Racing to America
EDITOR’S NOTE: Beginning today, The Times will expand on its traditional Saturday Column One with Saturday Journal, a weekly feature highlighting the art of storytelling.
The SS Washington, already a relic of 19th century shipbuilding, plunged fitfully across the raging North Atlantic in the summer of 1923, spewing gray foam and shuddering from endless successions of white-capped waves.
At 370 feet, it was one of the smallest and slowest transatlantic passenger steamers. Still, the Washington raced. Survival of the steamship company could depend on the outcome. So too the futures of 124 immigrants who boarded the old ship in Constantinople and Piraeus nearly three weeks before.
Already there had been five straight days of storms. It must have seemed to many the plodding ship was crawling to New York.
Deep in steerage, the moans of seasick passengers added to the eerie whine and thunder of gale force winds and pounding waves. Ten-year-old Aron, a Mennonite boy from Ukraine, sat motionless, braced against a bulkhead by the stairwell. He studied a picture of the ship mounted on the wall.
If he noticed that the pictured ship was called the SS Acropolis, its former name, the distinction meant nothing to him. He was looking for something else. The picture depicted another stormy day, and the ship--Aron’s ship--was doing fine.
The boy came here often. The ship on the wall was never in trouble. And the boy was always reassured.
A few flights up, Capt. Stephanos Bacoyanis prowled the bridge deck. The Greek American seaman was proud to command his first ship. And he, perhaps alone on the tiny island of steel, welcomed the foul weather. It neutralized the speed advantage of virtually every other vessel in the race.
When the weather was clear, Bacoyanis had seen some of the others, barely boils at times on the horizon, but he knew them: The SS Polonia out of Copenhagen and Danzig; the French ship SS Canada out of the Black Sea; Italy’s SS Presidente Wilson. There were more--all of them bigger, faster and seeking the same prize.
Effective at midnight, July 1, 1923, a new fiscal year began in the United States. And, precisely at that moment, a new immigrant quota year dawned.
But for immigrants from Greece and Turkey, and other eastern and southern Europeans, the newly opened quotas likely would last only days. Some could close by the Fourth of July, a few within hours. First come, first counted. Then, America’s open doors slammed shut again.
Some on board already tasted that bitter experience.
Malamo Delianides, for one. Sailing from Athens with her new American husband earlier in the spring, she got only as far as Marseilles. Marriage license or not, the French ocean liner would not risk taking a Greek woman to New York with the Greek quota already closed.
She was put ashore. She hocked her wedding ring for passage back to Greece while her husband continued to Ohio. That was two months ago. Now, with money from her husband but still no wedding ring, she was trying again.
And Molik Sogoian, an Armenian laborer traveling with 9-year-old son Agassy. One of his brothers got as far as Ellis Island. The brother’s wife even gave birth to a baby girl in the island hospital. They called her Ellis.
The baby could have stayed. She was born an American, after all. But mother and father exceeded the quota. The whole family had to ship back to Constantinople.
Then, much like today, with modern polls showing general opposition to more immigration from Latin America and Asia, public sentiment was decidedly anti-immigrant. Especially if the immigrants were not western European.
Amid almost national hysteria over the surge in southern and eastern European migration, Congress and President Harding in 1921 imposed severe quotas based, for the first time, on nationality.
As one Immigration Service report explained, there were concerns that “the fundamental racial character” of immigrants should more closely resemble the “racial stocks which were common . . . during Colonial times.”
A popular song of the day was “O! Close the Gates.”
“Our flag they do not honor,
Our rights they will betray
“O! Close the gates of our nation
Yes, before that awful day.
“O! Close the gates of our nation,
Lock them firm and strong,
“Before that mob from Europe
Shall drag our colors down.
The Quota Act of 1921 ended a century of unrestricted European immigration, during which 30 million entered the open gates of America. By summer 1923, the quota controls had radically reduced the influx of “less desirable” immigrants from Greece, Turkey, Armenia, the Balkans and Russia.
Greek immigrants in the years before World War I reached about 4,000 per month. Under strict quota controls, however, fewer than 3,100 Greeks would be admitted for the entire fiscal year. And July’s quota was only 613.
Battling through that North Atlantic storm, the Washington was a ship of less desirables, filled with that mob from Europe, its entire passenger manifest subject to the strictest quotas. If another, larger ship was counted first, those quotas could fill before a single Washington passenger got to the head of the immigration line.
Stubbornly, Capt. Bacoyanis steered a course, weather be damned, to reach the waters off Coney Island by the eve of the quota year. Otherwise, his first command could be his last.
The Booras Brothers Navigation Co. was a one-ship enterprise.
The Washington cost $28,000 at a marshal’s sale, and this, its first voyage under new ownership, would at best break even. If too many of its passengers were rejected by the Immigration Service, the company could not afford the cost of returning them.
The Greek American Booras brothers were so stretched, in fact, that even winning the race was no guarantee of their economic survival.
For the 124 mostly seasick passengers in the belly of the Booras steamer, the Great Quota Race of 1923 was nothing less than a race for destiny.
This is the story of that race and what became of those “less desirables” who through quirks of circumstance and history shared the same boat 75 years ago.
One of them was a baby boy, born to German-speaking Mennonites from Russia in a hospital near the docks of Constantinople.
