Joseph Levy’s Travel Diary, 1919
By Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer1
My father, Joseph Levy, emigrated to New York from Izmir, Turkey—then known as Smyrna—in December of 1919, when he was 19 or 20 years old. His birth date has never been confirmed and we never knew exactly when to celebrate his birthday, either the 30th or 31st of March. His eldest brother was already married and in New York. The voyage on a Greek ship, the SS Themistocles, took six weeks and he traveled in third class, not steerage, as he was proud of telling us. Nonetheless, conditions were poor, and the food was often inedible.
The diary is written in pencil in French, which he learned, like other Sephardic boys, at the local Alliance Israélite Universelle school. These schools were founded by Jews in France who were concerned about the cultural backwardness of their co-religionists in the Ottoman Empire. Despite some misspellings, my father frequently uses elegant turns of phrase, like subjunctives, and the past definite tense which, coming from a person who never had much schooling, are surprising.
Following are some excerpts, which I’ve translated into English.
Thursday, October 23, 1919
I left home on Thursday morning at 8:30. The separation was very emotional. First there was my sister who was leaving for work. She kissed me and hugged me so hard I was afraid of suffocating. After embracing me she left sobbing, her eyes red. Then it was my turn to take leave. The first person I embraced after my sister was my father. He hugged me so hard that the hairs of his moustache and his beard pierced my cheeks, but I would have wished that pain to remain forever as a constant reminder of him. But, as I swore the evening before the Yom Kippur holiday, I will never forget him or the others. When it was my mother’s turn, I hardly had the energy to kiss her, I was so overwhelmed, and trembled with emotion. She made me [promise] to take care of myself and to never do anything frivolous. I promised and will keep my word to follow her advice. She also counseled me to always remain on good terms with my sister-in-law [in New York]. I’ll do as she says. When it was Isaac’s turn and Leon’s [his brothers], I made a superhuman effort and didn’t cry. I embraced them and promised to send for them from New York, along with our parents, as soon as possible. . . .
On board ship, the SS Themistoklis, I was told that since they were waiting for a large cargo of merchandise, the departure would be postponed until the following day. I wasn’t pleased by this news because I would have preferred to be with my dear ones another night rather than sleeping on board. I could have left the ship, but the baggage was already on board and I didn’t want to repeat the departure scene because I know it would have pained my parents a lot.
Unfortunately I was alone in my cabin. There were only some young Greek men who were very taciturn. Luckily for me, my friend Salomon Cohen, my traveling companion, came at three in the afternoon and so I cheered up. In the evening, I switched to his cabin. We had supper together on the deck along with two other young men, Catholics, very nice. The four of us slept in the same cabin—Georges and Edouard Sayegh. We kidded around a lot before going to sleep.
Friday, October 24
At 10:00 the ship prepared for departure. At 11:00 a Greek ship, Patris, dropped anchor next to us. It was full of Greek soldiers singing their heads off. Gradually, the dock filled with people waiting to see our ship leave. Promptly at noon, it raised anchor. I kept seeing the dock and the whole city. I wanted to be sure to absorb this sight because God knows if I’ll ever see the dear city of my birth again. . . .
Thank God the sea has been calm. I was introduced to a passenger named Max Mahlers. He’s originally from Poland but has been living in America for a long time in the city of Philadelphia, an hour and half from New York. He only knows English so for me it’s a very good opportunity. That’s all we speak together. I hope to make substantial progress by the time we arrive in New York.
Saturday, October 25
The ship has docked in Piraeus. The weather is foggy but the horizon is clear. The first thing I saw from a distance was the electric tram. When the order to disembark was given, the seamen seized the ladders and scaled them in an instant. People were everywhere, the seamen grabbed the valises from the voyagers, there was an indescribable brouhaha. But by one o’clock everything had calmed down. With the departure of the passengers bound for Piraeus, only the passengers traveling to America were left. At two o’clock we also disembarked, but first, in order to have our passports stamped with a visa and have our eyes examined once again, we had to wait for the doctor. After he examined us we left to go strolling.
