As I research my maternal grandparents’ migration from Poland to México, crossing the ocean in 1929, I become obsessed with the steamship they took. Where, exactly, did they leave from? My mother tells me they left their respective homes in the towns of Zambrow and Czycewo, got married in Warsaw in a small ceremony at an uncle’s home, and from there took the train to some port. My grandfather, or Zeide as we called him in Yiddish, had turned 18, so he had to leave Poland to escape his military conscription; otherwise he would have been put in the front lines of fire, as carne de cañón—canon fodder—together with the other Jew boys.

I research to see what port my grandparents might have taken, whether they boarded the ship that would sail them to the Americas or whether they stopped in another port to change to a transatlantic steamship. I descend into this rabbit hole, wanting, needing, to know what steamship they would have taken, or at the very least, the transatlantic line they sailed on.

Why this obsession? Maybe I need to visually place them somewhere. I want to see what these teenagers from shtetls would have experienced leaving their small world and being thrust into a steamship for new lands. What did they experience as they left their land and looked at a vast, empty ocean for 28 days? (Yes, that’s how long it took, according to my rabbit hole research). Twenty-eight days. Knowing they would never see their homes again. Never see the families left behind. Never see their landscapethe forests, which my Zeide would describe as enchanted. They were leaving their lives of economic privilege, but also of relentless antisemitism. I keep wondering about their sense of loss, and also their expectations for the future as they looked out a porthole for 28 days, a full cycle. Twenty-eight days, where all they could do is look at the ocean and sky. Twenty-eight days as seasick newlyweds. Ungrounded for the first time in their lives.

portholes (mock up)[for jewish boston
(Photo: Adriana Katzew)
As I try to imagine their dislocation, I feel the need to map out their travels as a way to “ground” them, and this rabbit hole leads me to envisioning an accordion book of 28 pages, with each page having a porthole that looks at the ocean and sky. The images are of old photographs from Veracruz, where Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed, and where slaves were brought in during colonial times. Veracruz was the port that welcomed most of México’s immigrants and refugees who arrived by water; the port that welcomed Jews of Arab origin and Jews from Eastern Europe. This port welcomed my grandparents who had wanted to go to the U.S. to be with siblings but could not due to closed borders. Instead, they traveled to México with the hope of migrating north once borders opened. My Zeide and Bobe arrived in Veracruz in 1929, missing, by a hair’s breadth, México’s own immigration restrictions on Jews that were about to be put in place.

I emerge from this rabbit hole thinking of all the people who have left their homelands by force or circumstances, how they’ve experienced their losses, those who they leave behind, not knowing what awaits them at their new destination.

Adriana Katzew is an inaugural fellow for the Community Creative Fellowship, which is powered by CJP and JArts. To learn more about the fellowship, click here.

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