His family was sick, homeless and chronically hungry. They spoke no English. They had in their pockets $30, but it was borrowed along with the fare for their steerage quarters.
The baby had a brother, 10-year-old Aron, and three sisters, Marie, Agatha and Susie. They, along with his mother and father, Aron Sr., were Russian citizens.
The baby, by accident of birth, was officially Turkish. His name was Willie. And he was my father.
Chapter One: Acts of God and History
The SS Washington was never a luxury liner. Built in Belfast in 1890 by the makers of the Titanic, it first hauled cargo as the SS Michigan, and later troops during the Spanish-American War as the SS Kilpatrick. After WWI it was outfitted with 600 berths, was rechristened Acropolis and entered the immigrant trade.
The refurbished steamer was on its first voyage when Harding signed the Quota Act. The ship promptly sailed into bankruptcy.
In the spring of 1923, the Booras brothers bought it, paying little more than its scrap value, renamed it the Washington, hired a mostly Greek crew at wages of $1.50 to $3 per day, ordered 1,410 tons of coal to fuel its round trip and sent it off to Constantinople under the command of its prematurely gray master.
Capt. Bacoyanis, 36, had been an American citizen barely five years, acquiring his naturalization papers while serving as a seaman aboard U.S. merchant ships. He was born in Piraeus, the port of Athens, and started to sea at 17 as a deck boy on British ships.
On Saturday, June 2, 1923, the immigrant captain brought his immigrant ship into Constantinople. Some from his crew of 130 helped swing a ramp into place from the deck to the pier.
The gangway to America was open.
Among the first passengers up the ramp was a Greek Orthodox priest, Papa Christodoulos, his long beard trimmed short on advice of his two sons in America. Don’t look too foreign, they warned. Still, in his priestly habit--a great black robe and canister-shaped hat--Christodoulos Hadzigeorgiou could not help but stand apart.
He was bound for Ohio, along with his youngest son, George, and niece Maria Toannan, both about 14, and a future daughter-in-law, Kathrine Delianis, 26, who was to marry one of the priest’s sons, the operator of a shoeshine and hat-cleaning establishment in Cincinnati. She would become a Pappas. The sons of Papa Christodoulos in America had changed their names, to sound less foreign.
The little group’s journey to the gangway of the Washington began months earlier, in terror and chaos, in the back of a Greek military truck evacuating wounded soldiers.
Maria clung to the tailgate, her face buried in the corner, trying not to see the boy without an arm. Trying not to hear the gasps and whimpers. Trying not to touch the soldier with no leg. Papa Christodoulos shared their bread and boiled chicken with the injured men.
Violence already had altered her life. Maria’s mother and father died in ethnic conflicts before she knew them, and she was taken in by her uncle. Papa Christodoulos raised her as a daughter.
Then came the Greek-Turkish War. Greek forces invaded Turkey. Maria remembered her Turkish neighbors running in fright, warning everyone: “The devils are coming!”
Initial Greek military successes were followed by devastating reversals. Next time Maria saw Greek soldiers, they were streaming through her village, near Bursa, in full retreat.
The truck that evacuated Maria and her family finally left them near a beach across the wide Sea of Marmara from Constantinople.
All civil order was gone. Maria saw young girls snatched from their families by marauding bands. But no one disturbed the priest. For three days huddled on the beach, Maria hid in the great folds of the cleric’s robe until they could be ferried to Constantinople.
Before boarding the Washington, Maria Toannan told a friend she was going where there was no war, where there were trees and flowers and food.
“I am going to paradise,” she said.
A family of musicians, the Russian-Armenian Kayaloffs, was first to board the steerage cabins. Their road to America started in Rostov, where the River Don meets the Black Sea, and where the widow Austina was unable to feed her four youngest children.
Two older sons, both violinists, were working in Constantinople, but the family was cut off at the start of the Russian Revolution.
Civil war spread violence, disease and famine throughout the region. For Austina and her youngest--pianists Rosa, 18, and Vladimir, 13, and cellists Anna, 16, and Christo, 11--music took a back seat to simple survival. They ate grass, when they could find it.
Their salvation came by chance when a Black Sea steamer made an unscheduled stop at Rostov to discharge the wife of the ship’s captain. She was pregnant and seasick.
The Kayaloffs made a deal: They turned over their Rostov home, with everything in it, to the captain’s wife in trade for the family’s one-way passage to Constantinople. There, the reunited Kayaloffs determined to take their music to America.
In immigrant quarters in Constantinople, Susanna Rempel, 31, sat motionless as her husband gently but rather crudely chopped off her long, silky hair. Though she had been through many more fearful moments in war-torn Russia, she cringed.
One night, bandits with chloroform attacked her family as they slept on a railroad siding. They had only meager valuables, but Susanna awoke to see her dental bridge smashed on the ground, her gold teeth gone.
During their long trek out of Ukraine, she had learned to make bread from tree bark. Once, in Batum in the Georgia Republic, the family slept in a blacksmith’s shop only to be awakened by snorting pigs who shared the space.
Through it all, Susanna never wavered. But as her long hair fell in clumps to the floor, her eyes overflowed. Silently she wept. Vanity was a sin in her tattered Mennonite Bible, so she prayed that God would forgive “my silly tears.”
Earlier that day, the Rempels had appeared for a pre-departure inspection at an American medical clinic near the port. They were rejected.
