A hundred years ago a woman disappeared from the Ellis Island. Her name was Esther Skolnik. She was my great-aunt, a younger sister of my grandfather. She traveled there from Hamburg on a big ship called Batavia along with extensive family of her in-laws (five people in all including a couple of kids). Her husband who had left Russia two years earlier was waiting for her in New York, but if he counted on the requisite warmth of the reunion, he must have been disappointed. There were no hugs, no tears, no verbal gushing, no violent sexual arousal. The meeting simply didn’t take place.
Esther made it as far as to the Ellis Island, and there at some point disappeared. How, why—nobody knows. There is proof that she did make that journey. First of all, she is present in a group portrait of the Skolnik family made in their hometown shortly before their departure for Hamburg, dated and signed in blotchy ink on the back “Skolniks. To the promised land.” Esther is in the second row, the last one on the left, with her new sister-in-law on the right. She has a nice body, light curly hair, a nose like a crooked radish and an expression of a person who wants to punch the whole world in the face for the sheer unfairness of it. Everybody tells me I take after her. The photograph is not that important though, but there is other, more substantial proof. Esther’s name was checked off the ship’s passengers list. There are eight saved ticket stubs, for everybody including Esther. There are also several diary entries about her made by her fifteen-year-old brother-in-law Yakov. The entries are a bit pretentious, a bit too literary. Yakov clearly believed that he was making a remarkable journey in both geographical and literary sense. One of them is focused on this incident involving Esther. One of the male passengers had a bit too much to drink and attempted to kiss her. Esther won’t have that. She went and bit him on the ear. Bit him so hard that the man was bleeding for days. “Why would she do that?” people asked. “She could’ve slapped him!” This incident clearly made an impression on the young Yakov. There are several pencil sketches of Esther following the “bite entry.” They can’t be called erotic either, although if you look closely, you would see that the artist applied special diligence to drawing out feminine curves, you might even see how his hand lingered in certain places. Still, the sketches look rather generic, as if the artist wasn’t drawing a particular person, but simply his idea of any young woman leaning on a railing staring at the waves ahead, or sitting bent over a book. There is no immediate likeness to the Esther of the group photograph. There is no doubt that the drawings are of Esther though, because they say so on the bottom: “Esther reading” or “Esther looking at the water” or simply “Cousin Esther. Ellis island in the distance.”
Yet, there is no trace of Esther in the Ellis Island database. All the other Skolniks are there. All listed as having come on Batavia on July 12th of 1910. Point of departure Hamburg. Former place of residence Vitebsk, Russia. Itshak Skolnik, Male, Married, 58. Bertha Skolnik, F, M, 47. Sima Skolnik, F, M, 21. Yakov Skolnik M, S, 13. Abram Skolnik M, S, 2. There is no record for Esther Skolnik, 26, F, M. There is no record of Esther Skolnik being diseased, detained, or deported either. She is simply absent. They looked for her and they looked for her, but they never found her. She didn’t like her fate, but she didn’t fight against her, nor did she accept it. She simply disappeared.
I know this story from my grandfather Yakov. “But that’s not possible!” I said. He just shrugged. This is a family legend of the sorts. You don’t question family legends. You think about them, fantasize about them, get inspired by them. Think of all kinds of crazy stories based on them. Find them in old photos.
Why can’t the woman in the photograph be my great-aunt Esther? She’s getting arrested for wearing a revealing swimming suit. She’ll never get in that police van though. Look at her expression. In a few seconds, the fat man’s ear will be squeezed between her teeth. He will drop her in shock, and Esther will run away. I salute you, Esther!
Lara Vapnyar came to the US from Russia in 1994. She is a recipient of the Guggenheim fellowship, and the Goldberg Prize for Jewish fiction. Her stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s, and Vogue.