#language & literature
Małgorzata Szejnert, the author of 'Czarny Ogród' (Black Garden) this time takes the readers on a distant journey to Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbour, called for years 'the gate to America'.
From the late 19th century to the 1950s, it housed the central US immigration station, through which nearly 12 million people entered the country. While most of them were processed in just a few hours, the less lucky ones had to stay on the island for up to several months to undergo quarantine and all sorts of tests. Some were sent back on the strength of immigration laws which denied entrance to 'any convict, lunatic, idiot, or any person unable to take care of himself or herself without becoming a public charge, paupers, prostitutes, polygamists or persons suffering from a loathsome or dangerous contagious disease' as well as those who did not have the money to travel into the country.
I went to Ellis Island a couple of years ago. From the very start, in the Baggage Room, I felt a curiosity which would grow with every step. What took place here? Who were the people of the island, the gatekeepers? What did their meetings with the newcomers pressing against those gates look like, how did they reconcile the values of their homes and of the democratic institutions with the cruelty which their jobs often involved? Back home, I started to look for books about the island. I was convinced there would be many, also by Polish authors. I found nothing. There was no such name in the catalogues of any of the biggest Polish libraries. In contrast, while it was easy to find entries on Ellis Island in the big libraries of England and America, counting them was difficult. But they never made it to Poland: no original language editions, no translations. As if, preoccupied with our situation, we overlooked Ellis Island. I then decided to do what I could: to write a reportage about the island.
Szejnert has not only recorded the dramatic experiences of Polish, Jewish, German and Italian emigrants but as a passionate reporter with an inquisitive mind has brought to life the Ellis Island station employees: the doctors, nurses, commissioners, interpreters, social care workers, even chaperones, illustrating her story with great vividness through unique archival photographs.
A tale of the gate to America
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Szejnert writes about the last stop along the long journey to America, which for years had been called the Promised Land: The little island from which the final destination can be seen very well and from where so many were sent back home. Szejnert is interested in two things: What happened here? And who were the people of the island – the gatekeepers?
The impressive historical reportage by the Nike Award-nominated author begins like a fairytale:
The island of the Lenni Lenape Indians is called Kioshk. Lying flat in the bay waters and small as a leaf, it is overgrown with the salty marsh reed, grey ivy and tough creeping grass. America has already been discovered, but here it is quiet and empty all around, the only sounds made by water, wind and birds.
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In their native language, Lenni Lenape means True People and Kioshk means Seagull Island. The local Indians gathered oysters and caught fish, and time passed slowly until 1630. Then the Lenape sold the island to Dutchmen from the West India Company for 'some packages of various goods'. In 1774, it was purchased by Samuel Ellis, a fish merchant from Manhattan, after whom the island would be named. In 1892, a station for immigrants arriving from the Old World opened, turning the island into a stage of many dramas. Newcomers were subjected to thorough inspections.
Szejnert's book presents engaging portraits of the island's workforce: The commissioners, the porters, the matrons, of people committed to their work as well as of dishonest officials and intermediaries. One of them was John B. Weber, a Civil War veteran and the first commissioner of Ellis Island who, before assuming the post, travelled to Russia to understand why so many Jews wanted to get to America.
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Szejnert is right to observe that Weber's mission resembled an earlier one by Marquis de Custine, with both gentlemen feeling amazed and estranged in Russia. Weber's conclusion was that the governments of Russia and the United States represented two antipodes, two extreme ends of human freedom: While Americans enjoyed freedom of speech and free media, Russians could not gather in public without official permission, their media was controlled by censors, their enthusiasm was forced and they were told by the police where to hang their flags on public holidays. Weber, who went to Moscow, Warsaw, Vilnius and elsewhere, talked to women workers, victims of pogroms and prisoners of local jails. While in Kaunas, he asked the locals why they wanted to go to America and was told that this was the direction of hope. In his conclusion, he pointed out that the Americans were acting inhumanely when pushing those people back to the hole from which they had escaped, and by doing so they were dousing the flame held by the Goddess of Freedom in the beautiful bay of New York.
Later, when he became commissioner, Colonel Weber had no mercy for staff who took advantage of their posts to obtain financial benefits. One of the employees he dismissed was a Polish interpreter who recommended a dishonest job agency to the immigrants; no intercessions or explanations helped. The Colonel had much more sympathy for those arriving from the Old World and argued that while immigrants may indeed have contributed a bigger percentage of paupers and criminals than did the local element, it was not because of their foreign origin, but due to the fact that, as a poorer part of the society, they were less capable of overcoming failure and resisting temptation. According to Weber, it is less commendable when a rich man refrains from stealing a slice of bread than when a hungry man does so.
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One of Weber's trusted employees has a rare talent: He can guess the country of origin of a baggage's owner from a cursory inspection of their possessions. He has noticed that Scandinavians arrive with more baggage than the others, bringing mattresses, drawers and kitchen chairs, and has concluded that they value objects almost as much as life. The suitcases of the English and French are in a better condition, while Greeks and Arabs lug bundles huge as mountains, having packed tightly and wrapped up hundreds of pounds of things in carpets and scarves.
Ellis Island brings information about the diseases of which America was particularly afraid, including trachoma, which was invariably a reason for deportation. All new arrivals were subject to a medical inspection, whereby a doctor would give the immigrant a quick once-over, focusing on the skin of the head, face, neck, hands, the way they walked and the overall physical and mental condition. Suspicion could be aroused by a collar ('Should be unbuttoned and checked whether it is not hiding a goitre or an ulcer'), a cap over one's eyes ('May hide conjunctivitis or trachoma') or an arm hidden under the overcoat ('May turn out to be deformed, paralysed, without fingers, with a scab'). Whenever an inspecting doctor noticed something and decided that a more thorough check was needed, he chalk-marked the suspect's clothes with a letter for the suggested disease.
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For a long time, Ellis Island knew no case of anybody under suspicion escaping the marking. In 1998, however, the island, now home to a museum, was visited by an eighty-year-old Spaniard Espuga Manuela Careno who had emigrated to America with her mother and brother in 1920. Although she had been only six at the time, she remembered an inspector chalk-mark her little brother's overcoat. The mother took that overcoat off him so fast that it went unnoticed by the staff and the boy was neither removed from the line nor separated from his family.
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In order to write Ellis Island, Szejnert spent many hours reviewing documents and listening to archival recordings at the Ellis Island Museum. Over 16 million immigrants arrived at the New York port from 1892 to 1954, when the station was closed. More than 610,000 were denied entry to the United States.
Szejnert's story of one of the symbols of America, the island where people of different cultures, religions and nationalities came together, is told in a beautiful, subtle language, and ends her tale in modern times.
Twenty years before the Ellis Island Museum was established, the World Trade Center opened in Manhattan. Eleven years after the Museum's inauguration, Manhattan's line of sight, perfectly visible from the island, lost two of its towers.
According to one of the museum's staff, at the time of the attack, the seagulls which have given the island its Indian name and which usually circle over the cafeteria in search of food, sat on the ground, heads pressed into their bodies.
The book was translated into English by Sean Gasper Bye.
Written by Bartosz Marzec, April 2009.