From Slonim to America: A Dream Fulfilled

In 1996, the full story was released of the decoding activities by the British at Bletchley Park during World War II. Among the transcripts was one concerning the town of Slonim in Belarus, dated July 18, 1941. It described the rounding up and shooting of “1,153 Jewish looters by the police regiment.” In short, the massacre of the entire Jewish population of Slonim.

None of the transcripts were used at the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II. The documents were considered “classified”. After 55 years, the facts of the killings at Slonim finally emerged. It happened less than one month after the German invasion. Swift and terrible. The transcript was signed by General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewsky, the German commander in Belarus. At Nuremberg, ironically, he testified as a prosecution witness and escaped punishment, although his role was well known. He was later tried and convicted by a West German court.

As I read all of this in a brief news story in The New York Times, I felt profound shock, sorrow and empathy for the people of Slonim. And I was overwhelmed by a piercing sense of personal history and wonder. My father, Samuel Louis Sloan, had left Slonim to come to America in l907. I sat for a very long time, just absorbing what I had read. I thought immediately of C. Wright Mills, the eminent sociologist, and his concept of two lines intersecting: history and biography. The point where the lines cross, the nexus, he called the “sociological imagination”. It is a vivid image, when one can see one’s life in the greater perspective of the sweep and power of history. Certainly, for me, that day was such a moment.

The story of Samuel Louis Sloan is one of the 12 million immigrants from Europe who entered the portals of Ellis Island during the peak years of 1892 -1924. Of all Americans alive today, over 100 million (40%) have one or more relatives who came to Ellis Island. When they stood on the deck of their boat and saw the red brick buildings and the Statue of Liberty in the distance, they knew they had finally arrived. But they knew nothing of what lay ahead. They had made the hard journey with a few treasured possessions and with their dreams.

Samuel was the youngest of three sons and came with his mother, Freda. His father, Sholem and his two older brothers, Benjamin and Michael had come earlier. This pattern of emigration was fairly common, since most families could not afford the passage for everyone at one time. One or two had to go first to make a living and send money for the additional fares.

As a young teenager in l907, Samuel had the benefit of being the only one of the three brothers to be sent on to college. He worked as a trolley conductor to earn the money for tuition and books. Benjamin, the oldest brother, became a plumber in New York City, later an owner of real estate, known in the family as the one who made the most money. Michael with an easy going nature became a taxi driver in the city. Their father remained a scholar as he had been in Slonim. Their mother was the homemaker. All became United States citizens.

Samuel graduated from college and went on to study at Long Island College Hospital for a medical degree. During World War I, he served in the United States Army, working at a hospital set aside for soldiers who were considered mentally unfit for service. He described them later; some as truly unbalanced. Others malingering in order to avoid being put on active duty.

After the war, Samuel Louis Sloan became one of the first two interns at the Barnert Memorial Hospital in Paterson, New Jersey. He married Miriam Marcus , a New York girl who had graduated from Hunter College and Columbia University to become a teacher in the city. They set up their home in Paterson and became the parents of two daughters, Shirley and Joyce.

Samuel L. Sloan spent his entire medical career at the Barnert Hospital, becoming a surgeon after a year of advanced study in Europe. During his lifetime, he practiced general medicine and surgery with great skill and humanity. In the World War II years, he became Chief-of-staff at the hospital. He achieved the distinction of becoming a Fellow in the American College of Surgeons, an honor that was very important to him.

I remember him best as a loving father with a firm but gentle touch. Always there to care for my sister and me in deed and word. He was truly a healer of his fellow men and women. He died — too young at 61 —after two severe coronary attacks. The funeral procession drove past the hospital, where the double doors were open and the entire staff was standing outside as Doctor Samuel Louis Sloan passed by for the last time.

As an immigrant boy, he had come from Slonim in Belarus. A world far away in miles and opportunity. He achieved the fulfillment of his dreams here in American with the continued encouragement and help of his wife, Miriam Marcus Sloan. His name is one of the 500,000 names inscribed on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor on Ellis Island.

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5 thoughts on “From Slonim to America: A Dream Fulfilled

  1. I like how you weave history with your personal story. Your father is to be admired for grabbing the opportunities that were available to him. Thanks for sharing his story with readers.

  2. Mom , this is so beautiful and I am so so proud to be part of this legacy. I am so sorry I never met Pop Pop Sam but I feel so honored to be his grand daughter. I see from the pictures how much you look like him. Again, thank you for this truly inspirational blog. In times of uncertainty, this blog is very important for ME to keep the small things in my day in perspective and help remember Pop Pop Sam who was brave for us all.

  3. This is very touching, Joyce. It reinforces my pride in the country. We have our flaws but we also have some great strengths.

  4. I am so touched by this lovely story. Actually, I thought about this wonderful man’s life and especially his immigration at about the same time as my mother sailed into Ellis Island. I would like to think they met and talked never knowing that their children’s paths would intertwine so many years later. It is such a nice thought — that I think I will keep with me. Makes me feel happy!!!

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