Despite Susanna’s best hygiene efforts, including kerosene shampoos, she and her daughters had head lice. Once, in a railroad boxcar filled with revolution refugees in Russia, they saw a man hurled off the moving train by fellow passengers because he was covered in the disease-carrying parasites.
They would not be allowed to board an America-bound ship until the entire family was free of infestation. Aron Sr., fully aware of U.S. quota limits and fearful that delay jeopardized the family’s best chance for admission, ordered everyone to submit to a shearing.
The next day, seven Rempels sailed off to America--bald.
Finally, by the time the SS Washington pushed off on Wednesday, June 6, it had taken aboard 56 passengers, all but a dozen in steerage. Among them were:
Leon Alvo, a Turkish Jew with plans to launch a business empire in New York. He left Constantinople with $30 and his prayer book.
Molik Sogoian who, with his son, hoped to join his brother Sogo Sogoian in Los Angeles to build a family trash-hauling business.
Irene Plimaritan Soppas, another newlywed. Her husband was waiting in Rahway, N.J. He owned a shoeshine and hat-making shop. She was going to New Jersey to make a family, and Panama hats.
The SS Washington arrived in Piraeus with more than twice as many crew members as paying customers. Bad math to any corporate accountant.
But Greek demand for passage to America was exploding. Even a decrepit ship could find customers in that kind of market.
Greece was struggling to absorb more than 1.2 million impoverished refugees--homeless Greeks and Armenians--forced out of Turkey. In a treaty imposed by the Turks in 1923, all ethnic Greeks living in Turkey were forcibly relocated to Greece, where there were neither jobs nor housing.
Athens, overflowing with the refuse of war and defeat, converted parks, museums and other public buildings to refugee camps.
In the unsanitary conditions of one such camp, a little Armenian girl named Margaret complained of a fever and headache.
Her father, Aram Dildilian, had saved the lives of more than 350 Armenian orphans in Turkey, hiding small groups of them in tunnels under his home in Marzefon, later running a big orphanage in Samsun on the central Turkish coast of the Black Sea, and finally evacuating all of them to Greece aboard a British steamer.
But Aram could not save his own little girl. One tormenting moment after another, his 3-year-old lost her ability to hear, then to see, then to speak. His diary recorded “our great loss:”
“I was pleading for the doctors to do something, anything . . . , but she passed away in her sweet and quiet way, as she was always.”
The flowers were still fresh on her small grave when Greek newspapers reported that only one week remained to arrange passage to America in time to beat the quota limits. Aram already had a visa, but his daughter’s death left him dazed. He wrote:
“I was alive but knocked senseless.”
Finally, all but pushed aboard by relatives, the Dildilian family--Aram, Christina and infant Armen--climbed the ramp to the Washington almost indifferent to their fate. As Aram wrote:
“We could not share the excitement of fellow travelers.”
Another newcomer to the Washington’s manifest had mixed feelings of his own. He was haunted by memories of the day he left his mother’s body buried in a shallow grave. The trip to America for Mihran Davidian, 21, began on a death march in his teens.
Armenians all over Turkey were being driven out of their homes and herded to the deserts of Syria, an ethnic cleansing campaign that the U.S. consul in the region then called “the most awful [crime] . . . that has ever been committed against any race of people.”
From 1915 to 1918, all through central Turkey, hundreds of Armenian villages became ghost towns. Tens of thousands fell victim to disease , starvation, bandits and brutal massacres.
One of those fresh ghost towns was Chomaklou, in central Turkey. Mihran’s village. The boy buried his mother as best he could but spent the rest of his life wishing he could go back and do it properly.
Along with his father, an Armenian cleric, Mihran walked . . . and walked . . . and walked. Sometimes they ran, or hid, or crawled. People dropped dead on the road in front of Mihran. Finally, even shallow graves were not possible. The dead were left to the wild dogs.
Mihran and his father became separated. Each thought the other must have been killed. It was the most common explanation. According to local historical records, of the 1,646 Chomaklou Armenians driven out of their homes, only 325 survived.
After reaching Syria safely, Mihran made his way to Jerusalem. His preacher father had talked often about going to the Holy City of his Christian faith. It was the only place young Mihran knew to search.
In Jerusalem, Mihran was directed to a building where Armenians gathered. And there was his father.
Father and son clung to each other. They cried. They hugged. They cried some more. They made plans to go to America.
The ship’s second-class cabins were filling with picture brides: young women traveling on fares paid for by single Greeks in America who proposed marriage on the basis of family interventions and the exchange of letters and photographs.
Stella Poulakis, 25, of the Greek island of Hios, had her passage paid out of profits from her fiance’s hot dog stand in Clarksburg, W.Va.
And Thomai Mellissa, 25, an ethnic Greek from Turkey, expected to meet her fiance at Ellis Island before traveling to Haynesville, La., where he ran a cigar and fruit store.
In all, there were 13 brides listed on the SS Washington manifest, heading for weddings with virtual strangers from Hoboken to Pocatello.
The Foltopoulos family may have been among the most eager to clamber up the steamer’s gangway. Their older brother Constantine was waiting in New York with a car and a house and jobs in his own restaurant.
Constantine had worked as a laborer on a Hudson River tunneling project, then as a busboy at a Greek restaurant. Now he owned his own diner.
