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My Journey to America

By Julie Keefer

Oders of soot and salt water fill the air. It is November 1948. I am seven years old. My dziadzio (grandfather, in Polish) has sent me to America for a “better life” than the one we had in the Robert Tyler Displaced Persons Camp in Linz, Austria, where he, my babcia (grandmother, in Polish), and I had been living in one room in an unheated, wooden barrack without indoor plumbing or running water. By “better life,” he meant a life of safety, shelter, and plentiful food for me.

I am standing on the grainy, gunmetal floor of the General Omar Bundy, an old US Naval vessel with two huge smokestacks. It has been converted so that it can be used to bring 780 European immigrants to Boston, Massachusetts, in America. I am standing hunched into myself, my new china doll clutched fiercely to my stomach. Tears stream down my face, and my stomach hurts from sobbing. The china doll is the first toy I’ve ever owned. Dziadzio had given her to me.

As I was getting on the ship, Dziadzio approached an older girl, about 13 or 14, whose name I do not remember. “Please watch out for my granddaughter. She is so little, and she is all I have left,” he told her. We orphans are accompanied by two silent, large birds—women in long black robes, hair hidden by black and white head covers.

I was uprooted from my happy, familiar world, where I laughed and scampered, leading a troop of girls, my faithful followers. We scaled fences and climbed forbidden cherry trees. We picked and gorged ourselves on the cherries while running to escape the owners who would try to catch us. I had been snatched from a world I knew, one in which I felt secure and loved, and was placed in a series of orphanages run by tall, silent women in black who spoke little and never hugged me. I was the youngest by at least five years in a group of orphan girls being sent to America. 

I felt betrayed by my dziadzio. He sent me away. Before I left my last orphanage to come to America, my babcia hissed in my ear, “See how bad you are? Even your dziadzio doesn’t want you.” She had been tortured by the Gestapo. Dziadzio had not consulted her about sending me away. She was furious with him and could only cope by trying to punish me.

On the boat, we girls slept in hammocks, four deep, one on top of another. I don’t remember how the older girls got into their beds, but my hammock was on the bottom. The rocking of the ship, the swaying of the hammocks above me, as well as the motion of my own bed, made me dizzy. I felt nauseated. I needed to throw up. The nuns were too busy to care for one seasick lost sheep.

My teenage heroine had thick, dark, wavy hair and large, round, blue eyes. To me, she was gorgeous. She was kind to me. She walked me to the toilet, patted my back as I kept vomiting, and then washed my face and neck with cool water. She was warm and soft, and she hugged me often. I wish I could have thanked her, later in life, but we lost touch once we landed in America.

The entire trip took ten agonizing days. On about the eighth day, my face became swollen. I began to have a terrible toothache. My teeth hurt so badly that I cried. My teen angel told the nuns. One of the nuns put oil of cloves on my teeth and an ice pack on my mouth. That happened several times a day for the next two days or so. More than the pain, I remember the pungent, peppery, sweet smell of the oil of cloves. Today, whenever I smell cloves, I am transported back to that painful journey. 

© 2019, Julie Keefer. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.