There are some fine places in Piraeus. I was especially impressed by the electric trams, the spacious and well-paved streets, and a large garden. We laughed a lot with Mr. Max Mahlers. He’s Jewish [Israelite] and one of the good ones. He doesn’t eat non-kosher food, of course, no pork or anything resembling it. When we were having our passports stamped the clerk asked him if he was Jewish. He responded affirmatively. When someone laughed he said, “You think it bothers me to say I’m Jewish? No, not at all.”
Monday, October 27
We went again to Athens to visit the museum. I was thrilled by the sculptures, the mummies, the ancient manuscripts (hieroglyphs), the skeletons, the hands, the bones, arms, veins, men’s busts, Chinese writings, a miniature boat with people sitting on precious stones, chains and other golden objects with inscriptions, pitchers, large porcelain vases from antiquity, porcelain fragments, images showing the gods of mythology, sphinxes, bowls, daggers, lances [from the Middle Ages], arrows. Pointed stones like those in David’s time, ivory fans, combs, diamond necklaces, one of which was marked 77,500 drachmas. . . .
[That night] I slept in a cabin with the Sayegh family. Since there was no blanket I went to bed half dressed and used my overcoat as a cover. The next day, Tuesday the 28th, I went down to see the third-class quarters where I was going to be sleeping. I found it so dark that I was miserable and almost cried.
[Passengers were required to leave the ship on Tuesday in order to be vaccinated and to have their luggage disinfected. The ship would also be disinfected and passengers were to spend the night on shore in a hotel.]
Thursday, October 29
We went to fetch our luggage and waited for an hour because of the crowd. Once again we had to see the doctor, with the American consul present. There were so many people jostling each other in order to get in more quickly that I was reminded of the time when fights broke out in Smyrna when we tried to get bread, during the war [World War I].
Adjacent to our ship is another one manned by black Hindus. These people wear only pants and sleeveless shirts. Some were just wearing pants. They eat with their hands and never eat bread. It was very funny to see them eat. They make a little stack of food and put it into their mouths. They also don’t sit down. They eat bent over their plates. [Nonetheless] when they finished eating they washed their hands and teeth with soap. Others soaped their entire bodies, outdoors. Some of us felt chilly just watching them.
Tuesday, November 3
On my way down to eat at noon I was sorry to see a big sign forbidding anyone to go up to the deck. That bothered us a lot. All through the meal we were trying to figure out what we were going to do. After a while we decided to risk it. Luckily, we weren’t bothered. . . . We stayed until 11:00, dancing Turkish style, French and Greek style also. I enjoyed the evening. The sea remains calm.
Wednesday, November 4
. . . They served rice with meat that wasn’t well cooked, and the rice was mixed with bits of wood . . . I stayed up on deck until 11:00. We had fun dancing, playing violin and mandolin, but everything got spoiled. While we were having a good time a mechanic came out of his cabin in a rage, saying that we were only allowed on deck until 8:00 and we had to leave because we were preventing him from sleeping. The first and second-class passengers were upset by his manner, and . . . complained to his superior who came and told us we could continue, but to go a little further away so the others could sleep.
Thursday, November 6
At 2:00 I went up on deck. We were entering the port of Gibraltar. It’s really magnificent. A tall mountain scattered with greenery behind which were hidden gun batteries, they told us. We saw several cannons that were exposed and many telegraph poles. The bottom of the mountain is full of barracks. At 2:30 we cast anchor. We have Spain before us, but it’s hard to distinguish the houses. The port is full of boats. I was able to count at least 100. After the doctor’s visit, we were allowed to buy things brought by the Spanish boats. They were selling oranges, grapes, pomegranates and apples. In order to sell them, the boatmen threw a rope which we secured, and at the other end they attached a basket. We first put the money in and then they sent up our purchases. It was really funny to watch them cast up the ropes while cursing. First they didn’t want to accept Greek money but they finally gave in. They preferred dollars.
Monday, November 10
Today we’re very dirty because we’re taking on coal and the dust penetrates our bodies [organes]. . . Our beds were as black as coal. All the dust had piled up and the pillows especially were as dark as coal. We dusted them off and turned the mattresses around, and then we went to bed after giving ourselves a good wash. (Tuesday, Nov. 11) I got up as dirty as though I’d been in a coal heap.
Friday, November 14
We sent a petition to the captain complaining about the dirtiness of our beds and the bad food. He ordered the sleeping area to be cleaned and had them serve us a good meal at noon . . . They won’t let us get off the ship at Gibraltar because we’re in 3rd class.
