Having lived in the New York City area for most of my life, I am somewhat less enamored by many of the city’s tourist attractions than the millions of visitors who come to see them. Ellis Island is an exception. Standing in the refurbished great hall, you can feel what America is about. Unless you’re a Native American, we all have ancestors who came from somewhere else. For most, it was not an easy trip.
In my mind Ellis Island should represent the fulfillment of the promise of the Statue of Liberty, the place where we swing open the doors and take in “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Two books that I read recently suggest that the people who came through here thought of it as something completely different.
Ellis Island: A People’s History, by Malgorzata Szejnert, is a history of the island, from 1892 when an Irish girl named Annie Moore stepped ashore until they turned the lights out in 1954. Szejnert is from Poland and the book was originally written in Polish. Using a lot of the registry records, Szejnert offers snapshots of many of the immigrants who came to the island and somewhat more detail on the commissioners and others who worked there.
The Next Ship Home: A Novel of Ellis Island by Heather Webb is a piece of historical fiction, a story of how the paths of two young women crossed there. One is an Italian immigrant fleeing an abusive father in Sicily. The other is a German-American whose abusive stepfather sets her up with a unwanted job on the island.
These two works show the island as something other than a beacon of hope and light. The Polish author Szejnert offers the comment “the rest of the world associates it more with the end of hopes than the beginning.” And in Webb’s novel, Italians christened Ellis Island “L’Isola delle Lacrime (Island of Tears).”
One of the immigration port’s commissioners, Frederick Wallis, is quoted by Szejnert upon his resignation as saying “the suffering we see at the island daily is indescribable and would melt a heart of granite.”
This is a place where desperate people, after a most often arduous journey, are subjected to life altering decisions. Decisions made by overworked staffers who don’t speak their language, may not have the best of intentions and who make those decisions quickly and often arbitrarily. And, assuming Webb’s tale is accurate, that’s not the worst of it. New immigrants may well have found themselves extorted and exploited by the more unscrupulous of agents. One of Webb’s characters, an inspector who extracts sexual favors from female immigrants in order to let them through, is based on a real Ellis Island inspector named John Legerhilder.
Szejnert offers the statistic that of the 16.6 million who disembarked on Ellis Island, only 610,000 were turned away. That’s a pretty small percentage, but it tells you nothing of the heartbreak of the 610,000 or of the families split apart, likely forever.
What is striking in reading these two books is how things are pretty much the same a century later when it comes to immigrants. In The Last Ship Home, Francesca Ricci, a beautiful, hard-working and courageous young woman, is reviled because she is Italian. Reviled by German-Americans, immigrants themselves who arrived a generation or two earlier. Now it’s Mexicans and Haitians and Central Americans who are vilified by people whose ancestors also came here as immigrants for many of the same reasons and whose ancestors may very well have been regarded as “undesirable” at the time.
Nor were the politics of immigration all that different. Under some administrations, officers were appointed who had some empathy for the arrivals and who tried to treat them fairly. But the appointees from other administrations looked at every immigrant with suspicion and thought of their jobs as protecting the country from these people.
Both of these books have their flaws. In reading Szejnert’s book I kept wanting to find out more about the immigrants she would so briefly introduce us to. The emotions are thick in Webb’s history that sometimes feels like something akin to a romance novel.
In the future, I will likely find my way back to Ellis island. I’ll stand in awe in the middle of the great hall. But I’ll remember there’s another side to the story. After all, as I learned from Szejnert, Annie Moore, the cute 15-year old Irish girl celebrated as the first to come through, ended up living a life of poverty, giving birth to 11 children of which only five survived to become adults, and dying at the age of 47.
For more photos of Ellis Island see A Place to Celebrate Immigrants