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'Hull's answer to
BBC Radio 4's Front Row
Award winning author of
novels set in and around
Hull | City of Culture 2017
The Emigrants' Waiting Room by Vanessa Farmery. If your browser doesn't support flash
Magdalena shivered on the deck, whether through cold weariness or fearful anticipation she could no longer tell; the unquiet fluttering that inhabited her chest like a caged bird disturbed her thoughts by day and haunted her dreams at night. It was a dull January dawn and the eastern sky had not begun to brighten behind them until after eight. Down below people were stirring, rubbing their aching limbs and brushing the sleep-dust from their eyes, sharing what was left of their precious provisions and eavesdropping on one another's conversations, hoping to steal some small scrap of information that would be useful to them. Magdalena had not slept, the rolling motion of the ship keeping her awake rather than lulling her to sleep
and all she desired now was a breath of fresh air and a glimpse of dry land.
The scene before her did not disappoint. She could make out the low flatlands on either side of the estuary, it's mouth gaping like that of a
hungry fish getting ready to swallow its prey. The channel narrowed slowly as the ship progressed further up river and they made their way to
the docks of the city everyone called Hull, in spite of its royal appellation. This was one of the few facts about her present destination that Magdalena knew, and the most puzzling; she was sure that if she had been given a name by a king, she would have worn it like a crown. She counted on her fingers the other things she knew; its location on the east coast of England, its purpose as a port dealing mainly in fish; its reputation for
being hard-working and, finally, that it was home to the Harry Lazarus Hotel.
This she had learned from the creased piece of paper she had in her pocket, the folds almost worn through from the many times it had been
read and reread - to herself, to her family, to her friends and even the Rabbi. It had been one of the weapons she had armed herself with when she went into battle with her brothers, a war that had waged for over a year, a war in which words had wounded some and taken others prisoner, a war which she had never expected to win... but now here she was. Magdalena, standing on the deck, Magdalena, the good daughter, Magdalena, with
eyes that filled with tears when she heard of another's pain but which had become hard and bright as she had argued over and over again that
they must leave Poland for a new life half the world away.
The cutting had come from Szymon, the man to whom she would have already been married had he not chosen to cross one continent, two
seas and an ocean himself over a year earlier, eager to start afresh in a country where work was abundant and a good living was to be had for those who were willing to put their shoulders to the wheel. Magdalena had said goodbye to Szymon with a heavy heart and no expectation of ever seeing him again, for those who went West seldom returned, but he had surprised her.
The first communication she had from him was nothing more than a tattered bundle of receipts which allowed her to plot his journey from Wroclaw to Rotterdam. In a second envelope, she had received an advertisement for The Wilson Line Steamers and the torn out page from an English newspaper which she had had to find a scholar to translate. Later packages had included a train ticket from Hull to Liverpool, a paper permitting passage on a ship bound for New York, then, intermittently, came several postcards of that city and, most recently and excitingly, a
small printed description of an apartment with the word 'TAKEN' scrawled across it in red ink. Szymon was sending her clues to follow, like a trail
Magdalena knew the words of the article in 'The Hull Daily News' by heart, in Polish at least, and hoped that what it said was still applicable,
for it was dated November 1875 and this was January 1877. It began with a bold statement, one that had rung true in Magda's heart and one that
she knew Szymon would have agreed with;
"It is generally accepted that man is a migratory and ambitious species, driven away by what he does not have and towards that which he
might acquire," the reporter had begun.
"Whatever his many differences from his fellow man, his similarities are more striking - for do not all men wish to have for themselves and
their families safety and security, a full belly and a warm hearth, health, honest labour, opportunity to improve their lot, self-respect and respect within their community and the society of others? Are we not more the same than different?"
It was certainly the case that the Poles were leaving their native country for the very reason that no matter how hard they worked, the
rewards were little and the lure of a better life elsewhere was strong.
The article continued;
"We are currently witnessing a wave of mass migration of Eastern Europeans who are seeking an improved future in the promised lands of
the United States of America and the Provinces of Canada, and few populations are better placed to bear testimony to these turbulent times than
that of our own city; Kingston upon Hull. It is here that the flotsam and jetsam of this veritable tide of travellers temporarily washes up before embarking upon the most perilous part of their journey to cross the mighty Atlantic."
