The world is made of sto­ries, / Not of atoms” the poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote. All of us are made of sto­ries: sto­ries we’ve heard, sto­ries we’ve read, sto­ries we’ve made up, sto­ries we’ve expe­ri­enced, sto­ries that come to us in dreams. Like Russ­ian matryosh­ka dolls, there are sto­ries and sto­ries and sto­ries nest­ing inside each of us just wait­ing to be born.

I don’t remem­ber when I first heard the sto­ry of Sadie Gringrass (the real Git­tel of my book, Gittel’s Jour­ney: An Ellis Island Sto­ry). It seems that I have known this sto­ry all my life. I have cer­tain­ly known Sadie’s daugh­ter Phyl­lis for all my life. Aunt Phyl­lis,” as I have called her for over six­ty years, met my moth­er when they were both ten years old; they were best friends for sev­en­ty-four years, until my moth­er died. They had a lot in com­mon — both were born in 1928, both grew up in Brook­lyn, both were daugh­ters of immi­grants, both were Jew­ish, and both were beau­ti­ful. Lat­er, they both mar­ried their high school sweet­hearts and became moth­ers, grand­moth­ers and great-grand­moth­ers. But there was one impor­tant dif­fer­ence between them — while they both had two sons, my moth­er also had a daugh­ter. And that daugh­ter was me.

And boy, was I fussed over and adored! My hair was brushed until it shone. I was dressed in rib­bons and lace. And while the boys were whisked away by their dads to play stick­ball in the street, I was left behind to sit in the kitchen while my moth­er, Aunt Phyl­lis, and their friends played Mah Jongg, smoked Chester­field King cig­a­rettes, drank instant Maxwell House Cof­fee, noshed on fist­fuls of choco­late-cov­ered peanuts and Raisinets, and, most impor­tant­ly, talked. And I lis­tened. Per­haps that’s when the seeds of being a writer were sown inside me. Who else was going to be the keep­er of these stories?

At some point in that fifth floor apart­ment in Brighton Beach, I must have heard Sadie Gringrass’s sto­ry. Or per­haps I heard it when my moth­er and Aunt Phyl­lis pushed my baby car­riage down the board­walk, their high heels click­ing against the wood­en planks, while seag­ulls squawked above me and the salty ocean air tick­led my nose. Or maybe it was when we stopped in at Mrs. Stahl’s on Coney Island Avenue so my moth­er and aunt could perch on red vinyl stools and share a kasha knish.

All I know is that some­where along the way I learned that Aunt Phyllis’s moth­er had crossed an entire ocean by her­self when she was a child, car­ry­ing noth­ing but a piece of paper with a relative’s name and address scrawled upon it. When she arrived at Ellis Island she showed the paper to an immi­gra­tion offi­cer, but she had held it so tight­ly dur­ing her voy­age that all the ink had worn off on her hand. And then, as the sto­ry goes, her pic­ture was put in the news­pa­per, her rel­a­tives rec­og­nized her, and they came to Ellis Island to claim her.

The sto­ry stayed inside me for decades, almost as though it was hiber­nat­ing. And then one day, in 2015, I saw a pho­to in a news­pa­per of a small fish­ing boat crowd­ed with dark-haired, dark-eyed, sea-drenched Syr­i­an refugees who had fled their coun­try in a search of a bet­ter life. I stared at their weary faces full of ter­ror, sor­row, relief, and hope, and some­thing stirred inside me. And that’s when I remem­bered the sto­ry of Aunt Phyllis’s moth­er, and knew I had to write about it.

First I went to the source and asked Aunt Phyl­lis what she knew about her mother’s jour­ney. She didn’t know much more than I already knew, except that orig­i­nal­ly her moth­er, Sadie, was sup­posed to trav­el with an old­er rel­a­tive who was denied per­mis­sion to board the ship. So my next step was to do research: Why would an adult not be per­mit­ted to board a boat sail­ing from Europe to Amer­i­ca at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry? (Tra­choma, a very con­ta­gious eye infec­tion was the most com­mon rea­son.) What type of food would a pas­sen­ger trav­el­ing in steer­age eat? (Her­ring and soup.) What type of beds were pro­vid­ed for refugees detained on Ellis Island? (Mat­tress­es made of straw).

