No Coincidence – No Story (Part 2)

Bashert…meant to be.

 Who were the immigrants held in quarantine on House Island in 1923??

I am a long time mystery reader. Following in the foot steps of my favorite detectives: Detective Porfiry,Sherlock Holmes, VI Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, and my latest Flavia de Luce (an 11-year-old amateur sleuth), I begin my ‘investigation.’ I contact everyone in Maine who might have information about the immigration history of Portland.

Many of the early immigrants coming to Portland, Maine settled in the Munjoy Hill area. Italians settled on India and Middle Streets and started businesses such as Amato’s bakery (1903.) http://www.amatos.com/

Munjoy-Hill-Map

Aside: Mystery of the Black Dahlia

One of the greatest unsolved mysteries involved a woman who had grown up on Munjoy Hill and moved to Hollywood where she was brutally murdered. http://mainetoday.com/profiles/the-black-dahlia-lived-on-munjoy-hill-an-unsolved-murder-from-the-vaults/

 The Irish immigrants congregated in two main neighborhoods and the streets connecting them along Portland’s waterfront: the west end, later known as Gorham’s Corner, with its Saint Dominic’s parish (the oldest Catholic Church in Portland, dating from 1833); and the east end, better known as Munjoy Hill, with its Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (1866). Michael Connolly http://www.amazon.com/They-Change-Their-Sky-Irish/dp/0891011102

Book Cover

I contact the Maine Irish Heritage Center www.maineirish.com and Italian Heritage Center www.italianheritagecenter.com in Portland. They generously send out my request for anyone whose relatives were detained or were processed through the quarantine station on House Island to contact me. No positive responses to date.

 COINCIDENCE: I went to school with the Maine Irish history expert as well as the editor of the Italian American Heritage newsletter. Both are from long standing Munjoy Hill families.

The other immigrant group that may have entered Maine via House Island were Jews.

Documenting Maine Jewry is a collaborative genealogy and history of Maine’s Jewish communities. MaineJews.org is a kind of crowd source web site for gathering and posting pictures, articles, oral histories, music, etc. related to Jewish history in Maine. www.mainejews.org

As an artist, I unravel my ‘art-related mysteries’ by spending hours in library stacks. Most of my ‘clues’ are obtained in face-to-face interviews and through personal networking.

This investigation will take place in on-line archives. There is so much information to wade through. It is daunting. The study and practice of organizing, preserving, and providing access to information and materials in archives is called archival science. Science is the operative term. Finding information requires thinking like a scientist – not necessarily like an artist. Fortunately, archivists (and librarians) are incredibly helpful individuals who are generous with their time and expertise.

Harris Gleckman knows the content of the MaineJews.org site – both catalogued and still to be catalogued. He directed me to an out-of-print book published in 1954.

COINCIDENCE: My aunt babysat for the web master when he was a child living in Forest Park. (Seriously.)

 Band, Ben,  Portland Jewry: It’s Growth and Development , Jewish Historical Society, Portland , Maine, 1954

Written in celebration of 300 years of U.S. Jewish settlement, Band wrote in his preface:” Jewish communities were asked to compile a record of their development and growth.” His book was a collaborative approach – an example of early crowd sourcing. There were 17 chapters that outlined the history of Jews in Maine beginning in the 1800’s. It is only available on line.

I read.

Looking in the past

Maine’s earliest Jews came from Germany in the late 1880’s.

They learned English and established “religious services, supplies of kosher meats and a burial ground. They often earned their living peddling, the junk trade and the second hand clothing and tailoring.“

tailorASIDE:

The skill listed by most immigrants coming to Ellis Island was “tailor” due to the great need for garment workers. Most had no training. They learned through word of mouth during quarantine that it was the skill to have to gain entrance to the US.

Most of the 2 million Jews that came to America in the 1920’s were from Eastern Europe. Often less educated and less affluent than their earlier counterparts, they came to America hoping for a chance for a better life.

In the 1920’s, the City of Portland struggled to assimilate the influx of Eastern European Jews and other recent immigrants. One of the largest anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan rallies (by some accounts, 10,000 Klansmen) gathered in Portland in 1923 to protest the presence of these new “foreigners.”

I read more.

….When immigrant ships landed in Portland in 1923 and 1924, 218 passengers were detained on House Island. The Council of Jewish Women set up kosher kitchens there under the supervision of Mrs. Lena Perry. Chapter X: New Social and Fraternal Organizations-Band

Looking in the present

The names of the original settlers of House Island also appear on the gravestones at the Peaks Island cemetery. So, I send out my request to the Peaks Island list serv. Responses were supportive of my efforts but yielded no leads. Then a photo attachment appears in an email from Kim Mac Isaac.

Kim, a historian and archivist herself, is the former executive director of the 5th Maine Museum. Kim’s family has been on the island for generations. She even remembers rowing over to House Island to explore the old quarantine station before its demolition. She had a photograph. (So far, it is the only one I have seen.)

quarantine-lge

COINCIDENCE: While sculpting a memorial bench for my dad and creating a native plant garden on Peaks Island in 2008 -10, I was able to support myself by cleaning the 5th Maine Museum. http://www.fifthmainemuseum.org/

 

The Maine Jewish Film Festival features films that ‘explore the Jewish experience through drama, comedy, documentary and short film formats.’ Works are screened at multiple venues and in multiple cities throughout the state.  http://www.mjff.org/

I create a postcard to hand out to each attendee. I distribute the postcards in hopes of finding anyone who had family members that were detained on House Island or allowed to immigrate into Maine after being processed there.

