussels. But Rotterdam was my first stop, and I am the first one in my family to go here since that fortuitous boarding.
I am impressed by the cosmopolitan city with an aptly-named “Cool District,” and as always, charmed by the unique flourishes of European life—the multitudes of bicycles, the breathtaking public art and architecture, the clean streets, the well-preserved old buildings, squares and quarters. And, of course, the fact that everyone speaks English, as well as many other languages.
Rotterdam has exceeded my expectations. And in 1920, it did much more than that for my ancestors.
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