As a curious ten year old, I spent a lot of time in the school library reading about everything from the New York Yankees to the town of Argyle, Minnesota.
Unless we have survived being one, we have no idea what it must feel like to be an orphan. Without the nurturing love of a mother and father during the early years of growing up, a century ago there were many children who were caught up in this painful agony of not having their parents. Some were immigrant children, others were kids whose parents died because of disease or trapped in New York during the Industrial Revolution. Some children had terrible conditions to live in. Thus, the Orphan Trains, which I have learned more about, were meant to relocate those desperate children to a new home out west, as far as Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. Between 1854 – 1930, thousands of children were loaded on to trains, given clean clothes to wear so that at each assigned railroad depot there might be waiting, expectant parents who would want to adopt them as their own child. In this grandfather’s case, it must have been a very traumatic experience to have gone through feeling “picked over” as the train continued to move westward.
I trust my student who wrote about this grandfather’s experience, but I’m not sure that the Titanic scenario actually happened. With my natural curiosity kicking in, I wanted to know more from the accounts of the 710 Titanic survivors, how many infants or children survived? How many were left orphaned as a result? I found out the Navratil brothers aged 2 and 4 had been taken by their father Michel Navratil, a French tailor. He had taken his sons, Edmond and Michel, from his recently divorced wife and boarded the Titanic under an assumed name of Hoffman. When the ship began to sink, he entrusted these two boys to someone’s care in one of the few Titanic lifeboats. Thankfully, the distraught mother was reunited with her sons one month after the catastrophe when she discovered their photos in newspaper articles.
With a perfunctory look on the Internet, I found nothing of an orphaned infant but that shows what the Internet is or is not capable of producing. I tell my first year composition students when writing research papers that they have to answer the question, “According to whom?” Yes, there better be some reliable sources to back up whatever they write. Throughout the course, some have gotten used to the acronym “ATW?” scrawled on their papers. If any of my readers can find out more about the Titanic and the children who survived, I would love to know more. I KNOW my student would love to know more about their amazing grandfather who is an infant survivor of the Titanic but also survived the orphan train.
In this story, I have changed the names for everyone involved in this grandfather’s story, including the name of the Titanic lifeboat. My student’s name is not even given. I am left to wonder if the Titanic account is true, perhaps it is. The Orphan train story is well documented yet not as well-known as the Titanic. As you read to the very end, you will learn about one person’s experience of living in an orphanage and riding the orphan train to his eventual Minnesota family. Even though “Hertz” has passed on, he is very much valued by all of his family.
– Kristina Gray
Anonymous – “What’s in a name after surviving the Titanic?”
As a curious ten year old, I spent a lot of time in the school library reading about everything from the New York Yankees to the town of Argyle, Minnesota. My favorite book at that age was a dramatized version of the events that unfolded during the sinking of the Titanic, the famous “unsinkable” passenger ship. I carried this book with me for quite some time until one day my mom inquired how I became interested in the book or the ship. It was then that my parents informed me that my paternal grandfather was a passenger on the ship. Up until that point I thought it was fiction. “But didn’t most of them die?” I asked. There were survivors, and my Grandpa “Hertz” was one of them.
In April 1912, the great passenger ship struck an iceberg and was sent to the ocean floor in pieces. During the ensuing chaos, my grandfather who was an infant at the time, was separated from his parents. He was placed in a carrier with the name “O’Henry” emblazoned on it and was miraculously spared along with hundreds of other lucky souls. When he arrived in New York City, his name was entered in the books at Ellis Island simply as “O’Henry” and the first name space was left blank. When he was placed in an orphanage called the New York Fondling Home they dropped the O, and he was given the first name Henry.
At the beginning of the twentieth century disease ran rampant in New York as doctors struggled to contain awful ailments such a typhoid fever, and a laundry list of new diseases brought on by poverty, poor living quarters, and immigrants. Henry broke his arm when he was six and doctors placed his arm in a cigar box in an attempt to stabilize it. Doctors struggled mightily in those days, and lost far more battles than they won. This among other things caused the orphanages to overflow and brought on the idea of orphan trains. These trains would travel west with kids in hopes that families would adopt them, giving children another chance at life. Henry was one of the last children chosen, finally getting adopted by the Peterson family in southern Minnesota. Henry Peterson, at age nine, finally had a name and more importantly a family.
After living out his childhood, he moved to the Twin Cities and spent much of his adult life working in construction (iron, concrete, and masonry). During his construction days, he helped build the Hilton hotel in downtown St. Paul. The Hilton was infamous for being six inches out of level from the top to the bottom and was referred to by many as “The Tiltin’ Hilton”. He used to tell a story about a job he had delivering groceries, when one winter a dog attempted to bite the chain-covered snow tires on his vehicle, ripping off the bottom jaw of the animal.
When he was twenty-one, the United States government offered to finance an opportunity for him to travel home to Ireland and seek out any living blood relatives that might still be around. He declined, stating that his family was right here in the United States and it was always his position to leave this story behind him. He was later drafted into the army and sent to boot camp in Denver, Colorado, but was sent home due to varicose veins in his legs and hearing problems he endured after being struck by a nun as a child in Catholic school. In 1940 he married an adorable young woman named Dorothy Lange, and they went on to have three children (Dottie, Sally and my father George).
Over the years Henry gained a reputation as a penny pincher and someone who would take on any job just to make a few bucks. I’ve also been told by my father that Henry never complained about a thing in his life; he always played the cards he was dealt. Friends and family eventually saddled him with the nickname Hertz, which was a play on a Jewish stereotype, and even though he was a devout Catholic, he welcomed the moniker of “Hertz”. Everywhere he went he was known by his nickname and he loved it because he disliked the name Henry. “Everywhere” was usually Gallagher’s bar in West St. Paul.
Hertz drank beer nearly every day of his life. When he was placed in a nursing home, well into his nineties, he was still given his two beers so he could see the Twins play baseball or watch Wheel of Fortune. I remember an instance while visiting him in the nursing home, and a new nurse was arguing with him about bathing; he would not bathe until he got his two beers either. She could not believe that the nursing home was supplying this ninety year old man with beer, until one of the other nurses came in and told her the arrangement they had.
One day at the nursing home, I decided to accompany my aunt and cousin to the Humane Society to help pick out a puppy to adopt. We decided to bring Hertz along to get him out and about and get some fresh air. When we left the Humane Society that day after going through the adoption process, Hertz had an emotional breakdown. He went on to explain how it felt to be the last one chosen. I was blown away with how that emotion stuck with him after all those years. Picked last. Not for kickball or floor hockey but for life.
Hertz died when he was 96. He had been given a name and a birthday, so he never really knew when or where he came from. He accepted his fate. He didn’t want to know what might have been. Perhaps if he had tried to find out, you wouldn’t be reading this.