ASIDE:

My short film – Chorus of Stones – that chronicles the creation of the memorial on Peaks was rejected by some of the best film festivals including the Maine Jewish Film Festival. https://vimeo.com/2999812

pcback500 postcards later, I had not received one solid lead. Everyone thought it was an interesting mystery but could not provide any additional clues.

COINCIDENCE: A researcher who works at the US Holocaust Museum in DC picked up my postcard while she was at the festival. She thinks she can help find the names of the immigrants who passed through House Island quarantine station. I work a few blocks from the Museum.

Looking in the Archives

I continue to delve into the archives of the Maine Historical Society, the Memory Network, the Portland Room of the Portland Public Library, the New England Archives in Waltham, the Osher Map collection and Judaica Collection at the Glickman Library, University of Maine. I read books about immigration and U.S. immigration policies of the 1920’s including those cited in the Congressional Record. The rhetoric and debate reflects the immigration concerns of today.

As the implementation date of the 1924 Quota Act approached, passenger ship companies worried about the loss of business that would result. So, they doubled the number of ships leaving for America. When Ellis Island and Boston could not manage the deluge of immigrants, some ships were re-routed to other quarantine stations: House Island.

Immigrants allowed to remain in the U.S. could then be sent by rail to New York or Boston. Others were returned to their country of origin.

  • What I didn’t find were all the names of people who were held there.
  • What I didn’t find were the names of Portland residents whose family members came into Portland through House Island.
  • What I didn’t find were the names of those returned to their country of origin.

What I did find were the names of the women who established the Portland Council of Jewish Women (later the National Council of Jewish Women) who set up the Kosher kitchen. *

A friend once described the State of Maine as a small town. If that is true, the Jewish population of New England must be a neighborhood. I have just enough postcards to send to synagogues from Maine to Boston.

It is Passover week in which Jews commemorate the exodus of the Jews from Egypt more than 3000 years ago. It is an 8-day holiday in which you are obligated to tell the Passover story. This year, I listen with a new perspective: Passover could be thought of as a story of immigrants.

It is also a week of consuming symbolic foods. We eat matzo rather than leavened bread as a reminder of the haste in which the Israelites fled Egypt. There was not enough time for the bread to rise. http://homecooking.about.com/od/foodhistory/a/passoverfoods.htm

MatzohA week passes. Passover ends.

I arrive home one night and listen to the message on my answering machine:

My name is Jim Waldman. I am the Controller at the Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Our secretary was out today and I had to open the mail. http://tbewellesley.org/index.aspx

Imagine my surprise when the first 2 names on the list of the founders of the Portland Council for Jewish Women were my great grandmother Millie and her sister.

Millie’s great niece  (Bunny) lives in Maine. She is 94 years old and has a perfect memory.

Bashert?

I had just purchased a ticket to Maine to visit my Mom. I guess now I am going to visit ‘Aunt Bunny,’ too.

 

 

*Portland Council of Jewish Women, 1920

Name First Name Home Address Husband’s business
MRS. Eldar MARKSONb. 1879 –d. 3/10/1925 Portland ME) Jennie 237 State St. Markson Bros. Clothing504 Congress Street
Mrs. Maurice MARKSON(b. 1880 – d. Feb 10, 1966) Mildred S. 100 Neal St. Markson Bros. Clothing504 Congress Street
MRS. Jacob SCHIEBE(b. 1873 – d. 12/12/1964) Jennie 94 Vesper St. Tailor22 Monument Sq #402
MRS. Jacob ROSENBERGd. 5/12/1949 Helen 48 Western Promenade. Rosenberg Brothers real estate85 Exchange St. Room 305,
MRS. Benjamin PRESS Molly 224 Eastern Promenade Real Estate
MRS. Jacob SAPIROd. 3/13/1968 Anna D 93 Morning Street Husband worked9 Plum Street
Mrs. Eli PERRY Lenna 170 Cumberland Ave. E. Perry and Co Junk117 Lancaster St.

9 comments on “No Coincidence – No Story (Part 2)

  1. DCover says:

    Great post as always Jo. I know you’ll get to the bottom of this mystery.

  2. Kathy Erb says:

    Well written and meticulously researched as usual – and as always… a great story.

  3. Laura says:

    Love your story telling. Looking forward to your next entry!

  4. Ingrid Willenz-Isaacs says:

    Thank you, as always, for a great set of stories! While you are delving into mysteries, please let us know if you happen to find out how your old neighborhood,Munjoy Hill got its name.

  5. Ooh, this gives me chills, Jo! I hope this thread will lead you to the tapestry you’re looking for!

  6. Art Astarita says:

    Fascinating read. I love this sort of research and discovery. See you on Peaks

  7. Lee says:

    Really cool idea, Jo. Well done. Fun to read and think about.

  8. Tom Rio says:

    Another great story. I look forward to your tales. You make me want to visit Maine. I was in that state once as a teenager- taken along with my newly married cousin and her husband. We stayed on lake Sebago, just west of Portland. The trees were dense, the water was cold, the sky sparkled. I thought it was wonderful. Retirement is here perhaps it is time to go back.

    • Jo Israelson says:

      Hi Tom:

      It may be a little more developed on the lake but there are other places that will fit your memory. Looking forward to lunch one day and thanks again for your support of my art journey.

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