New York is a city of immigrants. We asked some of our staff members to tell us their family’s immigration stories. Ari Goldstein, Senior Manager, Office of the President & CEO, shares his family’s immigration journey to the United States below.
Almost a century ago, my great-grandparents emigrated from eastern Europe to the United States in order to escape the antisemitism and chronic poverty of their homeland. Every December 9, my family honors their sacrifice by celebrating Goldsteins in America Day.
The annual holiday was inspired by a trip to Ellis Island several years ago, where I looked up my great-grandparents in the Passenger Search database and found myself staring with awe at a ship manifest documenting their arrival. In clear typeface, lines 13 through 16 of the manifest showed Herman and Sara Goldstein first stepping foot on American soil on December 9, 1922 with a 2-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old boy. That boy, born in Poland, was my grandfather.
The Ellis Island discovery prompted years of online research (including on JewishGen), which has helped me piece together a portrait of my family’s life in Europe and the circumstances of their emigration. As I’ve come to understand more about the place they left—and about the challenges they faced when they arrived in New York—I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for the courage that must have been required by their decision to emigrate.
The backdrop of their decision was World War I, which devastated Jewish communities in eastern Europe. My great-grandfather was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army at the beginning of the war (see the photo below) and captured by the Russian army shortly thereafter, upon which he was sent far to the east to work as a prisoner in a mine. My great-grandmother spent the war as a refugee, trying to escape disease, famine, and warring armies as a single woman in her early 20s.
They met in 1918 or 1919 and settled down together in Tluste, Poland (now Tovste, Ukraine), where my grandfather was born in 1921. The town’s condition at the conclusion of the war was recorded by the prolific Jewish writer S. Ansky:
“Tlusti… was a shambles. Of its 560 houses, barely 32 had survived [the war]––and were half wrecked at that. Squeezed into them were 143 of the more than 2,000 families (over 5,000 people) that had once lived here… The town had not suffered from any battle, but the combination of pogroms, forced labor, confiscations, and isolation from the rest of the world produced a terrible famine. That summer… mid-July, a cholera epidemic broke out. Within six or seven weeks, it claimed three hundred lives, including the Rabbi’s. The terrified inhabitants began fleeing to wherever they could.”
Against this backdrop, I see my great-grandparents’ decision to leave their homeland in pursuit of a new one as the ultimate act of love and sacrifice. By uprooting their lives from Tluste, they saved their descendants from the horrors of the Holocaust and granted us the extraordinary privilege of being American. Honoring their courage for one day per year feels like the least we can do.
I mark each Goldsteins in America Day by sending an email to our extended family with a different story from my research into our family’s roots. In addition to honoring my great-grandparents, the holiday provides a powerful opportunity to ground ourselves in our heritage and reflect on what it means to be Jewish and American. For me, the holiday is also a testament to the essential role of immigration in the American story and the courage of immigrants today.
I hope that some of you reading this will be inspired to establish your own holidays marking your families’ arrivals in the United States. We might all be better off with more occasions to celebrate and remember our roots.