Written by Gabby Gartner, aged fifteen (inspired by the story of my great-great-grandfather)
I pushed through the crowd, lugging my suitcase behind me. It bumped over the uneven road and often into those moving around me. They threw dirty glances my way, but I wasn’t paying attention. The smell of sweat, saltwater and anticipation stung my nose. I picked up my pace. Through the thick mass of people, I was just able to see the name of the ship sprawled across its side. It said “Die Heldin”. In English that means, “The Heroine”. My foot slammed against something hollow – I looked down. Wood. I had made it to the dock. I ran.
I remember my suitcase feeling lighter in my hands as I raced to the end of the dock. There were more people crammed onto it than it could really hold, and it creaked with each of my frantic footfalls. The nearer I got to the end of the dock, the more shouts rose around me. Angry people – really angry. I understood, though. They had probably been waiting for weeks, some maybe even months, but I just pushed ahead. But I had to keep pushing. I remember each time someone yelled after me, I would yell back one simple word – ‘sorry’. There is not much more you can say, after all.
But then I got to a point where the people simply wouldn’t budge. They stayed where they were no matter how much I tried to shove my way in. That was when I began to panic. I craned my neck to see what was causing the roadblock. Then I saw it – I was meters away from where people boarded the ship. There was someone waiting to begin taking tickets at the entrance. I had made it as far as I could go.
Now, it was my turn to wait.
Honestly, I probably should have taken advantage of that – I had been moving all day. Somehow, I think that just made me more restless. That same morning I had said goodbye to my father, mother and sister, and now I was at the docks. I knew that that was not something that happened very often. I was very fortunate. How long it took me to notice that is something else altogether.
The fact that I was given time to think, might have made me more emotional than I had been all day. I have always found that there is something about having a task at hand that distracts you from getting too emotional.
I thought about my family the most. My mother, father and sister couldn’t come with me. They had to stay in Germany, at least until another ship came in. My two older brothers, Peter and John, had already left Germany and were waiting for me at my destination. I hadn’t seen them for a very long time.
I remember the day my father – Mr. Peter Gartner – told me that I would be making the journey alone. I have never felt as much fear in my life as I did in that moment. He turned to me, with love and fierce determination in his eyes, and said in a low voice, “Son, you are going to take the new boat that is coming next week.” Simple words that changed everything for me.
I liked my life. I was learning the family trade- making shoes. And I had just passed the test that my father set me to prove I was ready. He was a very stern, but loving man. He learned shoemaking from his father, and he wanted all his sons to be able to do the same. He wanted nothing but the best for his children. That’s why my parents saved up all the money from the family business to buy me a passport and ticket to be able to travel. They believed that there were opportunities waiting for me in the new land, that I couldn’t get in Worms, my hometown. How I loved that town. It was small and fairly insignificant, but it was everything to me. I had never actually been outside of it.
Now, in 1876, I was going to go far away from it. You see, I was going to take this boat all the way to the Americas. A place where they didn’t speak my language, where I didn’t know how things worked, where I didn’t have a home.
At this point in my thoughts, I can just remember being distracted by someone who pushed past me. I looked up quickly to see them shoving into the crowd. All around me, cries of injustice flew as he elbowed his way in deeper. When he reached the boat, I saw that he was dressed in a ship captain’s outfit. He ran to the stern, and out of sight. Once he did, the first man who was standing on the boat reached his hands out.
The crowd was now desperately silent.
Then, the man said, “Now that the captain has boarded the ship, we may proceed with the boarding process.”
The crowd cried out in joy as if it was one, and I did too. Slowly, painfully, people began to shuffle forward to board. The closer I got, the more excited and nervous I became. It was almost like adrenaline had replaced my blood.
Within an hour, I had gotten to the entrance of the ship. I remember my heart being in my fingertips when the man held out his hand to see my passport. I fumbled to dig it out of my suitcase.
Ah… That suitcase. It held not more than a single loaf of bread, a small wheel of cheese, a photo album, and a stack of stationary to write letters home once we arrived. And, of course, my passport. The actual case itself was in very poor shape. The leather handle had lost its color from years of use, the gray-green color on its body was peeling off too. Yet, it was the only thing that I had from my old life as I made my way to a new one.
Where was I? Ah, yes. I managed to find my passport in the jumble of those items, but let me tell you, it was not easy. I was so apprehensive that the average task was made one thousand times harder.
But once I had handed the little booklet to the man, he stared at my angry-looking face in the passport photo, then glanced up to see my real face. He pointed at the photo, turning the passport around to show me, and said, “You’re Adam Gartner?”
I simply nodded. In those moments, I don’t think I breathed once. Traveling anxiety happens to everyone, right?
But all was well, and soon he handed my passport back to me and pointed to the steerage where I, as well as the other passengers, would be for the journey. I don’t know quite how long the wait was for everyone to get boarded after I got on, but it was long. I chose a corner to sit in. I figured that it would be nice to be able to have something to lean against in the long weeks ahead.
As time passed, the steerage got fuller, and fuller and fuller. People were packed into every possible centimeter in that room. Out of everyone there, I think I had the most belongings. More came empty handed than not. It made me feel slightly guilty, but then again, it was not as if I had packed anything luxurious.
After what felt like forever, everyone had boarded. Suddenly, the boat started to move. We set off for what were the longest three weeks of my life.
I slowly ate away at the cheese and bread as the days wore on. This drew a lot of jealous stares my way. There was a boy who sat right in front of me that looked even hungrier than the rest. In the end, I introduced myself to him and gave him a pretty sizable amount of my food for the part of the trip that remained. He ended up being very good company for the rest of the voyage.
That’s about all that happened on the boat, it was pretty repetitive, as you can probably imagine. In the end, that little corner got very uncomfortable.
I had finally arrived at a port in New York State. I was already rallying all of my remaining energy for the next step of my journey – a train to Nebraska. As soon as the captain announced that we had arrived, I threw all of my things haphazardly into my suitcase and dashed out of that steerage. Let me tell you, I never looked back.
I ran down off the boat onto the dock, frantically scanning the mass of people waiting there to see if I could find my brothers.
Then, my eyes were drawn to two tall young men. One was waving frantically in my direction. When I looked at him, his eyes lit up. He nudged the man standing next to him, who looked up and began waving too. They both had huge smiles on their faces, and I’m sure mine was double the size of theirs.
I rushed through the people into the warm embrace of my brothers, that I had missed more than anything all that time they were away. My life would never be the same, but I was certain that the life ahead of me would be better than the one I left behind.