A few years earlier, the family lived in relative comfort near Russian Georgia, where their father, an ethnic Greek, was a wealthy food importer. But he was also generous, regularly distributing cookies and other goods to poor families in the area.
During the revolution, after his death, that generosity saved his family.
Son Ernest was in a local tavern when menacing men entered. One told him to get out. Almost immediately he heard gunfire. Later he was told: “We didn’t do it for you. Your father was a good man.”
The family decided it was time to go. Leaving individually, so as not to attract attention, they smuggled themselves out of town, then out of the country. They ended up in Greece.
When five of the brothers and sisters boarded the Washington it was with great hopes, and a new name. They sailed for America as the Foltis family.
The British liner King Alexander had followed the Washington from Constantinople to Piraeus, casting an ominous shadow on the quota race. The British ship dwarfed the Washington physically and carried 10 times as many passengers.
As it had in Turkey, the King Alexander was taking on the lion’s share of Greek and Armenian passengers in Greece. It was a floating quota buster. So was the French steamer Canada, picking up passengers in the Black Sea.
Both competing ships had scheduled port calls in Italy. Without those stops, the bigger liners could make the crossing to New York in about two weeks.
By comparison, it would take the Washington a full week to cross the Mediterranean and two more from the Straits of Gibraltar to New York’s Ambrose Light.
Capt. Bacoyanis could wait no longer for additional ticket sales. On Saturday, June 9, he nosed the Washington out into the blue Aegean. Next stop: New York.
The tortoise had launched the race.
The Washington left Piraeus a ship of strangers. With little in common but shared tales of terror and deprivation, the passengers spoke as many languages as a small League of Nations: Greek, Hebrew, German, Russian, Armenian, Turkish, Persian, Ukrainian, French, Italian, Albanian and English.
Storms began early. By the second day, the strangers shared one thing more: seasickness. For a time, in their separate cabins, both Aram the Armenian and Susanna the Mennonite were too sick to help care for their infant sons.
The ship’s entertainment was a record player and a few Greek recordings. Greek dancing became a regular feature in the dining room after the evening meal.
Despite her own bouts of seasickness, Maria Toannan clapped and danced her way across the seas. One night, even Capt. Bacoyanis joined the boisterous line.
Then, a reminder of their shared vulnerability: a few hours out into the Atlantic, passengers sighted eight transatlantic steamers, all bound for America with passengers to compete for the limited quota space.
Aram Dildilian was reminded that there are no guarantees in life. Coming out of his depression over the loss of his daughter, he faced new anxieties.
He had reason for concern. He had only one real leg. By U.S. immigration standards, he was not able-bodied.
His German-made wooden leg with the hinged knee gave him trouble the last time Aram set out for America. It was 1907, and he had boarded a Cunard liner at Piraeus.
He talked his way past a skeptical purser and wrestled his luggage aboard without incident. He was preparing for bed in his cabin when they knocked.
It was the gold-braided captain with a delegation of officers. “You can’t go to America with this liner; you’re lame.” The shipping company was unwilling to risk paying to bring Aram back to Greece if U.S. immigration rejected his visa.
He and his luggage were put ashore. Next morning, Aram watched the rising sun turn the black waters of the harbor “red like fire.” The Cunard liner was gone.
Eventually, trekking across Europe to London and sailing to Halifax, Aram reached the U.S. by way of Canada. He studied photography at a small school in Effingham, Ill., before returning to his family in Turkey.
Earlier in 1923, before his daughter died, Aram took a collection of his original drawings and paintings to the U.S. Embassy in Athens. The works were proof that as an artist his artificial leg was no handicap. One painting depicted the Black Sea steamer that brought his orphans to Greece.
A vice consul assured Aram he would never go hungry in America with such talent. The diplomat signed the visa.
Nonetheless, based on his past disappointments, Aram sometimes worried the visa would not be enough at Ellis Island. Soon that suspense would be over.
Chapter Two: The Last Dash
At 4 p.m. on Saturday, June 30, the SS Washington steamed up the Ambrose Channel toward the Narrows. There, already anchored a conveniently close distance from the entrance to New York Harbor, was the King Alexander.
The winner would be the first to cross an imaginary line across the Narrows between Brooklyn’s Ft. Hamilton and Ft. Wadsworth on Staten Island. But not until midnight.
Capt. Bacoyanis squeezed his smaller ship into Gravesend Bay between the British steamer and the Danish Polonia. He radioed Washington, D.C., for the official time, then set his bridge clocks precisely.
Ten days of stormy weather in the final two weeks of the voyage, though hard on the passengers, had worked to the advantage of Capt. Bacoyanis and his crew. The slowest ship in the race had arrived in time to have its pick of excellent anchor sites.
But the other ships kept coming. The Italian Presidente Wilson with 776 passengers anchored off Staten Island, a riskier area due to sometimes erratic tides and winds. The elegant SS Aquitania dropped anchor further out, with 813 immigrants among its manifest filled with society and celebrity passengers.
The Swedish liner Stockholm carried more than 1,000 passengers; the Italian Giulio Cesare an additional 1,180 and the Nieuw Amsterdam listed 900, including 500 Dutch farmers and 35 picture brides.
The King Alexander was reporting 1,328 passengers, mostly Greeks. The Canada, with substantial numbers of Armenians and Greeks among its 949 passengers, anchored in the outer bay.
