Saturday, April 18, 2020

Emric: an excerpt from my upcoming book Daughter of Zeus

Chapter: Lug-gage

Matilde and I were on the deck of the USS George Washington when we saw her coming into view. The lady. Holding her torch proudly over the water, as a triumph over unfairness and injustice, she warmed my weary heart as I viewed her from up close as the boat moved into the harbor. I had heard rumors of what we would see, but no one had prepared me for the reality of this statue, larger and brighter than I had expected. Most Germans had never been here and had heard only second hand accounts from family.  The lady was hope for many weary travelers who would arrive here tired and without much to give. As we got much closer, I noticed the broken chain at her feet. I was breaking free, and so was Matilde. We were breaking free. I went back inside to stand by my wife and contrasted the openness of the harbor to the dim and cramped space of the ship's quarters that we would soon leave for good. How we survived so long here, I do not know. We took it one day at a time and knew that no matter what would happen, we would endure this together. The cold, clammy smell of moisture on metal, constant sea surges and storms, and the lack of windows and air led us to continual mild sea sickness and headaches from the pressure, even worse for the pregnant Matilde.

      The cargo handlers were wearing thick brown leather gloves to hold the multitude of bags that had been contained in the ship's hold. Their hands were broad and rugged, their thighs breaking through tight trousers, buttons popping open, pockets gaping. These men were burly as the stereotype states with the personalities to match. Back and forth, they lugged the bags with the force of Clydesdale horses laboring for their feed.  The passengers all filed out and waited by the baggage pile, patiently. For the lucky ones, servants in their stead stood waiting for the bags while they went away to rest. For the poor, however, the voyage below deck had exhausted every last ounce of their resolve, but still they needed to collect their belongings before starting their lives here in this strange new world. Their faces held fear, anticipation, wonder, exhaustion. The men of the ship's hold grunted as they handed me my large bag.

"Farewell, Brun."

I turned to see the quiet man I had befriended on the journey, waiting a short distance away. He looked frail and sickly, and I could tell his anxious nature was taking over. I had decided early on that we would stick together with him to ensure he was safely settled here before we continued on our way to the tenement house we had arranged with a German-American local. It would be the right thing to do.

"Yes.  Safe journeys. We are here at last. It was good to experience the voyage with you, my friend. I wish you the best of luck and good fortune in our newfound future. Please don't go yet. Let us go together to the checkpoints. I want to be sure you arrive safely."

His nervousness appeared to subside a little, and I was glad I had made the offer. It could not feel comfortable being alone here in this strange place.

I bowed to my new friend, knowing that he would not give me much of a response due to his thick German accent, as he struggled speaking English. Emric had been worried about what would happen once they all came to the island and were questioned. I assured him in order to give him more confidence and would help in any way that I could. We separated as we both went in search for the rest of our belongings.

My wife was waiting for me as the remaining passengers were leaving the ship. As was the norm, Mathilde looked as prim and proper as could be. You could barely tell she had suffered through sea sickness and the resulting inability to hold down any food for days. Her black hair was neatly combed into a wave, her green eyes bright and prepared, clothing smoothed down and beaten to combat any grime or bugs she would have picked up on the ship. Always reliable and steadfast Mathilde. She was ready to face whatever storms we would encounter ahead.

 No one knew about it. We hesitated telling anyone before we left out of fear that someone would attempt to stop us from leaving Germany, but Matilde is currently five months pregnant with our first child (a little bit less along when we departed so no one had noticed her expanding stomach).

It was November 1924. The ship was the George Washington.  Mathilde and I had fled out of sheer desperation. There was no food for anyone back in Germany. The war had depleted everything, and the cost of even the smallest amount of grain was astronomical. Faced with payments for war reparation, Germany had begun printing more and more money, therefore, the entire country was forced into a state of inflation. A wheelbarrow of money would not have been enough to buy a simple loaf of bread. The Jews were being blamed for everything because they held the business and the wealth. All of this had created an environment of extreme distrust and animosity.  I did not see any good coming from this state of affairs, so I knew we needed to flee.  Knowing we had a little one on the way, we had decided that the best thing to do was to leave our family behind and start fresh in a new place. Both of us spoke English satisfactorily and had enough skills in order to find some work while here.  I still, even after the long, difficult voyage and our hits and misses as far as the sickness on board that was rampant and the struggles ahead, did not regret this at all. I was not looking back any time soon, and neither was Mathilde. Just to see her glowing face, flushed red by the excess blood flowing in her mid-pregnancy, increased my faith in America and its opportunities. Our child would grow here safe, healthy, and without prejudice.

