OpinionOp-Ed
Op-Ed

The boy who was desperate to be an American

OpinionCommentaryNewspapersPoliticsMigrationNewspaper and MagazineJudaism
Once upon a time, a minor entering the country illegally could be celebrated, not vilified

There was a time in the United States when a youngster trying to enter the country illegally could be celebrated rather than vilified. In the last year, thousands of minors have been intercepted crossing the border with Mexico; none has been treated in the media like Benjamin Axelrod, my wife's great-grandfather and possibly the most persistent immigrant in our history.

Axelrod was born in 1894 or 1895 in Russian Podolia (now part of Ukraine). He died in 1973 in Florida, a successful immigrant Jewish businessman, like so many others. But when my mother-in-law began to research her family history last year, she discovered that his story was much more remarkable: Her grandfather had once been the famous "boy stowaway," hailed in newspapers across the country for his relentless struggle to become an American.

On Dec. 3, 1907, the New York Times reported that Axelrod, then 12, was being held in the detention room at Ellis Island after making it to New York on his own for the seventh time. With no relatives in the United States to take him in, he had been deported back to Europe after his six previous stowaway trips, which added up to 13 journeys across the Atlantic in less than two years. Axelrod's arrivals in New York had become so regular that Ellis Island officials reportedly greeted him as an old friend.

The officers on the Russian steamships on which Axelrod hid knew to look out for him. Even the laborers on the piers were said to be on alert. It made no difference. As soon as a steamship carrying Axelrod home made its first stop in Europe, he would hop off and sneak onto the next ship headed back to New York, sometimes hiding in the ship's coal bunkers. "Back and forth he goes, a human shuttlecock between Rotterdam and New York," one newspaper wrote.

Axelrod made his initial journey from the Latvian port at Liepaja on the Baltic Sea. Most of the many newspaper stories written about him between 1907 and 1909 suggest that he left home because his parents were too poor to feed a large family. One article describes Axelrod's vision of America as a place where people were so rich they ate white bread at every meal. My mother-in-law's research hasn't uncovered the specifics of Axelrod's family circumstances, but the brutal pogroms in Podolia at the time would have been reason alone to flee.

Some of the articles about Axelrod include anecdotes that may well be exaggerated. One account has him locked in leg irons, diving out of a porthole in a failed attempt to escape another return trip to Europe. But there's little doubt he suffered a great deal on his journeys. A June 1907 record from a Russian steamship listed Axelrod as a stowaway and added that he was "cruelly treated." A 1908 newspaper report describes him being led off another ship shackled and half-starved.

Axelrod's seventh trip to New York looked as if it would be his last. Just two days after the New York Times announced his arrival, the Washington Post reported that a New York tailor had agreed to take custody of him. But in February 1908, reports surfaced that Axelrod, now referred to as the "champion stowaway," was back at Ellis Island. The tailor apparently found Axelrod "incorrigible" and turned him over to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

That April the Sun newspaper followed up with a story noting that Axelrod had participated in a Passover Seder held for 36 Jewish detainees at Ellis Island. Axelrod read the Four Questions, "and the rabbi answered him with an intoned narrative of the deliverance from Egypt and the long, wearisome journey to the promised land." Two of the detainees wept, but according to the article, by the end of the evening everyone seemed happy "except Benjamin Axelrod, who is to be torn again from the shores that he loves."

Had Axelrod been 16, he probably would have been allowed to remain in America. Given how much attention his story received, it's perhaps surprising that an exception wasn't made, especially considering that Robert Watchorn, the commissioner of immigration for the Port of New York, had taken a personal interest in the boy stowaway. One article said Watchorn, himself an immigrant, even gave the boy an overcoat.

If Watchorn offered a sympathetic ear, he must also have regarded Axelrod as a headache. The policy was to discourage stowaways by deporting them. Axelrod was making a mockery of the law.

Sometime early in 1909, Watchorn sent Axelrod back to Europe, reportedly with a warning that he would never again be allowed to step foot on American soil. Watchorn should have known better. By March, the New York Herald reported that Axelrod had made it back as far as Canada and was heading to New York. "Watchorn in Despair" the article's subheadline blares.

Axelrod's stowaway story comes to a close on May 19, 1909. On that day the New York Times ran a brief under the headline "Can't Keep This Stowaway Out." A second article on the same page revealed that Watchorn had resigned over an unrelated investigation. Deporting Axelrod, who was by then close to 16, likely wasn't a priority for the new commissioner.

Ten years later, Axelrod became a U.S. citizen at a moment when Jews in Russia were being murdered by the tens of thousands. He would go on to run a dishware business. One of his seven great-grandchildren recently argued and won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

My favorite of the boy stowaway articles is a 1907 editorial that ran in the Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper. Headlined "We Need Boys Like Benjamin Axelrod," it paints his attempts to sneak into the country not as a flouting of the law but as a profound testament to his belief in America and its institutions.

This Fourth of July weekend, remember Benjamin Axelrod.

Sam Apple teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of "Schlepping Through the Alps" and "American Parent."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
OpinionCommentaryNewspapersPoliticsMigrationNewspaper and MagazineJudaism
  • Addressing the border crisis
    Addressing the border crisis

    Tens of thousands of Central American children, some accompanied by adults but most traveling alone, have surged across the U.S.-Mexican border in recent months. The flood has swamped the border security infrastructure as well as the youth housing facilities maintained by the Department of...

  • Heard on the Fourth of July -- from Frederick Douglass to Ronald Reagan
    Heard on the Fourth of July -- from Frederick Douglass to Ronald Reagan

    Each year on July 4, Americans celebrate the nation's founding with picnics, fireworks, music and speechifying. Noah Remnick compiled these excerpts from notable Fourth of July speeches:

  • Calling all opinionated poets
    Calling all opinionated poets

    Last year, when we asked readers to submit opinion poetry, we were overwhelmed. More than 1,500 poets answered the call, many with multiple entries. The poems we received dealt with every issue of the day, including the war on terror, the economy, the nanny state, student debt and the...

  • California needs to overhaul its protection of groundwater
    California needs to overhaul its protection of groundwater

    There are many environmentally worrisome aspects of oil and gas production, and one is the injection of wastewater back into the ground. This process — a way of disposing of the contaminated water created during the drilling process — is done in conventional oil and gas drilling, and is even...

  • In California, good vital signs for Obamacare
    In California, good vital signs for Obamacare

    Two pieces of news this week illustrated how much progress California is making on one of the main goals of the 2010 federal healthcare law, extending coverage to the uninsured. A new survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation estimated that the percentage of uninsured Californians has been...

  • Israel's doctrine of proportionality in Gaza
    Israel's doctrine of proportionality in Gaza

    War between a democracy and a terrorist organization is not symmetrical.

  • Dead Palestinian children in Gaza tell story of impunity
    Dead Palestinian children in Gaza tell story of impunity

    By the time you read this, who knows how many people will have been killed in Israel's latest onslaught in the Gaza Strip? As I write, some 1,400 mostly civilian Palestinians have been killed, including hundreds of children. Also, 59 Israelis have been killed, 56 of them military...

  • In California, a way out of the medical marijuana morass
    In California, a way out of the medical marijuana morass

    Nearly two decades after California voters legalized medical marijuana, legislators are as close as they've ever been to passing the first comprehensive statewide regulations for the cultivation, transportation and distribution of the drug. This is long past due. State leaders should not...

Comments
Loading