By nightfall, the outer bay resembled a parking lot for ocean liners. Port authorities diverted some late-arriving vessels to Boston.
The hopes of thousands of immigrants now rode on the outcome of one last nautical sprint.
On Ellis Island, a few miles beyond the Narrows, the new commissioner of immigration was moving into his office. Harry H. Curran knew what was waiting in the outer harbor. He knew he would not be going home again before the Fourth of July.
On Manhattan, the Rev. Oliver Paul Barnhill was preparing for his Sunday sermon at the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue. It had a patriotic theme in advance of the Fourth of July holiday: How the immigrant influx was ruining the morals of America.
He could not have been speaking about my grandmother. Or others aboard the Washington.
Out in the bay, Susanna Rempel read her Bible and prayed. She did so every night--in boxcars, sleeping with the pigs, at sea. It is likely others did the same. Mihran Davidian carried his liturgy book and frequently broke into song. Leon Alvo had his prayer book. Papa Christodoulos and son George ministered to other Greeks on the ship.
It was a humid evening, still in the 70s. A light breeze alternating out of the west and southwest provided some relief. But in the engine room, a full crew of shirtless, sweating coal-passers kept stoking the boilers.
Still at anchor, the Washington was ready for the last leg of the quota race: the midnight dash for the Narrows.
As the ship’s clocks counted down the last minutes of June, Capt. Bacoyanis plotted the distance, the time required to weigh anchor and the lag time to full speed.
Then he waited, listening to the night sounds of the harbor: clanking buoy bells, waves lapping at the hull, the moan of taut anchor lines . . . music from a ship’s band?
It came across the water, from the Staten Island side of the bay, from the decks of the Italian liner Presidente Wilson. A rousing Fascist anthem, “Giovinezza!” (Youth!).
“Hail, o heroic people!
“Hail, o immortal fatherland!
“Your sons are reborn
“With faith in the Ideal...”
But “Giovinezza” was a ploy. Under cover of the drums and trumpets of martial music, the Italian skipper had ordered his anchors up. Before any other captain knew what was happening, the Presidente Wilson was underway.
As the big ship steered into Ambrose Channel, the navigation waterway to the Narrows, passengers on her decks erupted in a great cheer heard on the Staten Island shore. The race was on.
In quick succession, anchor winches groaned into action from one ship to the next. The big ships jockeyed for position, churning up the placid bay like so many giant yachts lining up for the start of a regatta.
The Italian liner set a zigzag course to discourage any other liner from trying to pass. The tactic was unfair. But there were no race stewards. There were no rules.
On the SS Washington, Capt. Bacoyanis watched his clocks and eased the steamer toward the fray. The smaller Washington was all but unnoticed among the giant hulls.
Indeed, Capt. Roberto Stuparich on the Presidente Wilson’s bridge was worried most about the Canada. The French liner, with its manifest heavy on low-quota Greeks and Turks, seemed to have the best chance to cut off the Italians.
For a few moments, it appeared the two big ships were headed for the same spot in the channel. Then the Washington appeared.
Aram Dildilian watched in awe as Bacoyanis maneuvered between the zigzagging Presidente Wilson and the charging Canada. The French ship gave way.
“Our captain managed to steer so masterfully, and he squeezed through, rocking in between those huge ocean liners . . . just on time.”
The Washington cleared the Narrows running off the starboard quarter of the Presidente Wilson.
The Italian liner won the race. But the Washington, 30 seconds behind in the official record, beat the rest--most notably the third-place Canada and fifth-place King Alexander, with their low-quota passengers. Last ship into the harbor was the Aquitania.
It was dawn when the Washington nestled up to Pier 8 in Manhattan. Maria Toannan went on deck with Papa Christodoulos for her first view of paradise.
“Papa!” she gasped. “Look at the woman on the ocean!”
So the orphan girl from Bursa made her acquaintance with Lady Liberty.
Chapter Three: Ellis Island 4th of July
Susanna Rempel and her Mennonite family were taken to a quarantine center on tiny Hoffman Island where passengers with suspected contagious diseases were evaluated. She showed signs of malaria and the baby had infections from vaccines administered in Constantinople.
The family was led into a dining room where the breakfast aromas of coffee, bacon and fresh breads jolted Susanna.
She stopped, as if in distress, as her children rushed past her to a table covered in white linen with steaming stacks of hot cakes, pitchers of milk and fresh fruit.
But Susanna couldn’t move. She stood in the middle of the dining room and wept.
She was 99 years old the last time she described for me her first morning in America and that beautiful breakfast table. She still saw the steam rising. And she still wept.
“You don’t know what it means when your children, finally, can eat. I just thanked God for America.”
Aram Dildilian was hoping to be cleared directly to the streets of New York. Although all steerage-class passengers were required to go through the Ellis Island process, most first- and second-class cabin passengers were routinely admitted after only cursory examination aboard ship by a health inspector and an immigration officer. But not always.
The immigration man who came aboard early that morning studied Aram with a stern glare.
“What’s wrong with your leg?” he demanded but gave Aram no chance to respond. “You can’t enter. Go to Ellis Island.”
The Armenian’s worst fears seemed to be coming true. Aram would have to appear before an immigration hearing officer to argue that he was not handicapped, that he would not be a burden on the United States.
