Monday, November 1, 2010

100 Years of Progress

In mid-October I sent out a letter to all of my siblings, children, aunts, uncles, and cousins asking them to reflect on our collective blessings in honor of my grandfather's entry into this country 100 years ago.

John Bubnash passed through Ellis Island on 29 Oct 1910 after a ten-day sail from Hamburg Germany. It may have taken a week or more for him to journey by wagon and train to Hamburg, leaving behind forever his shepherd-farmer life in the Carpathian Mountains of eastern Slovakia. The records say he stepped off the boat with $24 in his pocket, bound for his Uncle Andrew Szorokacs in Webster, Pennsylvania. He had light hair, gray eyes and stood 5'6" tall. We know he spoke no English.

In mid-October Craig and I spent three days visiting family in eastern Slovakia, then went on to Dubai to visit our daughter Bridget, and her family. On Friday, 29 Oct 2010, I flew home from Dubai. It occurred to me then that I was entering the United States 100 years to the day after my grandfather had faced immigration agents at Ellis Island.

Grandpa sailed in detestable conditions in steerage (third class) on the steamship Kaiserin Auguste Victoria, one of hundreds of ships that made constant and repeated voyages transporting Europe's "huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of a teeming shore."  I wish I knew grandpa's thoughts as he viewed the Statue of Liberty which proclaims, "Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"*

Whereas he was embarking on a new and perhaps frightening perilous future, I was glad to "pass through the golden door" again to the familiar, welcoming, secure, comfortable, clean, pleasant life we have here. My trip consisted of 18 hours of flying time in "relative" comfort; 8.5 hours sitting around airports, including layovers in Frankfurt and Calgary; security checks at each airport (including a very long and thorough one in Calgary), a customs check in Dubai and two in Calgary. From Bridget's door to mine the trip took 27.5 hours.

Grandpa waited in line among thousands that day who, still in their varied native clothing, received an immigrant ID card, endured brief medical and eye checks, received a landing card, changed money, bought food and a train ticket, then picked up luggage and boarded a train (presumably for Pittsburgh in his case). While at Ellis Island he no doubt experienced an immigrant's greatest fear: that the medical exam would detect a condition that would lead to deportation.

Regarding his trip to Webster, unanswerable questions arise:  Did he have traveling companions on the train who spoke his language? How did he know when to get off the train? And then how did he find his way down to Webster to his uncle's home? Were strangers kind, or did they stare or poke fun at this greenhorn? Was $24 enough for the train ticket and food? Did he even recognize his uncle whom he had not seen in years?

My trip to the US was simple and routine. One hundred years ago grandpa's had been anything but that. I deeply appreciate that he that he faced west towards the unknown to take the steps that created the abundant life my family enjoys.

*quotes from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus


  1. Great post, and thought provoking.

  2. I just found your blog (I read Bridget's) and thought this post was beautiful. We also felt compelled to seek out our ancestors, and eventually ended up living in Italy. You might enjoy reading my description of our experience watching the groundbreaking for the Rome Temple and its significance for our Italian ancestors and for us:

  3. Thank you Sarah--I am touched by your blog post about the Rome Temple.