To Be Honest


Chapter 7

Departure and Arrival



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Extracts from Márta's Diary, translated from the original Hungarian:

1923 March 10.  We don’t know the date yet, but it is sure now that we will go some time this summer.  It is terribly hard to get visas and we can’t go without them.  Even you take it naturally that we will go, and talk about what you will do when you are in America.  You love to hear stories, you don’t care what it is as long as I talk, and start “once upon a time.”  You can hardly wait till summer’s here and every once in awhile you ask me, “Please Daddy, tell me when the flowers will be in bloom and will you tell me when I will be able to play in the park?”  Best of all you love to walk barefoot in the sand, and want to know when will it be warm enough for that too.  I feel so sorry for your Uncle Jani, he feels terribly lonely already when he thinks you will leave him to go to America.  He is even thinking of following you there.  He loves you so much.  I am afraid he’ll really be heartbroken after you are gone from him.  But you also love him a lot and will miss him too.  You are a generous and good-hearted little girl.  [József]

In April the Ehrlichs got their passport, which was in both Romanian and the “language of diplomacy,” French:

Au nom de sa Majesté
Délivré ŕ M. Josif Ehrlich
Né ŕ Győr
Domicilié ŕ Cluj
De profession ouvrier
Voyageant Amerique
Délivré ŕ Bucarest
Ie 12 Avril 1923
par Minister de L’Interieur
et valable pour une annee

1923 June 20.  All we are thinking about lately is our coming trip to America.  Thank God we can really go this year.  We will leave Kolozsvár on August 27 to go to Bucharest where the American Consulate is, and there’s where we will get the visa to enter the U.S.A.  From there we take a train to Constanţa where we board our boat on the Black Sea on September 4.  You too talk about it all the time and when you want something and we say we can’t or we haven’t, your answer is, “OK, I’ll get it when I am in America,” and I am hoping you’ll be right.
     Today your Aunt Margit and her little daughter Bébi left for Paris, France, where their husband and father’s waiting for them with a ready furnished apartment. Hopefully to have a better life there,
just as we hope for ourselves in America.  You and Bébi both cried so hard at the depot, you didn’t want to leave each other.  I asked you, “Why do you cry, Mártuka?”  You said, “I am crying because we are never going to see one another as long as we live.”
     ...You love to play, but with one playmate at a time or all by yourself; don’t like crowds.  When there’s several children in the yard you let them play, and you stand away and just watch them.  I feel very sorry already when I think you will have to adjust to a whole new way of life and language too in America.  Especially the nursery schools where you will have to go while Mommy and Daddy go to work at first.  You seem to grow up to be a good little housekeeper; we were without a maid for a spell, and you said you wanted to help, and started to wash up the breakfast dishes, and did it really beautifully, every piece.  I think you will be very handy around the house, more probably than in book learning, which I will be sorry for, but it won’t make any difference with me.  One day you asked me, “Daddy does it mean work when we eat?”  When I said yes, you were happy and told me, “Then I am working too.”  I am glad you can draw conclusions already, it means you are using your brain to figure things out for yourself.  I wish we were in America already.  [József]

Matild too wanted to write once more in Márta’s Diary while the Ehrlichs were still in Kolozsvár, although she was very busy preparing for the journey to “our new country America.”  For the past few weeks she had stayed home to make Márta new clothes for the trip—several dresses, underwear, “and even a coat because you outgrow them too fast.”

Your Dad still goes to the shop to finish off things he has, and to see all’s taken care of.  But you my darling and I are at home with your Aunt Fáni, and very happy together, as I had very little time before to spend with you.  You aren’t used to having me too to talk to and watch your doings.  While I was sewing you were playing ball, hitting it to the floor several times without letting it fall, and wanting me to watch too.  When I told you how good you were doing and said I was glad, you told me “I am glad too that I am such a big girl already.”  So my little kitten you feel all grown up.  I guess my sweetheart this will be the last time I will write until we leave.  I have a million things to do, and must gather things we have to take with us.