That night Aram shuddered at the sounds of slamming metal doors as he was locked into the men’s sleeping quarters, apart from his wife and baby.
To Aram, Ellis Island was a very crowded jail.
Among the first Washington passengers to disembark was a bride: Thomai Mellissa, 25, from Lesbos, a Greek island just off the coast of western Turkey.
First thing Monday, July 2, she exchanged wedding vows at the Manhattan Municipal Building on Broadway with Frank Richards, 29, whose mother also came from Lesbos.
Thomai signed her wedding affidavit with an “X” and went off to Haynesville, La., to start a new life with her cigar-and-fruit-stand husband.
Rules requiring immigrants to be literate, at least in their native language, were not as rigidly enforced for women.
Molik Sogoian, however, failed his literacy test and was held for a special board of inquiry. And like his brother before him, he was not so fortunate. A few days later, he and his son were ordered back to Constantinople.
Aram’s hearing was scheduled for Wednesday, the Fourth of July. Commissioner Curran had ordered all 494 Ellis Island inspectors and hearing officers to work through the holiday.
Newspapers had already reported that the quotas of seven countries had been exhausted for the month. The Greek quota was filled within 36 hours of the midnight race.
The Dildilian family was summoned into one of the small hearing rooms to face a three-judge panel. Aram scanned their faces. He was relieved to see that one had “a very sweet, sympathetic look.” He also was missing his right arm.
The chairman was less sympathetic. He noted the wooden leg. “You are not as supple as you should be.”
Aram explained how he lost his leg to infection as a boy but that he completed school, traveled to the U.S. to learn photography in Illinois, worked for a time at a photo studio in Pittsburgh and returned to Turkey to run a business and later an orphanage.
“I was able to support my family in peace and in wartime, and I am sure I can make a living here in this country too.”
His argument seemed well received, but there was another, more troubling matter. The chief officer said Aram could be admitted as an artist, exempt from any quota limits, and his wife could enter under the Turkish quota. But baby Armen was a problem.
The baby, born in Athens, fell under the Greek quota, and that quota was filled. Technically, the parents could stay, but the baby had to go back to Greece.
Stunned for a moment, Aram gathered his wits and protested. He was on the Washington. Capt. Bacoyanis had won the race. How could a Greek quota be filled for anyone off the Washington?
The judges huddled to verify the record, then the Dildilian records were stamped: “ADMITTED.” A tugboat ferried them to the Battery, at the tip of Manhattan, adding three more to a total of 1,394 immigrants admitted on Independence Day.
That night from the quarantine center on Hoffman Island, Aron Rempel and his oldest son watched in wonder the fireworks show across the bay at Coney Island.
“What is it?” asked the boy.
The father shrugged and shook his head. The 10-year-old could think of only one explanation:
“Maybe it’s to welcome the Rempels.”
As they were cleared one by one in the days that followed, the hopeful immigrants of the SS Washington stepped into an America that held, then as now, mixed and even hostile feelings about newcomers.
The American Legion, at its New York state convention that summer, called for immediate suspension of all foreign immigration.
The Alabama state Democratic Party had earlier passed a resolution specifically opposed to Mennonite immigration because their pacifist views made them “undesirable citizens.”
And numerous editorials supported even tougher quota laws to better assure an immigrant mix weighted to northern and western Europeans--those “aliens whose culture and characteristics are most nearly like our own,” as the New York Tribune put it.
But America’s economy was booming. Jobs outnumbered workers. If they could get in, the immigrants could work. If they could work, in time, they would own homes, raise families, fill pews, pay taxes, contribute to charities and support their new homeland--whether they were welcomed or not.
Chapter Four: A New Homeland
Malamo Delianides left Ellis Island to join her husband, Aristides, in Ohio. He, like many other Greek immigrants, already had become a U.S. citizen by volunteering to fight in World War I. He was wounded in the war.
When she arrived, he had steady work in the steel mills, but that did not last. During the Depression, others were getting called back for work when he was not. A man at the plant explained Americans were getting priority.
“But I’m an American,” Aristides said.
“No, I mean real Americans,” responded the man.
Malamo took in laundry and started a summer business from her home, ordering weekly barrels of iced fish from Rhode Island. She traded fish for vegetables or haircuts for her children.
When eldest son Theophilus was 10, Malamo got him a job at a shoeshine parlor, making 10 cents an hour, plus tips. Next oldest son Paul got a newspaper route. Together, the Delianides family brought in enough nickels, dimes and vegetables to survive the Great Depression.
In 1944, Theophilus shipped off to war aboard the troop ship Aquitania, the same one that finished 6 minutes behind the Washington. He was sent to Belgium just in time for the Battle of the Bulge.
One damp night, a German plane dropped a shrapnel-laden bomb down the chimney of a stove that was keeping young Delianides and his buddies warm. Malamo’s boy survived. Some of his companions did not.
The son of immigrant Greeks carries pieces of that German bomb in his flesh. He went on to spend a 30-year career in military intelligence, keeping tabs on Russian missile placements through the Cold War.
In Rahway, N.J., Irene Soppas was reunited with her husband, Dimitrios. They opened the Victory Hat Shop and shoeshine parlor. They had three sons. All worked as shoeshine boys.
