New Years are about new beginnings. Often, they are about our resolutions for the year ahead but sometimes they come with the opportunity to make a completely fresh start in life. Occasionally, we are not even aware of the magnitude of the possibilities which some new beginnings present as they are enshrouded in a protracted purpose. Was this what my grandfather, Yovcho Tzaneff, was thinking on New Year’s Day, January 1, 1928, exactly six months before he arrived in America?
In the late spring of 1928, Yovcho Tzaneff began his journey from Bulgaria to meet his eldest brother, Doncho, who was living in America for over a decade by then. Doncho had made the arrangements for Yovcho to travel to America, helping his younger brother to find work and then integrating him into the growing Eastern European community where they lived in Gary, Indiana. But unlike Doncho, who had wanted to stay in America and eventually brought the rest of his family over, Yovcho had only intended to go to America to earn some money and return to his native Bulgaria to buy additional land. Had it not been for the unprecedented political and economic transformations which occurred shortly after Yovcho arrived in America, he probably would have seen his plan through; but as this was not the case, his journey unintentionally presented an altogether different opportunity for him and his own family.
This was the story I knew growing up; it was the story I would hear many times before I eventually travelled to Ellis Island in early 2007 and learned much more about my grandfather, his brother, and what a journey of this kind entailed.
I was very excited when I found and saw the Passenger List and image of the ship, “Berengaria”, on which my grandfather travelled to America. A huge vessel, the German-made ship was nearly 270 meters in length and could carry 970 passengers in first class, 830 in second and 1,000 in third. Similar ships were the “Vaterland” and the “Bismarck”.
Studying the passenger records, I saw that “Iovcho Tzaneff-Fetcoff”, my grandfather, was the first one on the list and arrived into New York on 1 June, 1928, at the age of 28, having departed from Cherbourg, France on 26 May, 1928. A seven day voyage seemed incredibly fast for those years and so I was left to infer that the Berengaria was a very fast ship indeed. Digging around, I also learnt that it was in service for over 20 years, having made its maiden voyage for Cunard Line, Liverpool to New York on February 21, 1920 and its last voyage in March, 1938 from New York to Cherbourg to Southampton. After this it was sold to British ship breakers in November 1938 and was partly dismantled for scrap prior to the Second World War.
My grandfather had been onboard with another Bulgarian, several Romanians and a few Swiss, Czechs and French. The profiling of the passenger list fascinated me- the passengers from Eastern Europe were predominantly farmers or labourers while those from Western Europe were more highly skilled- as clerks, tailors or cabinet makers. Their age range was between twenty and forty-eight with the majority in their mid-twenties. Two-thirds were male and married but of those married only three had their wives with them and their “calling or occupation” was written as “H. Wife” (his wife); the rest, including my father, were travelling alone, without their wives and families, presumably, and unlike those travelling with their families, intent on seeking their opportunity but then returning to their home country one day.