“As I think back on all the blunders we made with our packing what to bring to America,” Matild would say, “it’s sad and at the same time laughable...  We packed up the silliest junk to bring.  Besides all the new clothes we made for our little girl to look elegant, there were feather beds, linens, pillows, and on top of all that junk we packed cooking pots and pans, instead of one suitcase and all the cash possible.  It was really pitiful.”

But it took all the cash possible for the Ehrlichs to buy third-class passage for three to the United States.  In the end József had to sell his Omega pocket watch and “two rings he’d bought instead of money savings, it was surer than cash at that time in Europe.”  These and Matild’s jewelry brought $450, sufficient to pay for passage, but “I don’t like to think of the heartbreak of giving our things away or trying to sell some of them,” Matild was to say.  Among the items sold were the diamond stud earrings József had given her for an anniversary present; and Matild would refuse to wear another pair of pierced earrings ever again.

My little one, this is the saddest time of our life.  Going around to our family, saying our goodbyes to everyone.  I took you out to the cemetery to say goodbye to my dear Mother, who was your grandmother, and we both cried, it was a sad thing to do.  When I asked you “Why do you cry?” you said “I feel sorry for poor Grandma.”  You are so sweet and very sensitive, which I hope won’t cause you much heartache later on.  [Matild]

For you, my dear, it won’t mean too much of a change as long as we will be with you.  But to your Mother and for me it will be terribly hard to leave our family behind.  But even you feel the hardship of leaving, especially your Uncle Jani.  You look at him so sadly, and pat him and kiss his balding head and face.  We all feel bad that we have to part, but this is for our future, we must do it.  We can’t help it, my dear, and we are hoping we can do a lot better there [in America], as Europe still is under the hardship of a world war[’s aftermath].   Naturally you feel just as good here too, as we did try very hard to make you happy and give you all the things we think a little girl of four years old ought to have to enjoy life...  Now I hope the next recording in your book will be on the boat when we cross the ocean.  Hope it will be soon now.  [József]

“We are starting on our trip in five days,” Matild wrote on August 23; Márta was counting the days by how many times she had to go to sleep.  On the 27th the Ehrlichs bade farewell to “Kolozsvár, or Cluj as it is called now.”

I won’t say much of our parting from the relatives; it was hard.  Everyone loved you and was sorry to part with you.  Especially your old Grandfather; who knows if we will ever see him again?  He cried like his heart was broken.  And Grandma [Ehrlich], who is left all by herself now.  But the hardest thing was for you to say goodbye to your Uncle Jani.  He loved you so much, couldn’t have been more if you’d been his own little girl.  He will try to follow us out to the U.S.A., just to be near to you again.  [József]

The Ehrlichs arrived in Bucharest and stayed in a hotel for “several days that seemed endless until we could get the visa to freedom that we all hoped for.”  Since József had not been born in Transylvania, “we were worried that might change our luck of getting the visa if the Consul started asking questions, and we wondered what we’d do if he said no.”

On August 29 the Ehrlichs’s name was called at the Consulate.  József started walking up the marble stairway “and at the same time a big husky older Romanian woman started to push ahead of him.”  When the officials discovered she was not supposed to go in yet, they “got so furious they gave her a push and she started rolling down those stone steps screaming bloody murder because she got hurt, poor thing.  But that upheaval caused such commotion...

In the midst of which the Vice-Consul asked József:

“Where were you born?”

“Győr,” József answered.

“Is that far from here?” asked the Vice-Consul.

And József, who never in his life could tell an outright lie, replied:

“Not so very far.”

The Vice-Consul, still angry about the upsetting incident on the stairs, “just put a big loud stamp on a paper,” noting 3 (three) in the space marked Persons born in Romania; and József “was so surprised and dazed that he grabbed it and hurried out and down those stairs fast as he could before the Consul could come to and stop him.  God, what a relief it was, not just for us, but for all these new friends we made while we waited for this unbelievable happy, happy day.  It took days to believe and slowly we realized our dream was coming true.”

