To Make a Dream Come True: Nathan Zagoria

To Make a Dream Come True: Nathan Zagoria

Stories of Residents of the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington

 Nathan Zagoria


Nathan Zagoria tells us a fascinating story. His voyage to America, for example, was a horrifying experience which belongs in an adventure story in a mass-circulation magazine.  He believes his survival, after being smuggled on board a ship and then forgotten for three days, was a near miracle.

Mr. Zagoria was ordained as a Rabbi in Russia.  After completing his studies, he was questioned intensely for three days, before being granted smichah – ordination.  When he came to America, however, he discovered that he could not earn a living as a rabbi.  Eventually, he earned his living as a storeowner, and served a small synagogue in his spare time. His experience was similar to many who had been ordained as rabbis in Eastern Europe, but found their training was useless in America.  Most had to go into business to survive.


I applied for ordination, that is, a certificate that I was qualified to be a rabbi.  Ad student could study in the Yeshiva for 50 years and not be rabbi. A rabbi had to study for his special profession, like a law student, the laws of Kashruth, the laws of slaughtering, laws of justice.  This meant the rabbi could arbitrate disagreement between two people, etc.  I wanted to be ordained before leaving so I could get married and earn a living in town.

Now, let’s go back to my getting “Smichah,” (ordination).  I had to get it from at least three rabbis. They questioned me like in an oral exam.

One rabbi in Veshlovoch (not far from the German border) – I think his name was Mahofes – he gave me Smichah.  For three days he questioned me.  I also got Smichah from the head of my Yeshiva.  And there was a second Yeshiva in Slobotka whose rabbi was Mordecai Epstein and he gave Smichah.  So I got Smichah.  What good did it do me?

In the year ’14, I was the Principal of the Yeshiva in Ritze, and they paid me for it.  In 1914, the Russians would grab young men in the street – one couldn’t walk through the streets. So I ran away from Ritze and came home, in the small town, Prayo.  In the small towns they weren’t grabbing the people in the street yet.

The Voyage to America

(Nathan and his brother paid the purser of the ship 125 rubles to smuggle them aboard a ship to America so they could escape the Russian Army recruiters and begin a free life.)

When we boarded the ship, we found four other boys there.  We were taken all the way down, not where the passengers were.  It was a cargo ship, but there were also some passengers.  Half of the ship had the machinery and the other half was empty, to be loaded with the cargo.  The other four boys were also running away.  The purser gave us challah, rolls and water.  He said he would come down every day to see us.  We waited one day, two days.  We ate up the rolls, challah.  We thought only that the boat should come to America. It was a rough journey.

The ship had to go from one waterway (ocean) to another, like through a neck where it was narrow and icy and as the ship went through it broke up the ice.  So we once again asked the purser if the ship could be broken, and he said it depends on which is stronger, the ship or the ice.  If the ship gets broken, we drown, that’s all.

Three, four, five days passed, and he had previously given us herring to eat, and it was salty, so we wanted to drink, but we had no water.

The toilet was in the same room.  It was a long room.  We couldn’t go upstairs.  We were like prisoners there. We didn’t know what to do.

Meanwhile, we could hear the machinery working in the next part.  We looked through a small hole in the wall and we licked the bolts with our tongue.  The bolts were sweating, we shouldn’t be so dry.

I had hidden one piece of challah for me and my brother, but it was stolen from me.  But rather than create a disturbance3 and be found and sent back to Russia—which would be worse, so we waited another and another day, hungry and thirsty, so thirsty that we would have drunk urine, if there were any.  So we decided to let the men working on the machinery know that we were there so maybe they would help us.  We had nothing to lose.  We would die either way.

We decided to send down a note.  So we took the laces out of our shoes and we wrote a note that we were here, hungry and thirsty and dying, and please help us

We dropped the note through the hole, and we saw one man take the note and throw it away.  Another man picked up the note and read it and we saw it created excitement.

