Over the years, Jeffrey Klein often tried to “tease out bits and pieces” of his mother’s life story.
“Both my parents and my grandparents were reluctant to tell their stories,” Klein says. “And like a lot of immigrants’ stories, they are confusing — and difficult to track down.”
All that changed one day last year when Klein ran across an article about his mother on a website devoted to the Angel Island immigration station. “Up popped this wonderful story,” he says. “I was flabbergasted.”
In a lengthy piece titled “Looking for Love … or Just a Better Life,” Klein read that his mother, then 18, had arrived at the Angel Island immigration station on March 7, 1940. Her name was recorded as Rosa Sara Ginsberg, and though inspectors wrote that she was “fairly well educated and well bred, intelligent, alert and healthy in all ways,” she initially was denied admittance into the country.
The article reported: “An Austrian Jew, carrying a German passport, Rosa traveled alone to the U.S. via Shanghai, China, where she left behind her parents, Bernhard and Ema Guensberg, as well as her sister and brother-in-law.”
It continued: “While Rosa had a good deal of family living in the U.S., she stepped into port with only $2.50 in her pocket, and no clear plan of where she was going or how she would get there.”
All she knew was that she wanted to go to Yonkers, New York, and marry Herbert Klein. But the article ended without any firm answers: Did she ever get to Yonkers? Did she ever marry Herbert Klein?
Now, Rosa’s son, Jeffrey Klein, is ready to fill in the rest of the story.
After reading the article on the website of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, Klein contacted the foundation, an act that made officials ecstatic. Though it has 180 “Immigrant Voices” articles online, the AIISF has been contacted only twice by people who have read about a relative.
Klein, a resident of Las Vegas, was invited by the foundation to speak at its Family History/Reunion Day on Angel Island on Saturday, July 11. He is traveling to the Bay Area to do just that, and to fill in some missing pieces from his mother’s story.
Other participants in the event include historians, a journalist and genealogists.
The Angel Island immigration station, also known as the “Ellis Island of the West,” opened in 1910 and closed in 1940. About 1 million immigrants arriving from 80 countries were detained and interrogated there to determine whether they had sufficient financial resources and would not be “a public charge” if admitted to the United States. Approximately 20 percent were turned away.
The majority of immigrants came from China, Japan, Russia and southern Asia. Some 8,000 Jews — many escaping the Nazis — and Russians passed through Angel Island. A database of Jewish immigrants processed there can be viewed at www.tinyurl.com/angel-island-jewish.
Now, back to Rosa’s story.
During three weeks of interviews in 1940, the 18-year-old solo traveler with $2.50 in her pocket repeatedly insisted she was engaged to Herbert Klein, and if he wouldn’t pay her way to New York, some of her relatives would.
According to the AIISF records, Rosa told immigration officials she had met Herbert two years earlier in Vienna, and though she could not provide details about a marriage proposal and had no ring, Rosa was certain that a wedding was in her future.
“My mother stretched the truth,” Klein admits. “She and my father were not really engaged. In fact, she went out with him once, and then started dating one of his friends.”
When immigration inspectors contacted Herbert, he informed them he had $27 in the bank and could not afford to pay Rosa’s fare to New York. “In Austria, my father had engineering training, but in New York, his first job was shoveling coal at a Jewish orphanage,” Klein says.
Eventually, an uncle posted a $500 bond for Rosa and an aunt wired her $41.85 for a bus ticket to New York and $8.15 for “necessary expenses.”
Finally, 21 days after her arrival, Rosa was admitted to the United States, and less than 20 months later — in October 1941 — she did indeed marry Herbert, and they had two children. Herbert died in 1997, and Rosa died seven years later.
“My grandmother was one very smart lady,” says Heather Klein, an opera singer and cantorial soloist who specializes in classical Yiddish songs. Until recently, she lived in San Francisco.
“What we found out about her time at Angel Island helped my whole family learn what made her her.”
Heather’s father, Jeffrey Klein, agrees. “So much of who my mother was had been colored by her experiences as a young woman. I didn’t fully understand that until I got to be an adult,” he says. “This is not an isolated story — but it is an iconic story.”
Family History/Reunion Day, begins at 11:30 a.m. Saturday, July 11 on Angel Island. $3-$5. www.aiisf.org or (415) 348-9200 ext. 10. To read Rosa’s story, visit www.tinyurl.com/angel-island-klein.