"I saw the Statue of Liberty. It was so impressive, so majestic, so meaningful. Freedom! Opportunity! And most of all, it linked to us, America and France, because we knew that it was given to America by France." (Lara Bisset)
Jews flee the Cossacks circa 1905 courtesy
In 1990, Lara Bisset visited the newly renovated Ellis Island for the first time since she immigrated to America in 1920. What struck her was the Odessa, Ukraine Exhibit which explained the murder of hundreds of Jews at the hands of Russian Cossacks in 1905. Lara's parents, also Odessa Jews, had escaped over the German border with their six month old son. Trudging through the deep snow, her mother was "frozen up to the waist". But she refused to go on without her baby, her legs "like two purple sticks".
The Bisset's wandered around first Germany, then Luxembourg and finally Belgium, but didn't like any of the countries. However, once they entered France, they knew they were home. It was there that Lara was born in 1909. While the Bisset's were poor, they managed to survive thanks to the help of their uncle who owned a dry goods store. They would buy up dry goods to sell at foires (country fairs) which would help to put food on the table.
It was a happy time for Lara. The Bisset's new hometown did not have a synogogue but it did have a Roman Catholic church. "You have to be exposed to religion," said Mrs. Bisset, who sent them to the Roman Catholic church only a block away. She remembers picnics in the park where the family would munch on saucisses and peasant bread. Entertainment came in the form of an accordion.
After Mr Bisset served in the French Legion during the First World War, Mrs. Bisset begged him to go to America where her three siblings lived. After much resistance, Mr. Bisset gave in and the family immigrated in 1920. As the Touraine entered New York Harbor, Lara recalled: "I saw the Statue of Liberty. It was so impressive, so majestic, so meaningful. Freedom! Opportunity! And most of all, it linked to us, America and France, because we knew that it was given to America by France."
Statue of Liberty on display at Paris World's Fair circa 1878 courtesy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statue_of_Liberty#/media/File:Head_of_the_Statue_of_Liberty_on_display_in_a_park_in_Paris.jpg.
While the boat ride was exciting, the immigration process was less pleasant. Adults and children were immediately segregated, a scary experience for Lara. The sights and sounds were an assault to the senses. Lara recalls: "I remember hordes of people. There were quite a few children and mothers, walking up those wide steps into the main building. I remember the darkness, the wooden benches, the poorly lit hall, the babies screaming the children crying, adults crying. It was awful."
With the tedious paperwork behind them, the Bissett family collected their luggage and took the ferry to the mainland where Lara's uncle picked them up in a Model T at Battery Park. Language was an immediate barrier as the Bissett's spoke French and their brother spoke English. Yiddish was their only common language.
Lara would forge a new identity in New Jersey, retiring to Florida in the 1980's.