None of us would starve. Lady Liberty standing protectively over New York Harbor would ensure this would not happen.  The light of her lamp burned prominently and would never go out on our American dream.

      They made their way inside to speak to the inspectors. Once through with their questions and the health check, they could breathe again.

“Matilde, I am going to find our new young friend, Emric. I am sure he could use a hand.”

Chapter:  Displaced.

Emric wandered away from the boat as they hit the mainland. When he entered the Ellis Island inspection area, it hit him that he could be kept out if they found out that he wasn’t being supported in New York by a sponsor, so he lied when they had asked him if he had contacts here. He didn’t. Emric knew no one here, and he had no idea what to even expect when he arrived. He had to flee in a hurry after some more threats came in to his person back in Germany. Emric was a Jew, but this is information he will not be sharing with anyone anymore. His safety net had been breached. From now on, to strangers, he would be German.

He passed through the health inspection after having his vitals taken. Surprisingly, he passed all tests.

 “Emric! Hold on a second.”

He turned to see the German man from the boat coming towards him.

“Where are you headed?”

Emric hesitated before he said,

“I have a friend waiting.”

“What section of town may I ask? We could take some of the journey together.”

Brun’s wife followed dutifully behind.

Brun explained to Emric their plans.

“We are headed to a tenement house on Orchard Street.  Just a short walk from here. You are welcome to join us. Where is the address you are headed? It may be close. From what I know the German immigrants stick closely together. It makes it convenient to find work easily upon arrival.”

Emric wasn’t able to respond to this question. He had figured he would just follow the crowds and look for German signage and hopefully find a bed somewhere. He decided that telling him the truth would not hurt his chances of this happening. The partial truth.

“I am going to be upfront with you, Brun. I have no plan on where to go.”

He waited in hope that he would not look down upon him now for being deceitful with the officials at the island.

“No contacts at all?”


“So, you came here with the knowledge you would just find a way?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

Emric looked down in shame. He looked even thinner, like he was ill. 

The inspectors had checked him for disease, so Brun knew this was not true.

“Very good. Well, for that I can help you. You will be coming with us to Orchard Street. We are going to be staying with a friend of the family who has already been settled here for a while. She also has jobs lined up for both of us when we arrive. Now let’s see what America holds for our future, Emric. We can at least provide temporary shelter for you.”

Brun surged forward, forever the optimist. He had little clue what was in store for them:  how conditions would be much different than Germany, and people would be so much less understanding of loss than they had been used to, but prevail, they would. The three of them for now. Matilde followed close behind Brun in her green tidy suit, while Emric meandered behind her in his German dark suit, tie, and closely cropped thin hair, holding his hat tightly to his chest.


Chapter: Land Ho

Brun, Matilde, and Emric started the walk down the wide streets of New York towards the Lower East Side. Asking for directions, they were able to locate Orchard Street in no time at all. The street was noisy and chaotic, as if it couldn’t settle down. Passing a street full of garbage, orange skins, and empty bottles, they finally arrived at the tenement house. They walked up the front steps and rang the doorbell. There was plenty of noise inside and a rustling as someone unlocked a number of locks to let them in.

Brun called out, "We are looking for Franz Fischer?"

 The woman who answered looked irritated and bothered by their intrusion.

"Sigh. Come in. Franz?"

She yelled loudly, and it reverberated throughout the house. There was a noise of feet running and someone on the staircase. Two children were playing a game of chase.

"You will both be up in your room locked away if this continues!"

The woman scolded them. They both turned around to run back up the stairs. On their way, they ran into who we presumed was Franz: a tall, thin gentleman, rather severe and overly modest, unlike his outspoken wife.   Franz shook their hands and welcomed them in.

"We have a small room for you both prepared."

"We were hoping something could be done to give Emric a bed for the night?"

"Well, if you can squeeze him in your room then I see no problem. There is an extra bedroll up there that he can place on the floor. There are mice though, so I will warn you of that."

"That is fine. Thank you." Emric responded in his best English.

"On Monday I will take you to your jobs. Brun, you will be assisting in some of the deliveries. Mathilde, given your condition, work as a seamstress has been arranged. Does this work suit you?"

"More than sufficiently. I will be honored and will enjoy the work."

