Note to readers: Č is pronounced as a “ch,” as in “church.”
“Where have you two come from, and where are you going?” the agent demanded, but strangely, he was speaking in Slovak.
“We have come from Čirč, and we only wish to get to Bremen and sail to America.”
The agent scanned them from top to bottom, then paused before a large smile brightened his face.
“We are Rusyns my friend. You need not worry. We have had many friends do the same.”
“Are you not worried that you will get into trouble?” asked Vasili.
“Do you see where we are, my friend? The Hungarians never come up this way. They would have to walk uphill,” laughed the second agent.
Vasili laughed for the first time in a very long time, and Maria quietly thanked the agents for their kindness.
“You will be fine,” the first agent assured them. “Once you have gone through here, the Germans do not care about you crossing into Germany.
The train got back underway. Maria and Vasili slept most of the way, exhausted from the tension of the last two days. Finally, in Bremen, they were able to use most of the rest of their money to buy their tickets to America on board the H.H. Meier.
Their money could only afford them a passage in steerage, and as they stepped down the final staircase to the lower deck, Maria could barely stand the smell and the darkness. “Please stay close to me,” she pleaded to Vasili, her eyes filling with tears. “I never knew it would be so horrid.”
“Do not worry, I am here and I will watch over you.”
The next twelve days were mostly miserable for both of them. The meals were poor, even by peasant standards. The boiled beef and salt pork often smelled rotten and were barely cooked. The black bread was soggy, the vegetables were unrecognizable. The breakfast, some kind of mushy grain, tasted like old wood. Like most of the passengers, Vasili and Maria threw a good many of their meals overboard. They were constantly hungry and thirsty, so when trays of leftover fruits were brought down from the cabin passengers, they cherished them like candy.
Five days into the voyage, Maria was seasick and homesick, and tired of chasing the rats that were constantly running over her as she tried to sleep. A large man, who had been drinking, was speaking a language she did not understand. He stumbled into her space then tried to steal her bag; the bag contained the only remaining money she had. When she resisted, the man pulled her close and ran his hands over her, whispering, in his language, “Well, then, I suppose we will have to settle this another way.” Although she did not understand his words, she knew what he intended.
As the last syllable left his wretched lips, a fist hurtled past Maria’s head and slammed into the man’s nose, which burst with blood as the man fell to the deck. Vasili grabbed Maria’s arm and pushed her behind him. The man tried to stand, but Vasili placed a kick to his head, knocking him unconscious. Vasili looked at Maria and said, “Sorry that took so long.” Maria could not speak, but clutched her mother’s rosary to her chest and prayed.
The compartment fell silent for the first time since Maria and Vasili had entered. The ship’s purser then burst out of the crowd with two sailors. He seemed about to grab Vasili when he saw Maria behind him. He looked into Vasili’s eyes, then down at the man on the deck, and he understood. At his direction, the sailors wordlessly dragged the worthless man away, and he was not seen again on the voyage.
Finally, seven days into the voyage, Vasili overheard someone speaking in Slovak. He and Maria went over and found a family that was from the same district, Stara Lubovna, as Vasili and Maria. They had relatives waiting for them in America, and because they knew that Vasili and Maria could use the help, they offered to help them get to Passaic, New Jersey where Vasili and Maria could both find jobs.
The father, Gregor Petrovich, a tall and broad man with a smile to match and a mustache that covered his mouth, grabbed Vasili by the shoulders and said, “We Rusyns are of the same stock, and we must help each other as we can.” His tiny wife Anya, who barely reached to Gregor’s chest, even offered some food from home that they had been saving.
After that meeting, they all stayed together and helped each other get through the dismal voyage by telling tales from home. Vasili knew all of the great folk tales, and kept the children entertained. Maria finally felt like this voyage might work out after all.