Monday, March 8, 2010

On babies and transatlantic crossings

It was just a few short years ago that my husband and I took a very memorable trip to Europe. We traveled accompanied by our children, including the newest addition to the family: our baby daughter just shy of five months old.

The trip was challenging in many ways. Long plane flights, long walks, luggage-toting, frequent adjustments to new sleeping arrangements in hotels and guest houses...

The trip was not for the faint-hearted. Each child was tasked with toting their own suitcase and/or carrying a backpack, etc. I carried my baby almost continuously for two straight weeks. Time strapped into her car seat was very limited (only a couple of taxi rides and one rental car trip required it). We traveled almost exclusively by train through France, Switzerland and Germany, baby in my arms. We didn't even consider taking a stroller. It was hard enough to get on and off the Paris metro with a baby and her siblings not to mention a bulky stroller!

Our littlest one loved the trip. She constantly had new things to look at. It was the dream vacation for a baby who has not yet had the inclination to crawl.

Some friends with similar-aged children thought we were crazy to attempt such an adventure. One, whose baby was the same age as ours, said, "I can barely make it to the grocery store. How did you make that trip to Europe?"

During some of the more difficult moments of our trip, when things seemed momentarily overwhelming for this traveling mother and her young family, I found inspiration in the memory of my great-grandmother's journey from Europe with her toddler to meet her husband in America, who had left several years before. Ilona (Bence) Ujlaki, known to me as Grammy Ulaky, had faced her trip alone with her young son. His illness and his resultant stay at Ellis Island had to be a trial extraordinaire for a young mother, only age 24. Surely, if she could make it through that ordeal, I could make it through my journey. I pressed on knowing that my struggles were not half as difficult as hers.

Now, several years later, I have additional inspiration in the perseverance of motherhood: my great-grandmother Maria (Németh) Tóth. Like Ilona, Maria had crossed the Atlantic alone on her way to join her husband in a new country. She, however, had three young children with her - plus a baby!

You may have read the post about my discovery of baby Lajos' name on the U.S.S. Pennsylvania passenger list originating in Hamburg and then again on the list at Ellis Island. I was amazed to find the name of a family member who I had never heard existed. After further contemplation, I am even more amazed at the fact that this poor mother, my great-grandmother, survived such a trip with her young children and baby and made it to America with her sanity intact.

Imagine this: one adult with four young children ages six, four, two and five months. No disposable diapers. Not even a toilet, for goodness sake. No bag full of extra cookies, snacks and juice boxes. Probably not even decent meals or clean water, if enough water was even available. Fifteen straight days in the steerage section of a ship after a cross-continent trip by train from Hungary to Germany.


Don't forget to consider the fact that along the way Maria faced difficulty in communicating with fellow passengers, train and ship employees, and workers at the ports of Hamburg and Ellis Island. I wonder how many Hungarian speakers she actually encountered along the way. It must have been a relief to speak with someone in her native tongue.

I know from traveling with young children that no trip is easy. But what I know about the journey of my great-grandmother Maria (Németh) Tóth is almost unthinkable to me as a mother. In pondering the struggles that she must have faced on her journey to America, I can only hope that somehow she received special grace from God during her trial and met a few kind and helpful strangers on her way.

I never had a chance to meet my great-grandmother, known to her family as Grammy Toth. If I could do so today I would thank her as a great-granddaughter and a fellow mother: with thanksgiving for her perseverance during what was possibly one of the greatest trials of her life. Her courage and sacrifice made it possible for our family to begin a new life in America.

This article was originally published on March 10, 2008.  It has been reposted here in honor of women's history month.


  1. Lisa - this is a fantastic story and you write it so well! I cannot imagine how this trip must've been for her and I often imagine how it must've been for my great grandmother who chose to leave her youngest son behind when she made the journey here to join her husband. I'm sure there are lots of stories like both of ours, mothers making difficult decisions - either way it was hard - traveling with a baby in those conditions is unimaginable. Your trip to Europe (although I'm sure trying at times) sounds like a fantastic time and I'm sure very memorable for your entire family.

  2. She was definitely a strong woman! Great story Lisa and I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for sharing this story again! There are many of us reading these blogs today who were not reading them 2 years ago when originally posted (me for one). I too have a g-grandmother who traveled from Poland to the U.S. with a baby at 24 years of age. She was with her husband tho, so I imagine it was much easier for her than others - but I'm not sure I could of done it.

  4. What a great story, Lisa! It's a testimony of the strength and determination of the Hungarian women. And I can tell, you also have it in you.

  5. I admire you both. I am a grandmother that has challenges taking my two grandchildren to the grocery store.
    What a wonderful intertwining of two generations into one story.

  6. You have been awarded the Ancestor Approved award for your great work on your genealogy blog...please stop by my blog and pick up the award (by right clicking on it and saving it to a .jpg) and then post the below information with the picture, using the format I used when receiving it.

    The Ancestor Approved Award asks that the recipient list ten things you have learned about any of your ancestors that has surprised, humbled, or enlightened you and pass the award along to ten other bloggers who you feel are doing their ancestors proud. Here are the 10 things I have learned from my ancestors.

  7. Another Ancestry Approved Award, from me :)

    Congratulations you are Ancestor Approved...

    The Ancestor Approved Award asks that the recipient list ten things you have learned about any of your ancestors that has surprised, humbled, or enlighted you and pass the award along to ten other bloggers who you feel are doing their ancestors proud.

    You are now tagged on my blog (Blame Grandma -


  8. Interesting!
    Daniel D. Peaceman, editor of Contemporary Horizon Magazine

  9. Dear Lisa!

    It is possible that the website I found only one living in distant relatives. I'm Benczey Viola. I know only very little English. My husband and I and two gyermekemmel Hungary (Budapest) live. Is there a website to My grandmother called Mary Benczey. My grandmother's father was John Benczey a secondary school was born. It is possible that siblings or cousins were. The State Benczey John's wife Theresa (of Italian descent) had. This noble land-owning family in the secondary school estate vineyard, which also lost for some reason, I Before World War. So at least I'd like to know the e-mail.

  10. Loved your post! I visited my husband's family in Spain several times over the years (first time I was pregnant, then with a six month old, later with a toddler, with teens, and last week with my daughter and her new "beau") I experienced all the things you described and also thought about my ancestors on ships whilst we were on jets. I also have an ancestor born on board a ship, and I can't imagine how the mother bore that ordeal! I guess we should all be grateful for our strong female ancestors!

  11. You sure make me think. of the journey then. so much unknown passing through their minds. And of course I have to think of the hardiness of our genes. Especially for the babies. Or if one of them had been pregnant as the women always were. [smile]
    thanks for making me think in this perspective. Humbling.


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