- Associated Press - Sunday, May 29, 2016

METUCHEN, N.J. (AP) - One hundred years ago, Dotty Epstein’s mother, grandparents and uncles arrived at Ellis Island after a long and arduous journey. Coming from Salonica, Greece, the family- which never spoke much about the experience -traveled together to the new world. Of Sephardic Jewish descent, life in Salonica had become more dangerous. It was time to go.

On April 23, 1916. Mary Hanoka, 14, her three brothers- Isaac, 8, David, 6, and 9-month-old Moise (Morris) -and parents, Susan “Soultana” and Jacob Hanoka, arrived at Ellis Island.

The Jews either left Salonica early in the 20th century as Dotty Epstein’s ancestors did, or stayed and perished in World War II at the hands of the Nazis. By the end of World War II, the once-thriving Jewish community- that numbered more than 50,000 -was decimated. Only 2,000 remained after the war.

One hundred years later, Dotty Epstein set out with members of her immediate family- grandsons Brian, 16, and Kyle Thompson, 14, daughter Cathy Thomspon and son-in-law Steve Thompson, all of Montgomery. The five were meeting up with Epstein’s third grandson, Shaun Epstein, 22, of New York.

Traveling together on April 30, their tickets’ destination was the same as their ancestors- Ellis Island. In all of her 83 years, Dotty Epstein had never been to the iconic gateway, now known as the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, the first place where her family members took their first steps in America.

Though the day started out rainy and cloudy, the fact that three generations were experiencing this trip together meant a lot to Dotty Epstein.

“Rain or shine, we were going to go,” Cathy Thompson told the Home News Tribune (https://mycj.co/1TGLxCg ). “It was our opportunity. One hundred years.”

“As long as the boats were going, so were we,” Steve Thompson added.

“I don’t know if I could explain how important this was to me,” Dotty Epstein said. “I felt like I was there and my mom and dad were looking down at me, seeing where they came in, and it was a very moving experience.”

Almost as if it knew what a special day it was for Dotty Epstein, the sun came out and it warmed up as the family arrived at Ellis Island. Initially, Cathy Thompson worried that the trip would not live up to the “hype.”

“It had become a pretty big deal,” Cathy Thompson said. “I was hopeful it would be as meaningful to her as we had all hoped it would be. That being said I think it was as meaningful if not more.”

“My main impression was being an observer of three generations,” Steve Thompson said. “That kind of experience of all three generations being there at the same time and the 100-year anniversary of the family arriving. I love that.”

“It was better than I was hoping,” said Kyle Thompson, who like his grandmother was making his first trip to Ellis Island. “I thought it would be kind of cool, seeing where they came from, but when you were there and you did the things that they did and saw what they saw, it was a lot more moving. You could connect more with them.”

As Dotty Epstein sat on the deck of the boat that would take them from Liberty State Park, she couldn’t help but feel an emotional connection to her past.

“It is so hard to fathom how they traveled third class for possibly two weeks or more under the conditions that existed on the ship,” said Dotty Epstein, who added that it was “awesome” to see and be so close to the Statue of Liberty- another first. “They had no disposable diapers then for the 11-month-old. Bathrooms were scarce and rolling seas were enough to make the strongest seasick.”

The Hanokas rarely spoke of the experience, Dotty Epstein said.

“They suffered so much to get here,” added Ron Epstein, Dotty Epstein’s husband, who did not make the trip. “And they never complained. They were so glad to get here- to a free country.”

“My parents spoke very little of the hardships they endured to get here,” she said. “I can’t imagine that being brought up in this country with so many luxuries that I would have been strong enough to endure what they went through. It was very sobering to see that so many came with just the clothes on their back or a small sack of a few things that they could carry. I don’t think I could do what my mom and her family did. You have to be so brave.”

“I feel it was like you said about the Statue of Liberty,” said Brian Thompson to his grandmother. “How awesome it was seeing it for the first time. When all the relatives saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, all the hardships they endured to get there melted away. It was freedom.”

Once they disembarked at Ellis Island, the family toured the rooms of main building of the 27.5-acre site on Upper New York Bay. A 40-minute trip, easy enough to get to from Central Jersey, Steve Thompson made reservations for the group a week in advance.

More than 12 million immigrants to the U.S. came through Ellis Island, which was the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station from 1892 to 1954. For Epstein, the experience was priceless.

“We were able to sit at the tables they were fed at when my ancestors arrived,” she said. “The documentary video they showed called “Island of Hope, Island of Tears” was so very moving. My wish is that it could be made compulsory to show to all schoolchildren today. The movie was a tribute to the millions of men, women and children who made the torturous journey from the Old World to America.”

“The movie made it so real,” Cathy Thompson said. “You were literally hearing many of the voices of the immigrants. When my mom teared up watching the movie, I teared up.”

“I think all of us did a little bit,” Steve Thompson added. “All of the adults.”

Dotty Epstein said that as they went from room to room looking at the many plaques and photographs, she searched each picture for an ancestor. On the area known as “The Wall,” they found the name of Dotty Epstein’s uncle, Isaac Jacob Hanoka. It is believed that his daughter paid for his name to be added to that memorial.

“I kept thinking I would see my mom in one of the photographs,” Dotty Epstein said.

The family recounted the many themed rooms in the main building, which has three floors. One for hearings, another for testing, a third for medical needs. Upstairs there were barracks- bunk beds stacked three high. It was the baggage room that had a big impact on Brian Thompson. This was his second time at Ellis Island, but now older, he feels it had more of an impact than when he was there on a fifth-grade school trip.

“They just made this long journey and had to leave everything they owned in this pile,” he said. “If that was me in that position and I had this one bag of everything that I own. . If I was coming over and had to leave that and trust it with someone that didn’t care about my possessions. . It seemed too hard to do. Before I never really got the big picture about it. It was fun. I was at this place with my friends, like every field trip. Now going back and understanding that my family came through it meant so much more to me. I was able to take it all in. It was an incredible experience.”

A few weeks after the Ellis Island excursion, Cathy Thompson gave her mother a book made up of photos taken during their visit. At first confused, Dotty Epstein thought it odd that her daughter would get her a book- she had already bought one at the souvenir shop.

“Then I realized it was a book of our photos, of our trip,” Dotty Epstein said. “That was special. I am so proud to be an American. Anyone who has the opportunity to visit Ellis Island would have a great experience. They would have a better understanding of what the people endured to come here and make our country what it is today. I am happy that at 83 years old I was able to make the trip.”

___

Information from: Home News Tribune (East Brunswick, N.J.) , https://www.mycentraljersey.com

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