The name of the family store was inspired by Dimitrios’ pride in the outcome of WWI. He fought in the U.S. Army 82nd Division, became a U.S. citizen while serving as a soldier and was wounded on a French battlefield.
On his trip to Turkey to meet and marry Irene in 1923, he carried with him a large American flag. At times he wore it around his shoulders, a proclamation in anti-Greek Turkey that “I’m an American.”
Back home in Rahway, Dimitrios donated that flag to the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
In the steel mill town of Middletown, Ohio, Papa Christodoulos settled down with his sons and niece Maria Toannan.
The area had a booming Greek population but no Greek church. The 62-year-old cleric helped establish Sts. Constantine and Helen Church and became its first priest.
Maria married and followed her Greek American husband to a town near Hazard, Ky. They started a family and lived over a grocery and candy store they operated.
It was coal mining country. Poor, dirty and backward. Maria, who became Mary Bugitzedes after her wedding, carried water from the river to wash clothes.
The first time she tried to vote, she was blocked. The sheriff intervened to convince polling officials that the woman with the foreign accent was in fact an American.
In New York, Constantine “Gus” Foltis, the onetime busboy who now owned his own restaurant, had jobs waiting for his brothers and sisters the day they walked off the Washington. They cooked, cleared tables, washed dishes and served customers.
With the help of his newly arrived family, Gus opened one new lunchroom after another. His first shop was on Columbus Circle. Later, a large Foltis restaurant opened on Times Square. By 1928, the family operated six eateries, grossing $1.5 million a year.
That year Gus merged with the Fischer restaurants to create the Foltis-Fischer chain of 33 inexpensive cafeterias.
The inexpensive fare made the cafeterias especially popular with starving artists, writers and the angry intellectuals of New York during the Depression.
Writer William Barrett and poet Delmore Schwartz dined often at the Foltis-Fischer cafeteria on West 23rd St. Invariably, their choice was “the 40-cent dinner.” Though critics of the cuisine, they raved about the prices.
For an extra nickel they got rice pudding instead of Jello.
The Foltis family tried to give jobs to any Greek immigrant who knocked on their door. The only requirements: They had to work hard and learn English.
In later years, youngest brother George opened his own restaurant near the Jersey Shore, where he continued the Foltis tradition of hiring family and feeding the poor.
His son learned an early lesson about generosity when one night he saw his father serve a full-course meal to a man who asked what he could buy for 53 cents.
Leon Alvo tried his hand at the restaurant business in New York as well. Turkish cuisine. It failed.
He had more success selling melons off a horse-drawn cart. One day a city health inspector noticed the sliced fruit was drawing flies and ordered Leon to find covers.
The only material Alvo could find was his wife’s lacy floor-length bridal veil. He cut it into neat squares. Some of the extra lace he draped over the fruit cart.
His wife never quite forgave him. But it saved the business.
When Leon’s health declined, a doctor recommended he relocate to California. In Los Angeles, he became a florist to the stars. He sold corsages at nightspots like Ciro’s and built a successful business.
Though a devout Jew, Leon made regular contributions to priests and preachers who called on him. “There’s only one God. As long as people are praying, it doesn’t matter where they’re doing it,” he told one of his daughters.
Not everyone in 1940s Los Angeles was as ecumenical, however. His son Aaron was denied a chance to play football in high school when a coach told him he would get in trouble if he “let a Jew boy” on the team.
Leon tried to console the bitterly disappointed youth. He said to work hard and “someday these people who think they’re better will be working for the immigrant’s son.”
Aaron Alvo ended up owning a printing business that, before he died, landed the contract to print passports for the U.S. government.
The Kayaloff family moved from Ellis Island into the New York musical world. The six brothers and sisters took any job that paid: weddings, parties, even speak-easies.
Eldest brother Yasha landed a chair in the first violin section of the Philadelphia Orchestra for the 1925-26 season. He played with the orchestra for 24 years. He died during a performance in 1948.
Anna played cello in the orchestra pits of Broadway, a regular for such productions as “My Fair Lady” and “Hello Dolly.”
Vladimir was already a gifted pianist when he got off the boat at age 13, but he was too young to get jobs. Desperate for income to feed so many mouths, the family dressed the boy in suit and tie and gave him a cigar to look older.
He ended up working in some of the finest clubs in the city, including the Waldorf Astoria’s Peacock Alley.
In March 1940, a small group of celebrities joined the first lady and Cabinet secretaries to help President Franklin D. Roosevelt celebrate the seventh anniversary of his first inauguration. The late-night supper party started shortly after midnight in the White House.
Carmen Miranda rushed over from her last number at the National Theater. Kitty Carlisle and Italian chanteuse Nilli Monte each took the floor to sing. And receiving applause at the White House piano, a very long way from steerage, was Vladimir Kayaloff.
The Dildilians moved to San Francisco, where Aram became a highly regarded photo lab technician. One of his early clients was a little-known photographer named Ansel Adams.
Before heading west from Ellis Island, Armen stopped in New York City to make his first big investment: He bought a new leg. Thereafter, at least part of Aram Dildilian was always made in America.
Mihran Davidian and his father ended up running a vineyard in central California. The son became a successful raisin grower in the foothills of the Sierras, an area much like the region of Turkey they had fled. For a time his father served as priest of the Armenian church in the nearby town of Yettem, which in Armenian means “Garden of Eden.”