At least a quarter of Magdalena's own community had already left, most of them young men like Szymon. Paradoxically, that was why it had been
so difficult to persuade her brothers to follow; they claimed that with fewer men competing for work, their prospects in Poland were better, but
time had proved them wrong. Jews were mostly hired by other Jews and, as the numbers at the Synagogue shrank, so did their opportunities. In
the end, they had reluctantly put their objections aside and the whole family had made their plans to emigrate. That included Magdalena and her parents, her two brothers, sister-in-law and two small children with another on the way, her maternal Grandmother and a female cousin of twelve whose parents could see the writing on the wall but who did not wish to sell their business for the paltry sum it would fetch and so had elected to
Once the decision was finally made her father had taken control, but Magdalena had made herself indispensible as his assistant. She was unusually well-educated for the circumstances and time; as the brightest child among the siblings she had insinuated herself into her brothers' learning and absorbed more of it, sponge-like, than they who were more skilled than schooled. She could read and write in Yiddish and Polish and her hoard of information from Szymon was as useful a guide as any. She read on;
"At the Harry Lazarus Hotel in Posterngate these weary wanderers can find warmth for the few days between their arrival in and departure from England. Although many of the transmigrants who find themselves there are Jewish, as is Mr Lazarus himself, his Hotel welcomes all and offers them a place to rest and meet up with others in the same position. This remarkable service is provided at a low rate or, in extremis, gratis, by the City Benevolent Fund, various charitable institutions and the Hull Hebrew Congregation."
The vessel was slowing now, juddering to a halt as it negotiated its way into the Victoria Dock where they would soon disembark. Magdalena found she was no longer alone, many of her fellow passengers had begun to collect along the rails for their first sight of England.
Once on the quayside the family were surrounded and jostled by men and boys who jabbered at them until an authoritative figure in a uniform appeared and with one or two harsh words dispelled the crush and asked clearly, "Polska?" They nodded in relief and he indicated that he would like to see their papers. Magdalena's Father opened his pouch and unfolded them without letting go, but the official did not seem to take offence at his suspicion and simply examined them carefully between the clenched fingers. Magdalena stepped forward and opened out her faded piece of newsprint for him to see.
"Aha! The Lazarus Hotel!"
His face became less stern, and he beckoned for two carts to be brought and watched as the family piled their few possessions and small children onto each one before he accepted Magdalena's stuttered thanks as they set off along a maze of unfamiliar cobbled streets.
And then, finally, they were there.
An efficient woman at the entrance took stock of them and sent for someone who spoke a little Polish. There was a discussion about money and Magdalena saw her Father hand over a sheaf of notes before they were escorted to their rooms; a large bed was found for her brother to share with his wife and children while bunk-beds were allotted to the rest. The rooms were small and sparely furnished but spotlessly clean, the unmistakable whiff of laundry soap permeating the air from fresh bedding. They were each provided with a towel and a small bar of soap and the translator explained that they must first bathe well and then have a short check with a medic who would assess their health. The arrival of migrants had been the cause of a cholera epidemic some years before and now any new guest at the hotel was subject to such an examination. Along the hall were two washrooms – one for men, the other for women and children – while the lavatories were outside, across the yard.
Later they were shown the kitchen and scullery. Simple tin mugs, plates and cutlery graced the refectory tables where two meals were provided daily; a thick and nourishing porridge every morning while a hearty soup in the evening would be followed by plain cooked fish or meat with potatoes and vegetables. Loaves of bread were baked next door at the Carmelite Convent which donated these daily.
On that first evening Magdalena's family sat together for supper and spoke to one another in murmured whispers, but the next day they began to share their story with the other transmigrants. The vast majority were unskilled young men, down at heel and threadbare of coat, seeking opportunities as labourers. Some had qualifications and experience in commerce or administrative work but few were professionals. Magdalena did not look at them with pity or fear or mistrust or hate – as she knew some did – but with awe. She knew something of the courage needed to uproot oneself from a homeland and take on the unknown and, besides, they made her think of Szymon who had taken meals at these tables, slept in one of these beds and shared in the Shabbat at sundown one Friday. On Saturday they went to the Synagogue down the curiously named Dagger Lane and gave thanks for their safe passage so far.
Early on Monday morning they made their way through the dark, dank, still sleepy streets to Hull's Paragon Station where they would they would board the train that would carry them across northern England to Liverpool. Magdalena watched her brothers showing her nephews the engine, carrying them past the carriages that stretched beyond her vision, a metal snake without end. In America they would see more wondrous things than that, and she would see the most wondrous sight of all; Szymon's smile when he opened his door to find her on the doorstep. For the first time since she had left home she felt a leap of hope in her heart. As it soared within her like a bird on the wing she entered the Emigrant's Waiting Room at the end of Platform Thirteen and understood that, finally, she was standing at the gateway to freedom.
Congratulations to Vanessa Farmery, the winner of The Val Wood Prize 2017: Freedom in Hull.
If you have trouble reading online, you can download the story here in a larger font.
Val Wood with winner Vanessa Farmery.
Val with Hull 2017 volunteers and library staff who helped judge the competition
Val with runner up, Andrew Carrick.
Andrew Carrick (pictured left) won this year's runner up prize. You can read his entry here.