Leaving Courland

Among my collection of interviews is this story, told by Paula Thal Aminoff in 1974, of her brother Jacob and his efforts to leave Courland (now Latvia) before being drafted into the Russian Army.

Paula Thal Aminoff, Marge Adinoff, Ted Thal and Larry Thal, September 8, 1974

Ted: You know about Abraham Blumberg.. well, I’ll tell you. His father, Abraham’s father [Jacob Blumberg] was fairly well‑to‑do, he was the one who helped all of the boys get across the line.  He paid, that’s why..

Paula: He helped them get money if they didn’t have money enough.

Marge: But Grandpa [Jacob Thal] didn’t use him though.

Paula: What?

Marge: Grandpa didn’t use him.  Tell them about how..

Paula: No, Grandpa didn’t.  Grandpa went with Mr. Lowenstein.

Marge: How many times did it take him to get back and forth?

Paula: And you know, when they got to the border, Mr. Lowenstein used to like to take a drink.  And he decided he’d like to have one more Russian drink before he goes across. And to cross the border, they had paid the guy to take them across, but you had to be there at a certain minute to get across when they were changing the guards, you know.  Now Mr. Lowenstein decided he wanted another Russian drink.  So they went in for another Russian drink.  Jake didn’t drink but Mr. Lowenstein did.  Well the guards changed, and when they came out, the next guard got them.  There was no going across. And then when they get you, they don’t just send you back, they’re sent from one prison to the next prison, walking. So, Jake sent a telegram to mother, what happened, you know.  So, Grandma just got on a train and went right down and got him off.  Got him out of jail.  I don’t know how much she had to pay, a lot.  And she got him out and took him home.  And then the next time he went by himself.

Marge: How much longer was it?

Paula: What?

Marge: How much time elapsed between the first time and the second?

Paula: Not very much.  Because they had to do it in a hurry because he was eighteen, and after eighteen, you couldn’t leave…

Larry: Who was Mr. Lowenstein?

Paula: He was a cousin of my mother’s.

It’s a wonderful story, but how much of it is true? With many digitized passenger lists available, it’s easy to confirm that Jacob Thal did leave Courland and immigrate to the United States with Louis Lowenstein. “Mr. Lowenstein” was the husband of Jacob’s first cousin, Johanna Blumberg. Married in 1885, the couple had just had their first child, Ella, in January of 1886, when Louis decided to emigrate. Two passenger lists are available that begin to tell us about their trip.

On June 26, 1886, Louis (Levin) Lowenstein and Jacob Thal were among about thirty passengers on the cargo ship, S.S. Kaffraria, sailing from Hamburg to Liverpool. Jacob was 18, as mentioned in the story. Though the handwriting is difficult to read, they appear to have come from Sassmacken, where Louis was born in 1859, and were probably traveling salesmen. From Liverpool, they boarded the S.S. England, which took them to New York, arriving on July 14, 1886.

But what about the rest of the story? How did they get from Courland to Hamburg to get on the ship?

Once they crossed into Prussia, emigrants from Courland could travel fairly easily by train through Berlin to Hamburg. At the time, East Prussia reached quite far north along the Baltic Sea, almost to Libau, in Courland. Travel into Kovno Province of Lithuania was not difficult. It was still the Russian Empire, though Kovno was part of the Pale of Settlement and Courland was not. The closest Prussian border was near the city of Memel (now Klaipeda, Lithuania), a seaport about 100 km south of Libau (Liepaja), on the Baltic Sea. The nearest official crossing point was at the city of Tilsit, another 100 km southeast of Memel, but reachable by train from Libau.

“Russland, Westliche Gouvernements,” Leipzig, 1882.

Jacob Thal’s uncle – Jacob Blumberg (Abraham’s father as mentioned in the excerpt) – may have lived in the town of Salanty (Salantai, near Shateik Grove), in the northwest part of Kovno province, quite near the border with Courland. He may have been part of a large network of Jews who worked as smugglers, helping emigrants to bribe corrupt Russian officials and make contact with the steamship companies. Slipping over the border at night by using bribes was quite common at that time.

In the late 1800’s, immigration between Russia and Prussia grew increasingly complex. Without Russian passports, which were difficult and expensive for Jews to obtain at that time, leaving Russia and crossing into Prussia was illegal. Before 1890, the Russian government only guarded a few major crossings, and the guards there were definitely susceptible to bribes. The government didn’t care if a few Jews left the country as they weren’t particularly wanted in the first place. In later years, when the numbers of emigrants increased dramatically, it became more difficult to get out of Russia.

The Prussian government was stricter, though faced with conflicting pressures. On the one hand, they didn’t want these Jewish immigrants in their country any more than the Russians did. And they were already getting pressure from the United States to stem the tide of Eastern European immigrants through the German ports. On the other hand, the German shipping companies were eager for more customers since the number of German emigrants to America had tapered off. In 1885, the Prussian government began requiring everyone coming across their border to have enough cash to pay for a ticket home, and occasionally used this as an excuse to deport travelers they didn’t want. In later years, health inspection stations were set up and quarantines required. Emigration from Russia through Prussia to America became big business, in large part due to the shipping companies. But in 1886, it was not yet so intense.

So how much truth is there to this story? Slipping over the border and bribing the officials were fairly common and well-documented. But in my reading to this point, I have yet to find anything about jails or detention of emigrants by the Russian government. Deportations and shootings are mentioned, but I have no information corroborating this part of the story. Were they held in Tilsit? What sort of prisons would these be? If you know more about this, please contact me. Any links to further information would be helpful.

In the end, Jacob and Louis obviously tried a second time and succeeded in getting on a ship in Hamburg. Jacob married Amelia Bernard in 1893 – the picture above is his wedding picture – and settled in Saginaw, Michigan. Louis eventually settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and two children. These two men, originally illegal immigrants, became the heads of large and prosperous American Jewish families.

Some Sources Consulted:

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