Molik Sogoian and his son, who were rejected by Ellis Island immigration authorities, made another try two years later and were allowed to immigrate in 1925. They settled in Los Angeles and went into the trash hauling business with Molik’s brothers.
A short distance from Yettem--across fields of alfalfa and grapes and lush orchards of plums, peaches and oranges--the Mennonite enclave of Dinuba received the Rempel family.
Aron learned English and ran teams of Mennonite farm laborers.
The family, which grew to eight children, soon owned its own farm.
After Pearl Harbor, the Rempels were troubled by the internment of Japanese American families in the area, who were taken away to camps with names like Manzanar. Many of them had been citizens much longer than the Rempels.
For Aron and Susanna, who still spoke German at home, it reminded them of the vulnerability of those who look or sound foreign. And it stirred chilling memories of abuses in authoritarian Russia.
Aron wanted to be as far as possible from the centers of government. During WWI, he had moved his family to Siberia. Alaska offered similar appeal. Late in 1943, the farm was sold.
At 62, an age when most men are looking ahead to retirement, Aron was taking his immigrant family to Alaska’s Matanuska Valley to finish his days as a pioneer farmer.
In Dinuba, on a January morning in 1944, the Constantinople baby, now a muscular 21-year-old farmboy who called himself Bill, loaded a Union Pacific boxcar with a dozen cows, one bull, a half-dozen Hampshire hogs and a crate of 50 chickens. He climbed aboard with his dog, Rex, and a box of food from Susanna.
He had responsibility for getting all of the family’s farm assets moved to an 80-acre tract in Palmer, Alaska. He was traveling alone.
Rex, frightened by the boom and clatter of a coupling train, spent only one night in the boxcar and leaped to freedom somewhere outside Fresno. The food was gone by Sacramento.
A friendly train conductor invited young Bill to eat with the crew.
Then, inspecting the boxcar full of livestock and a trailing flatcar loaded with farm machinery, the conductor shook his head.
Referring to African refugees displaced by wars with Britain, the conductor said: “You must be the last of the Zulus.”
Finally, by ocean ferry from Seattle to Seward, the cattle and chickens were delivered to the Territory of Alaska.
When he arrived, it was 20-below in the glacial valley below magnificent Pioneer Peak. But it turned out to be a good place to start a new life.
Bill met Palmer’s reigning Miss Matanuska Maid, a genuine Yankee from Michigan named Dorothy. A second-generation American born on the Fourth of July. They were married in a log church in Palmer.
And their first-born wrote this story.
The SS Washington never completed another immigrant voyage. Despite winning the quota race, it lost to impatient creditors who forced the Booras brothers into bankruptcy within days. A year later the steamer was sold for scrap.
Capt. Bacoyanis returned to sea and commanded various merchant marine vessels in the South Pacific during World War II.
His liberty ship, the Phoebe A. Hearst, was en route to Pago Pago with 3,000 tons of aircraft fuel, bombs and other munitions on April 30, 1943, when it was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine Kinashi.
As fire spread across the deck and into the cargo holds, all 56 men aboard scrambled into lifeboats. They were well away from the ship when the bombs exploded, sending debris 1,500 feet into the air and the ship to the bottom.
Bacoyanis and his crew were rescued after two weeks adrift. There were no casualties.
The captain retired after 50 years at sea and died in San Francisco in 1958. He was buried on a hill overlooking the Pacific, not far from the graves of Aram and Christina Dildilian.
Chapter Five: Legacies
The legacy of the SS Washington lives on.
From among descendants of the Washington’s manifest there are pediatricians, eye doctors, radiologists, pharmacists and dentists. There are scientists, engineers and geologists. There are police officers, computer programmers and intelligence analysts.
The offspring of those passengers have occupied city councils, corporate boards and regulatory agencies. They are investors, business executives and entrepreneurs. There is a judge, an airline captain and a soup kitchen volunteer.
There are authors, artists, ministers and graphics designers. There are actors, musicians, mechanics and vacuum cleaner salesmen.
They teach, they do medical research, they fix television sets and they take minutes of meetings. One is a carrot farmer. They play college football, race sailboats and coach Little League teams. They are students, truck drivers, grocers, bank tellers and shoe salesmen.
There may be some dilemmas posed by high immigration numbers today that are more complicated than they were in 1923. Certainly the country is more crowded, its economy more mature, its undeveloped territory more limited.
But when I hear debate about whether the immigrants of one country or another are less desirable, I think of my grandmother, one of those “less desirables” on the SS Washington.
Susanna Rempel died in 1996 at the age of 104. She left nearly 100 descendants. The last time we talked about Ellis Island, she still was moved by the country’s generosity to her family.
“America took us poor people in,” she said.
“God Bless America!”
Times senior editorial researcher Nona Yates contributed research and reporting in Los Angeles and Fresno. Times researchers Lisa Meyer in New York, Edith Stanley in Atlanta and John Beckham in Chicago also contributed to this story.
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Fortunes of the SS Washington
Besting a dozen or more vessels filled with immigrants coming to the United States, the Washington sailed into New York Harbor at 30 seconds past midnight on July 1, 1923. Many of the 80 families who had boarded her in Constantinople, Turkey, were leaving homelands torn by revolution and violence, looking to a new life in America. The maps below show the original towns and American destinations of 10 of the families.