[He develops a severe toothache.]
Sunday, November 16
This is the third time I’ve gone to the pharmacist to have him put some medication in my mouth, which is hurting me a lot . . . I tried to distract myself by playing cards in order to forget my pain, but I wasn’t successful. I went to bed in agony.
Tuesday, November 18
I’m suffering terribly with my tooth. I’ve gone four times to look for the doctor so he can extract the tooth. I also feel very weak. What I wanted to eat was a good soup, and luckily, that’s what they served along with some meat. I ate like a famished person. I hadn’t eaten for a day and a half. But after I was done, the toothache started up with a vengeance. I was like a crazy man. When the doctor finally arrived he told me that the dentist was a woman passenger who would take out my tooth. . . . She finally came. I went to the pharmacy with her and I myself gave her the cotton to use while they looked for a chair for me. First she cleaned the molar and prepared a spot where she could grasp the tooth with the pincers, since the tooth was so decayed.
After three attempts she pulled it out. The second time, it felt as though my jaw was being wrenched. After she pulled the tooth I cried out—“Maman”—and then choked up with sobs. I cried a little. I wanted to cry some more but I was ashamed. I started to faint and they made me inhale some ether.
Tuesday, December 2
Bad news. A young Jewish woman who had been sick for several days (typhus) has died. I still have a queasy stomach.
Wednesday, December 3
When I got up to get washed up on deck, a very cold wind was blowing ferociously. They put the body of the dead woman overboard, at dawn. I was one of the few people on deck, it was so cold. The sea is very rough.
Thursday, December 4
At 9 o’clock, Solomon came to fetch me and found me still in bed. He said the ship was due to arrive [in New York] at 11:00 and that I should get dressed in order to be ready, in case they let us disembark. You could see houses on the horizon. I got up to see this with my own eyes and it was true. . . . People were calling and yelling and on top of that it was freezing cold, our hands were numb. After I finished packing I went up on deck to watch the approach.
As we got closer the harbor pilot boarded in order to guide us in, planes were flying overhead, the harbor was very busy. We saw a submarine pass, a barge with train cars. And finally, what I most wanted to see, the Statue of Liberty.
Then we saw what they said was the tallest building in New York, 54 stories, and at a distance, the Brooklyn Bridge. They cast anchor at 3:00. . . . The doctor came and made us file in front of him. Then he went to examine the 1st and 2nd class passengers and the crew. He didn’t have time for us and so they left us for the following day. The ship docked for customs inspection, there was a crowd of people on shore. I told myself that my brother was surely there. Passengers were calling out to those on shore who were there to greet them. People were recognizing each other from a distance, shouting greetings, and lots of questions.
Unfortunately, after calling out my brother’s name many times, I got no answer. So I went below to eat. When I was in the middle of cutting an onion which I was going to eat with some string beans, I heard my name called. Right away I rushed to the door. I was told that my brother was calling me on the other side of the ship.
I was rushing so much that I fell down and injured my knees. I continued running while limping. When I got there, I was exhausted. I yelled at the top of my lungs, “Elie!” Immediately I heard my name called by my brother but I didn’t recognize his voice. He asked me how Papa was, and how I was, and whether I had an overcoat. His voice was unrecognizable. He also told me that someone would meet me if he was unable to do so. After we waved to each other, I went back down to finish eating. The beans were very tough. . . .
1. Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer is the author of a novel, Amalie in Orbit (The Wessex Collective) and a story collection based on Sephardic family life, Goodbye, Evil Eye (Holmes & Meier), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Awards.Her work has been published in many magazines and heard on National Public Radio. Under the name, Gloria Levy, she made one of the earliest recordings of Sephardic folk songs in the United States (Folkways/Smithsonian). She is also co-author of a nonfiction book, We Were So Beloved: Autobiography of a German Jewish Community (University of Pittsburgh Press). She received a Silver Award in the annual Solas Competition for Best Travel Writing for her article,“Out of Smyrna,” first published in Perceptive Travel (July 2011) and reprinted in Sephardic Horizons (Summer 2011). Brief excerpts from her father’s diary appeared in Keeping Time: 150 Years of Journal Writing (Passager Books, University of Baltimore).