Once I amassed the facts, I need­ed to do emo­tion­al research. In oth­er words, I had to put myself in Sadie’s place. What would Sadie (whom I renamed Git­tel) have to leave behind? Sure­ly a best friend. Per­haps a beloved pet. And what would she bring with her? Maybe a favorite doll. And once it was clear she would be trav­el­ing alone, what would she be giv­en to take along? At about the same time Sadie immi­grat­ed to Amer­i­ca, my own grand­moth­er, along with her moth­er, made a sim­i­lar voy­age, car­ry­ing noth­ing but a pair of Shab­bos can­dle­sticks, so I insert­ed those can­dle­sticks into my story.

To be a Jew in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry / Is to be offered a gift,” is some­thing else that Muriel Rukeyser wrote. If Sadie Gin­grass hadn’t come to Amer­i­ca by her­self in 1911, my aunt Phyl­lis and all her descen­dants would nev­er have been born. (In fact, Sadie’s entire town, Łomża, was con­quered by the Ger­man Army in 1941; local Jews were forced into a ghet­to and mur­dered in near­by forests and death camps.) If my grand­moth­er and her moth­er hadn’t immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States, I would not be alive today. The gift of life comes with great respon­si­bil­i­ty: to bear wit­ness and tell the sto­ries of those who have come before us so that they will live on and not be forgotten.

All I know is that some­where along the way I learned that Aunt Phyllis’s moth­er had crossed an entire ocean by her­self when she was a child, car­ry­ing noth­ing but a piece of paper with a relative’s name and address scrawled upon it. When she arrived at Ellis Island she showed the paper to an immi­gra­tion offi­cer, but she had held it so tight­ly dur­ing her voy­age that all the ink had worn off on her hand. And then, as the sto­ry goes, her pic­ture was put in the news­pa­per, her rel­a­tives rec­og­nized her, and they came to Ellis Island to claim her.

The sto­ry stayed inside me for decades, almost as though it was hiber­nat­ing. And then one day, in 2015, I saw a pho­to in a news­pa­per of a small fish­ing boat crowd­ed with dark-haired, dark-eyed, sea-drenched Syr­i­an refugees who had fled their coun­try in a search of a bet­ter life. I stared at their weary faces full of ter­ror, sor­row, relief, and hope, and some­thing stirred inside me. And that’s when I remem­bered the sto­ry of Aunt Phyllis’s moth­er, and knew I had to write about it.

First I went to the source and asked Aunt Phyl­lis what she knew about her mother’s jour­ney. She didn’t know much more than I already knew, except that orig­i­nal­ly her moth­er, Sadie, was sup­posed to trav­el with an old­er rel­a­tive who was denied per­mis­sion to board the ship. So my next step was to do research: Why would an adult not be per­mit­ted to board a boat sail­ing from Europe to Amer­i­ca at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry? (Tra­choma, a very con­ta­gious eye infec­tion was the most com­mon rea­son.) What type of food would a pas­sen­ger trav­el­ing in steer­age eat? (Her­ring and soup.) What type of beds were pro­vid­ed for refugees detained on Ellis Island? (Mat­tress­es made of straw).

Once I amassed the facts, I need­ed to do emo­tion­al research. In oth­er words, I had to put myself in Sadie’s place. What would Sadie (whom I renamed Git­tel) have to leave behind? Sure­ly a best friend. Per­haps a beloved pet. And what would she bring with her? Maybe a favorite doll. And once it was clear she would be trav­el­ing alone, what would she be giv­en to take along? At about the same time Sadie immi­grat­ed to Amer­i­ca, my own grand­moth­er, along with her moth­er, made a sim­i­lar voy­age, car­ry­ing noth­ing but a pair of Shab­bos can­dle­sticks, so I insert­ed those can­dle­sticks into my story.

To be a Jew in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry / Is to be offered a gift,” is some­thing else that Muriel Rukeyser wrote. If Sadie Gin­grass hadn’t come to Amer­i­ca by her­self in 1911, my aunt Phyl­lis and all her descen­dants would nev­er have been born. (In fact, Sadie’s entire town, Łomża, was con­quered by the Ger­man Army in 1941; local Jews were forced into a ghet­to and mur­dered in near­by forests and death camps.) If my grand­moth­er and her moth­er hadn’t immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States, I would not be alive today. The gift of life comes with great respon­si­bil­i­ty: to bear wit­ness and tell the sto­ries of those who have come before us so that they will live on and not be forgotten.

Lesléa New­man is the author of 70 books includ­ing the children’s books, A Sweet Passover; Here Is The World: A Year of Jew­ish Hol­i­days; Mat­zo Ball Moon; A Kiss On The Kep­pie; Run­away Drei­del!; My Name Is Avi­va; and Ket­zel, The Cat Who Com­posed which won the Syd­ney Tay­lor Award and the Mass­a­chu­setts Book Award.