An Immigrant Recalls Landing At Ellis Island

Posted: May 11, 1986

In 1922, 8-year-old Morris Helzner arrived in America from Russia aboard a listing cargo ship, his family looking for a new life in a foreign land.

Sixty-four years later, Helzner, a retired musician who lives in the Northeast, is among 200 immigrants who have been chosen to record an oral history of their experiences for the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Centennial Commission.

The Ellis Island Oral History Project was launched by the National Park Service; the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, a private fund-raising organization, and the centennial commission, an appointed citizens advisory group. As part of the centennial celebration, the project planners are recording interviews with 200 people who entered the country at Ellis Island before 1924.

"Morris Helzner was chosen from Americans of 33 nationalities interviewed for this project," said Nancy Dallett, an interviewer with ARKS in New York City, the consulting firm compiling material for the project.

"We received a response from thousands just from the few ads our service placed throughout the country. We chose to include Mr. Helzner because his life, we felt, was particularly interesting and reflective of the kind of strength and fortitude these immigrants had."

Born on March 22, 1914, in the Crimea in southwestern Russia, one of Helzner's first memories was the Russian Revolution of 1917.

"In 1917, everything was in a state of upheaval when the revolution was all around us and a terrible hunger was all about us," Helzner said. "I remember seeing thousands of people just dying like flies. How we survived this, I'll never know.

"But my father was very resourceful, first being a salesman for the Singer Sewing Machine Co. in Russia. He finally became a tobacco purchaser with the government after he was forced to give up his business. We lived under very difficult conditions, sleeping on straw and feeling the rodents creeping underneath us."

Helzner's father, Jacob, persuaded the Russian government to send him to Constantinople, Turkey, because he said that was where the finest tobacco in the region could be purchased. So the family - Helzner, his father, his mother, Rose, and his brothers, Jules and Abe - journeyed to Constantinople, where they made contact with family members living in Boston and Philadelphia. Their American relatives sent them the necessary shiffcarten.

"That means permission to travel or actually buying a passage on board the ship" that brought them to the United States, Helzner said.

During the two-week ocean crossing - steerage class - young Morris contracted the measles.

"The family only worried that we would be denied entrance into our new homeland," he recalled, "but I got better."

"We had been through a lot of storms on the Atlantic," the cherubic- looking man recalled. "We arrived in New York harbor on a foggy day with three of the four boilers blown and the ship listing. We didn't know if we would make it into port or not. Then we saw Ellis Island and that glorious statue holding the torch aloft! It lifted our spirits to the sky. We had arrived at our promised land."

After being ferried from a harbor dock to Ellis Island, Helzner remembered, the family underwent medical examinations. "And they changed our original name, spelled G-E-L-T-Z-N-E-R, to Helzner. . . . I guess they though it was easier. At Ellis Island, we were assigned to dormitories on a second level. Everything was white . . . the walls, the linens, white tile - sort of a sterile environment.

"On wooden benches, on a Sunday morning, we saw a lot of newspapers just spread over the benches. There were comics . . . drawings . . . but we had never seen such things in Russia. And, of course, we only spoke Russian and Yiddish, and the officials could hardly understand us. Some people, other immigrants, spoke Italian and Greek, but somehow we were able to make ourselves understood."

The experience was dreadful, but the immigrants knew they would have greater hardships to face in their new land and would have to make it on their own. "We had nothing but family," said Helzner.

Young Morris and his family stayed in New York for just a few days and then

went to Boston, where they had relatives in the glass-cutting business. "My father put plates of glass around his back," said Helzner, "and would walk around neighborhoods looking for broken windows."

Jacob Helzner learned to say "Fix your window?" and that is how he provided for his family in Boston for about two years, until his wife's family, in Philadelphia and also in the glass business, offered the family a better opportunity.

The immigrant family moved to Philadelphia in 1925. "My father worked for Perilstein's, a big glass-cutting business and seller of mirrors, for 37 years. Even the Pennsylvania Railroad asked him (Perilstein) to approve the quality of the glass they would use in their trains," Helzner said.

After graduating from Central High School in January 1933, Helzner and his two younger brothers, who were musicians, formed a band and played all over town, taking every kind of job they could find.

"My mother had always fostered an interest in music in all of us," Helzner said. "I played the piano and was particularly interested in Yiddish music. . . . My brother Abe played the drums, and Jules was on saxophone. I even remember the $600 Cunningham piano my parents bought for me when we lived on Marshall Street. It was lifted through the second-story (window) of our little house to my parents' bedroom. We converted the living room into a rehearsal hall."

In 1941, he was hired as the music director of the Workmen's Circle Chorus, a Yiddish choir that performed citywide and throughout the tri-state area.

During World War II, Helzner joined the Army and was stationed in Camp Ord, Calif., where he directed the base band.

Helzner attended Temple University's School of Music after the war, graduating as an 'outstanding student' with a degree in music, English and social studies. He continued studying at the Esther Boyer College of Music at Temple.

For 35 years, he taught at Walter Biddle Saul High School, and during that time he developed a nature-study day-camp program for the Philadelphia School District that enabled children to observe rural vocations. He retired in 1981.

Helzner lectures all along the East Coast on the little-known tradition of Yiddish music. "As one of the few Yiddish musicologists in the country, I hope I am making a small contribution to sustaining interest in this fading part of our culture."

He also serves on the board of the Settlement School of Music, the executive boards of Esther Boyer College of Music and the Educators Lodge of B'nai Brith. He remains active as an adviser to the Temple Diamond Band.

His work with music and youth has won Helzner many honors, including the Distinguished Service Award from B'nai Brith. He was named a honorary farmer by the Future Farmers of America and recently was given WCAU-TV's Spirit of Philadelphia Award.

In one window in Helzner's living room hangs a stained-glass montage of musical notes that an admirer gave him. ("I think it was from the days I played in our family band on Oriental Avenue in Atlantic City.") Nearby is a model of the Statue of Liberty.

"I always admired this statue when I would go in to my local bank on Bustleton Avenue. One day I noticed it was not on the counter, and I asked the manager what had happened to it.

"He simply said that they tired of looking at it after all those years. When I told him how much it meant to me each time I saw it, he said I could have it. And each time I look at it here in my living room, I still remember that first day - and the thrill of seeing my new world."

Helzner has returned to Ellis Island twice since the island was opened to the public as a museum a few years ago.

"Each visit was extremely emotional," he said, "and although the walls have been repainted, I can still remember the whiteness of everything that day 64 years ago."

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