The SS Amerika sailed up through the Elbe River and an hour later entered the mighty North Sea. Pincus tried to make himself comfortable on his bunk of steel pipes with stained and tattered fabric stretched over its framework.
The gentle motion of the seas and the humming of the steamship’s engines encouraged the weary Pincus to doze off. His desire for a restful night’s sleep was dashed as he awoke to a violent tremor and devastating explosions of waves crashing against the ship’s hull.
Trying to assess the assault on his senses, he looked around and saw others gawking at the horrors as they clung to the railings of their bunks.
“What is this?” Pincus cried, as a few men with poor grips fell off their beds like rag dolls. Pincus could see the faces of men screaming, but their voices were inaudible over the sea’s fury upon the steamship Amerika.
Beads of warm sweat started as a slow trickle down his forehead and slender nose. Am I getting seasick? Pincus wondered. Nausea washed over him, along with a devastating hopelessness. His eyes stung as the sweat gushed out of him. He wanted to rub it away, but he did not want to loosen his iron grip.
The ship’s jerking motion was too much for Pincus to keep down his dinner. He launched the simmering contents of his stomach as a projectile that spewed from deep inside his throat and landed on the floor below his upper bunk. He wasn’t alone either. His fellow neophytes joined in the action. Regurgitated stews of meat and potatoes coated the floor.
Men were praying to Hashem—to God—for relief from their suffering. Lanterns swayed back and forth, creating eerie patterns of darkness and light. Just as he thought that nothing but death itself could be worse, a warm, malodorous cloud rose from the boiling bile from the floor below, and with every laboring breath, he felt the smell of sickness enter his lungs. He moved in and out of consciousness as his misery deepened. Then he felt coolness seep into his brain. As he struggled to open his eyes, a man’s face was inches away, his hand applying a wet rag to Pincus’s forehead.
“I need to get you up on deck,” said the stranger.
“I can’t move,” moaned Pincus, as he tried to raise his shoulders.
“Don’t try. I’ll carry you,” said the man, as he lifted him off the sweat-soaked bed. Cradled in the arms of the giant man, Pincus asked, “Where are you taking me?”
“Up on deck. You need to hang onto me.”
Pincus wrapped his arms around the man’s sturdy neck and muscular chest. The man lifted Pincus up and walked through the metal hatch door. Traversing the maze of narrow doorways and metal staircases, they made their way topside. Moments later, with Pincus draped over the stranger’s back like a sack of dirty laundry, they burst out onto the main deck.
Still hanging on to the stranger’s back, he saw dozens of other seasick passengers from steerage. Those immune to seasickness were providing comfort to the suffering. Although the ship still heaved from the churning black sea, it was a relief to inhale the sweet smell of the salt water.
The man found a spot to prop up Pincus along a wooden storage box that blocked the sharp winds.
“Here, you need to eat something,” the man said, as he handed him a piece of bread from his coat pocket. Pincus, unused to such kindness from a stranger, thanked him as he took small bites from the stale, crusty loaf.
As the nausea settled and some color returned to his pale complexion, Pincus worried whether he could manage a ten-day voyage. What he feared most was that he would become ill, fail the medical inspection at Ellis Island, and then be shipped back to Hamburg in steerage again.
Pincus looked up at the large man who had easily carried him up from the bowels of the ship. He figured that this fellow had to be at least 200 pounds, much more than his slight, 135-pound frame.
“Who are you, and why are you helping me?” asked Pincus.
“My name is Jakob Adler, and you’re sick. I’m well and able to help,” explained Jakob, with a comforting smile.
Pincus held out his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Jakob. My name is Pincus. Thank you.”
Jakob reached out to shake the smaller man’s hand. “You’re welcome, Pincus.”
Pincus removed his glasses and pulled a cloth from his coat pocket. He cleaned off bits of bile still clinging to their frame before repositioning them on his slender nose. They gave him a better view of Jakob Adler’s imposing figure. With his short curly brown hair, large catlike emerald eyes, and small nose, Pincus doubted he was a Jew. His imposing stature was impressive, but he seemed approachable, almost gentle.
“I don’t think I have ever felt so sick!”
“That was rough. You should rest here. I wouldn’t go back to steerage until it’s cleaned up,” said Jakob. “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Krzywcza,” said Pincus. “It’s in Galicia.”
“I’m from Warsaw.”
“I’ve never been there.” He sat up and looked out into the dark sky. “Actually, this is the first time I have left Krzywcza,” Pincus added.
“We are both leaving our homeland for a new life in America,” said Jakob.
“Krzywcza is not my homeland anymore,” whispered Pincus, afraid of who might be listening. He leaned over so Jakob could hear him and continued in an audible whisper. “Jews are being forced to emigrate. They want us to leave the country.”
“Yes, I know. I’m Jewish too, and I’m going to America to escape religious persecution and economic hardship so I can be safe and earn a living.”
“You’re a Jew?”
“I am, Pincus, and I hope to settle and establish a business in New York. What about you?”
“I’m a cobbler. I want to open a business.”
“Maybe we can look out for each other, help out. It’s good to have friends,” Jakob said, smiling.
“It sure is,” Pincus said, trying to manage a smile in return.