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Welcome to America

Published in Cambrensis

Based on a visit made to Ellis Island in July, 2001  


The flight into JFK airport was quite without incident and, save for a short delay while the baggage conveyor broke down, so was the dreary but brief and efficient process of going through the entry formalities. It wouldn't have been like that for the millions being 'processed' through the halls of Ellis Island in the latter part of the nineteenth and first quarter of the twentieth centuries. Their entry to the 'Land of the Free', ironically close to the Statue of Liberty, was altogether different.

We made the short sea-trip to Ellis by the ferry Miss Liberty on our first full day in New York. It was a glorious day; the sun shone brightly and the waters of the harbour were calm. We docked briefly at Liberty Island, where the majority of our fellow-passengers disembarked, but did not get off the boat ourselves. The guide books told of long queues and the message was reinforced by Edmund, our elder son, who was working at the statue's tacky gift shop at the time. So we went on to Ellis Island. We were glad that we did, because it was quite early, and to start with being among the first of the day's many visitors gave a false but welcome impression of having the island very much to ourselves.

It used to be called Oyster Island by the Dutch and Gull Island by the Canarsee Indians before them. Its final name was given to it by Samuel Ellis, and eventually it was ceded to the City of New York, which in turn sold it to the federal government. This built the reception centre to replace the small Castle Garden (Kestelgartel) in 1892. Today the island, restored to its early 20th century condition, is a free and rather special museum telling the story of the 'huddled masses' who had come to the land where they would supposedly be at liberty to carve out a future for their families, only to find that earlier settlers had already carved out most of the best bits out for themselves. Most of them had already endured long sea-voyages with sparse diets like constant potatoes and salt herrings before stepping ashore for their medical and financial examination and a quick-fire questioning from an inspector. The majority in fact spent only a matter of hours or a day or so on the island before going on to America proper.

The feared thing was to have 'SI' (for 'Special Investigation') recorded against your name. This was usually for a suspected medical problem like trachoma or tuberculosis, when an initial would also be chalked on the unfortunate person's sleeve signifying that there was to be a more detailed examination or inquiry. Worst of all was to be shipped back to the port of origin, which happened in two or three per cent of cases. A small proportion but a lot of people.

The museum concentrates on these detainees (there were well over a quarter of a million of them) and is an eerie reminder of today's refugees and the issues faced by governments. It tells its story by a successful mix of modern technology and artefacts of the time and is housed in a building of quietly stunning architecture. The harassed officials baptised so many American citizens here. Irving Berlin came as Israel Beilin and Samuel Goldwyn was originally Ben Shahn. There is a story that an old Russian Jew had failed to remember the 'American-sounding' name he had meant to give and could only mutter in Yiddish that he'd forgotten - Schon vergessen. He was registered as John Ferguson.

Our visit ended with lunch, bought in a Manhattan deli, and eaten overlooking New York harbour. We were sitting on the grass and free to leave by the next boat, or the one after that, unlike many of the immigrants who were here in the last century. It was still a beautiful day, and we had all found our visit to be rewarding. I would recommend that you go, too, if you ever find yourself in this lively city. I don't think I'll go to Ellis Island again, though, much as I enjoyed this visit. And I understand why most of those who entered America through Ellis Island don't want to go again, either.

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