In a little while a sailor came and he opened the door in the ceiling and gave us grapefruit juice and food.  Then we asked him how come the purser left us like that.  So he told us the purser had gotten drunk and they took him away from his job, so he couldn’t come down to us.

They continued to bring us food and drink till we came to America.  Then they brought us out of the hole and put us in a place which was piled high to the ceiling with mattresses.  The sailor dug out something like a hole, like a dog does, among the mattresses, and we squeezed in.

We lay there like that for two, three days without moving because the mattresses were filled with straw and if we’d move around it would make noise.  The captain didn’t know anything about us.  Thus we lay three, four days without moving or turning, and they’d give us a little water till we came at last to America.

Then they took us out of the hole—we were bearded, dirty, ragged, starving. Then the sailor told us that since there was another man who knew about us we’d have to pay him 125 rubles each. We had no more money, but one of the fellows still had some.  So he loaned us the money, which we eventually repaid him.  And they took us to a cabin to clean up.  The ship arrived in Brooklyn.  The sailor said, “Now you’re in America,” and he gave us about $3.00 each.

Finding Plainfield, New Jersey

Where should we go?  It was dark, nighttime.  We came to a street where we saw a door leading to a small store that was selling candies and Jewish newspapers, so we felt there must be Jews here.

It was about midnight, or 1:00 o’clock.  Only a woman was in there.  When she saw the six of us, big, husky fellows, she got scared, till we started talking to her in Yiddish, telling her that we just got off the boat.

She took us up to her flat, gave us food, drink and put us all to sleep on bedding on the floor.  She warned us not to talk to anyone about our arrival.

In the morning when her husband left for work, she showed us where the elevated train was.  She told us that since we had an address to our brother in Plainfield, New Jersey, we had to go to Liberty Street, the last stop of the El, get off, walk right to the water, and then get a train for Plainfield.

But we didn’t know where the water was, where the train was, and how to go.  As we sat around in the El, we began to talk to others in Yiddish about our adventures.  The conductor was a Jew and told us to shut up and not tell anyone how we had gotten here.  Anyone overhearing might tell the immigration people, so we kept quiet.

When the El got to the last stop, we got off and walked straight to the edge.  We walked through Washington Market, an Italian market where trains full of fruits and vegetables arrive.  An Italian looks like a Jew, so we began to talk to them in Yiddish, but they were busy with their work.  So we went further and met a truckman with a horse and wagon.  He took us to the ferry and said, “Sit here; when all the others go, you go too.”  We sat 1/2 hour, another ½ hour, people came and went.  Meanwhile, one man realized what kind of people we two were and told us to get aboard the ferry.  We did and when the ferry docked, everyone got off and so did we.

There we saw many trains, all going in different directions.  We didn’t know what one to take.  A worker who inspected the wheels, etc. of arriving trains—he was Polish and a Pole can speak Russian so we spoke to him.  He led us to the Plainfield trains and told us to get on and told the conductor to let us off at Plainfield.

In Russia, before a train departs, they ring the bell three times, one to get ready, two to start boarding, three, you must be inside.  But we didn’t hear any bells, so we just stood around waiting.  The Pole was watching us and told us to get on the train and explained that they don’t ring bells here.

We entered the train and saw that all the seats had red upholstery and that everything was so pretty and clean.  So we thought, “Oh, this must be First Class.”  In Russia, every train had First Class, Second Class and Third Class sections.  Poor people ride third Class for cheaper fares.  Rich people ride First Class where the chairs are upholstered.  So we got off again.  Again the Pole saw us and explained that “Here is one class; go in and sit down.”

The train made many stops and the conductor called out the names of all the stops, and all the names sounded like Plainfield to us. So we always started to get up, but the conductor was watching us and kept saying, “Not yet,” till we came to Plainfield and got off.

We left the station and didn’t know where to go so we started walking along the street.

We met a woman who looked Jewish and began talking to her.  We asked her if she knew Morris Zagoria, and she said, “Sure.”  My brother sold vegetables and she was his customer.  She directed us to him about seven or eight blocks away.  Finally, we got to my brother.

Zagoria passport


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