Mathilde perked up when she heard. Brun knew that this would be something she would enjoy. The three followed Franz up the stairs. The level of cleanliness plummeted as they approached. There was garbage strewn in the halls and dirty piles of clothing blocking their door.

"Someone should have removed this by now." Franz was angered.

"Please come in."  He shoved the clothing to the side and forced the door open.

He had opened the lock with a large skeleton key, and proceeded to hand it to them for keeps.

"There is only one key?"

"Only one."

They entered the room and let down their bags. Emric remained in the corner off to the side. He looked out of place, as if he were intruding or felt that he was. He still carried his hat close to this chest. The bed was small, but it would do for the two of them. There was a strong smell in the room of must.  They barely noticed, however. After a long voyage on rough water, the stillness and solidity would be soothing to them no matter the comfort level. Emric had pulled out the striped bed roll to inspect it for mice and wedged it underneath the small overhead window. He started to pull the dresser in front of it to create privacy. Brun and Matilde looked at each other as a gesture of gratitude that Emric felt comfortable enough with them. They would be fine for now. They all put down their bags and claimed their spaces. After the long voyage where they had bonded, they felt like parent figures to him, so seeing him settled took the worry off of their minds, worry that they had not left back on the boat.

"Well, I see this will do for you very well! I will figure out the cost of short term housing for Emric and as we already discussed, this will cost you, Brun and Mathilde ten dollars per month, with you sharing a kitchen with the family next door. There will be a wash tub provided for bathing and a water closet one story down that will be shared, along with its cleaning daily."

Brun started to get his money out and handed Franz the ten dollars for the first month’s rent. Franz took it, obviously impressed with his efficiency. Emric searched his pockets and found some German change. He handed Franz some coins. As Franz inspected them he said,

"Very well. This will do for one to two nights I think! Now please become comfortable. I will introduce you to your neighbors soon."

Emric had a game plan in his head of what he wanted to do as far as work. As far as shelter, that would fall into place, but he needed to find where the Jews were staying and try to find work there. He could then manage to separate from Brun.

As it turned out, he only needed to walk a couple blocks to find the Jewish neighborhood. There seemed to be all kinds of garment workers milling around, so he wandered looking for signs in the windows. He saw one sign advertising a sewer, so he mounted the steps, knocked and entered, inquiring inside to the five people sitting around a work table.

“No, we have found a worker. Someone forgot to take down the sign. Have you talked to   Lucky?”


“He’s looking for someone. Go around to the back door to ask for Lucky. He isn’t here, but they will explain the work that is needed.”

Emric did as he was asked and went around to the back. He walked up the steps to the rear of the clapboard house, after unlatching the tall metal gate to the back entrance.  When someone answered the door, he asked in Yiddish to speak to Lucky about a job. The man let him in and locked the door behind him. He asked many questions about who he is and where he comes from. Emric was upfront and honest about his origins and his predicament:

       “Where were you born?”


       “Jewish mother?”


       “Who was your father?”

        “I never knew him. He died when I was a baby.”

        “Lucky is looking for a Jew.”

        Emric repeated everything he had just said in Yiddish, then recited a short prayer.

        “I have little money, no job, and no permanent residence here.”

“I do believe we can help you as long as you are able to keep quiet and discreet about the work. It isn’t hard. Much better than you will find anywhere else.”

“I am ready and able to work. I can begin right away.”

Chapter: Troy Street

Emric went back down through the fence towards the front of the house. The man who he initially spoke with waved him into the house. Emric walked in and was ushered inside. The people working around the table looked him up and down. They could tell he just arrived by his German clothing and held out his hand.

“Hello. I’m glad you made the journey. I am Abraham. We welcome you to America.”

The rest of the people nodded in agreement.

“Yes, welcome!” “Welcome.”

“My name is Emric. I just arrived yesterday from Germany.”

One of the women smiled warmly, distracted away from her sewing with a dreamy look in her eye.  She stood up to grab him a cup. She took the large carafe from the center of the table to pour him a steaming dark cup of coffee and offered him a chair at the end.

        “Please sit.”

Emric took the earthenware cup gladly and sat down in the chair. It would settle his empty stomach. Another woman got up to open a cupboard. She brought out a loaf of brown bread and sliced one for him. She was wearing a plain tan dress with floral apron protecting it. Her chocolate hair was set into tight curls.

“I thank you. This is much appreciated.”