On September 2, Matild’s twenty-eighth birthday, the Ehrlichs took an express train to Constanţa “where are the docks of the Black Sea,” and the next day they boarded the S.S. Constantinople*.  “Wonder what you will think and say when you first see the ocean and boat we have to board?” Matild had written in Márta’s Diary.  Matild was to leave no doubt what she herself thought: “When we paid for our tickets, third-class, we were promised a single cabin for three.  But when we got on, we all had to take what they gave us.  So we ended up three families in one large cabin.  Could you believe it?  The only privacy we had was when everybody went up on deck.”

On the ship's manifest, the Ehrlichs are entered as husband Joseph (height 5'7", occupation "hater" [sic]); wife Madted [sic] (height 5'4", occupation "housew"); and child Mrata [sic] (height 3'0", occupation "baby").  All three are said to be Romanian citizens, born in Gyor or "Gyo," and of the Hebrew "race or people."  The adults are able to read the language of "Ungary," their nearest relative back home is "his father in law Mooz Ehrlich," and they are going to join "his cousin Marcus Tener [sic] of 1024 Irving Park Buler [sic] in Chicago.  All intend to seek American citizenship; none is a polygamist, an anarchist, an advocate of overthrowing the United States government by force or violence, has been in prison or an almshouse, treated for insanity or supported by charity.  All are in good health, none deformed or crippled, but a handwritten addendum notes a medical certificate for "Mrata's" bilateral strabismus convergent.

Early on the morning of September 4, the Constantinople left harbor.  “We all were out on deck when we started,” wrote József, “and I never will forget the feeling when we saw the shores slowly disappear from our view.”  Matild had intended to keep up Márta’s Diary “and write down every interesting moment on the way to America,” but she was seasick nearly the entire voyage “except when I lay flat on my back on my bed.  It was the most miserable time in my life."

Márta did not succumb to mal de mer but she was very much afraid of the daily medical examinations.  “Such hardships we’ve gone through already in these few days are too much even for an adult,” her father wrote, “but your concern is only, ‘Do we have to go for a checkup again?’”

The Constantinople had two thousand passengers, “mostly Russian Jews who all were chased out of the Ukraine.  They are a funny lot, and we and a few Hungarian families get the same rough treatment from the crew because they don’t see we were a better class of people.”

Always very class-conscious—in the sense of knowing who conducted themselves as ladies and gentlemen and who did not—József and Matild could nevertheless sympathize with the Ukrainians:

They said everything they had was confiscated...  We are sorry for ourselves, but more sorry to watch them fight for everything they need.  People with little money have to suffer for reasons they can’t help.  Seems poor people are treated badly everywhere and they are used to it by now, but we hate to see the cruelty and heartlessness of the crew.  It cost even more for them, and they were worse off.

The Constantinople was “a Greek boat, and every sailor or worker on it was the same, and no one as far as I can recall spoke any other language on it either...  We heard later on that if we’d taken any other line but Greek, this wouldn’t have happened.  Well, we just didn’t know.  For another hundred dollars we wouldn’t have had to suffer at all.  We thought we’d saved money.”

Every morning the passengers had to line up for baths “because there are too many people and not enough bathrooms, but we want to keep ourselves as clean as we possibly can...  We found out (and we saw them too) that in steerage were some of the Russian aristocracy, who stood in line with us for their baths also, which didn’t help either of us.”

When we got to Constantinople [the city] we all were under quarantine, and our clothes had to be fumigated before they let our boat pass through the Turkish harbor.  I hope it won’t happen again, we certainly will get dirtier, not cleaner after such an ordeal...  We needed a little fortune to buy our passage, but this [trip] won’t last long and after we get to our new home I am very sure everything will be all right.  Today we passed over the Dardanelles and our boat is heading toward Greece.  We will have a couple of days’s stop in Piraeus for food and water.  The sea so far was very calm, and our food passable, but the extra food we brought from home comes handy and tastes good for snacks.  We only worry that we don’t get enough milk, except one glass for you at breakfast, and we must buy some canned milk and they charge a lot for it.  [József]

Having sailed through the Bosporus and the Mediterranean to reach the Atlantic, “if all went as it should have we’d be in New York in ten days.  But in a few days, the engine broke down somewhere in the nowhere, and nobody knew where any of us were...  The whole bunch of us was out of touch with the world.  We never met or saw another ship on our voyage.”

The Ehrlichs had figured on their money lasting until arrival in Chicago, but the trip took so much longer than scheduled that they had to spend much more than they had planned:

Food’s getting less and less.  Also quite bad and no milk for even the children.  It’s the third week we are drifting and we can’t find out how long we’ll be traveling this way and your Mother stays in bed, she takes the sea quite hard.  Wish it was over.

The voyage that was to have taken ten days ultimately went on for twenty-seven.  At last, early on the morning of Monday, October 1, the Constantinople arrived in New York harbor.  József would write:

Finally when we could see the Statue of Liberty, we couldn’t express our feelings.  Impressive, it was a very good and happy sight.  We were taken by small boats to Ellis Island§ and we had a nice warm meal and were told after we finished to wait.  So we did just that.  We had to.  As we found out that we were short five dollars for our tickets to take the train to Chicago, we didn’t know what to do.  I knew I had an aunt in New York, she was the sister of my father, and I had her address with me.  I asked her to loan me the five dollars until we got to Chicago, and I would send it back the very next week.  After several hours waiting, no answer came.  We just didn’t know what to do.  But all of a sudden a nice-looking man came over asking if I was Ehrlich?  When I said yes, he gave me the five dollars and his name and address and said to send the money back when I could.  So we started on our trip home to Chicago.

The loan had come from a traveler’s aid society in return for József’s promise to pay it back as soon as possible, which (characteristically) he was to do.  A dollar from the Ehrlichs’s meager remaining funds bought a large bag of food: milk, fruit, “all sorts of cold cuts... enough of everything to last us until we got there.”  With thirty-two cents left in their pockets, the family was put on the train for a round-the-clock ride to Chicago; Matild “was ill on this trip also and lying down half the way there.”

At seven o’clock on the morning of Sunday, October 7, the Ehrlichs were taken by taxi to the home of Sam and Jenny Kohn, a first-floor apartment on Irving Park Boulevard near Sheridan Road, in the northern Lincoln Park neighborhood.

The taxi driver rang the bell and we all waited for someone to come out.  An angry maid came and started to holler at the driver that he’s disturbing the family too early.   He tried to tell her we’d just arrived from Europe, and owed him six dollars.  So she let us come into the living room and we waited for awhile, the driver too.  Our Uncle and family were surprised a bit, as they hadn’t received our telegram yet, so they did not expect us, and didn’t know when we’d get to Chicago, or in fact to the U.S.A.  But they welcomed us with open arms and at long last we were home with them, and they were just beautiful, all of them.

Sam Kohn paid off the taxi driver, and the family took the Ehrlichs in "like their own children."

Proceed to Chapter 8 of To Be Honest

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* According to, the Constantinople was built in Danzig in 1897, with room for 2,330 passengers: 230 first class, 250 second class, and 1,850 third class.  Originally called the Bremen and laid up during the First World War, it was given to Great Britain as reparations in 1919 and renamed the Constantinople in 1921.  Efstathios Theophilatos was Master or Commanding Officer during the Ehrlichs's voyage.  A year later the ship received its final name, the King Alexander; it was scrapped in Italy in 1929.
The Constantinople manifest states the Ehrlichs were in possession of $30.  No indication whether they boarded or disembarked with that amount.
Márta’s fourth birthday was noted, if not celebrated, on September 27.  On the ship's manifest her age entry is "4" typed over "3."
§ List 16 (the Ehrlichs's page) of the Constantinople manifest was signed by "L. Dailiades" on Friday, October 5.

Last updated August 22, 2009

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