He silently ate among the workers, feeling suddenly out of place. 

“Just talk to Lucky. He will take care of you.”

Abraham continued, a man full of confidence, and, to Emric, a fatherly presence. Emric pulled out the piece of paper they gave him in back. He showed Abraham:

66 Troy Street

“Ah yes. That’s his distribution point. You will more than likely be part of Packing and Shipping. You are on the small side, but day to day work will get you stronger. Do you have a place to stay?”

“Just for tonight. Staying on Orchard Street.”

“I could help you with that. We have a family looking for a boarder. You will probably just stay there until you’ve earned enough money. I will take you there, if you’d like. You can make arrangements, then head over to Troy Street. They are a nice Jewish family with four children. You will be well cared for there.”

“Thank you, Abraham. Your help is invaluable to me right now.”

He spoke lower as they walked towards the door.

“I can tell you are in need of a friend. I am glad to help out a man in need. Lucky takes care of his people, and you are officially one of his now.”

He smiled and patted him on the back.

“Avigail, please handle things. I will be back soon.”

Abraham and Emric proceeded to make their way through the afternoon crowds on the street outside. The streets were calming as evening fell. Emric marched back after the business was finally settled to the little corner he shared with Brun and Matilde.

When Emric told them the news, they were overjoyed for him. He didn’t tell them everything, but he told them enough to ease any worry on their part. They looked at him with eyes of a second set of parents, his New World parents.

Chapter Make Do

It had been about three weeks. Emric worked hard and regained some of the strength he had lost on the voyage. He was working dispatch for Lucky: large boxes filled with bottles of booze being sent to underground locations across town. Emric didn't really care where they were going, or if what he was doing was legal or not. His only concern was that he was getting a weekly income to pay for the room he was renting. He had done worse back in Germany after all, when times became tight:  odd, dirty jobs with little respect. Garbage loader, sewer mechanic, road work. Things were going well for Emric.

One day while he was loading up the rest of a truck to send out, Lucky walks in with another man.

"Emric! Could we interrupt you a minute?"

The guys in suits stopped over by him looking pretty out of place there on the loading dock, like a couple of Roman imperial guards. When Emric came over to them, the men looked him up and down to survey what they were considering. Luckily, he had filled out enough to look capable of the work he had been doing.

"Is there a problem?"

"No problem. We have been considering a proposal for you, Emric."

"Alright then, let's hear it."

"We have a special job. Kind of a special operations job for you. You arrived here alone in NYC? No family?"

"Completely alone. No ties. I have no wife or family. Why?"

"Would you consider a promotion, if it meant that the work was riskier?"

"I would consider any proposal you have, but no, I wouldn't mind the risk."

"It would be covert. An undercover position. We think you could handle it. You are discreet and don't stand out much. You also don't have any issues with leaking private information. You know gossip. You seem to keep to yourself and so, keep your hands clean. We cannot have any spreading of our business happening."

"I'd be good for that."

"O.k., good then. We will have you sit down with Giorgio to discuss details, then we will let you decide. We wouldn't need you anymore here then, so hope you won't miss the work."

"No, I won't. Work is work. Nothing to miss.”

"How are you with numbers? Financials? Good with that?"

"You mean accounting? Yes. Very good. I was doing some of that in Germany when I left. Accounting is better than manual labor for me."

"Excellent! Looks like it may be a go then."

“Remember we need you to keep this hush-hush, Emric. Not a soul needs to know about this. Utmost secrecy is the most important part of the job. We will give you a cover, so people don't question you when you are off to work in the morning. I am sure you see some people."

"Yes. The family I live with asks me at dinner time about my job."

"Well, we wouldn't want that to harm your relationship with them. That will be most important here. That said, you will be meeting many people. People who had been previously unknown to you. You will be part of our organization. An integral part of it. We are like a machine, and you will be the lynchpin."

"This is an interesting development. Why are you considering me for this?"

"We feel we can trust you, and you will trust us. Also, you have an uncomplicated life. Small number of ties and connections. Less risk or danger to your loved ones, if you don’t have any family here."

"So, now who do I talk to with details?"

Lucky pointed to the man in the brown suit with the large belly sitting against the wall of the warehouse.

"Come with me, Emric."

"Once you are in and with us, you are with us for life. Remember that, Emric. That should make the decision much easier for you to make. We will protect you, just as you support our operation. It will be a reciprocal arrangement."

No comments: