Re-posting a favorite memory.
About 40 percent of Americans can trace their roots back to Ellis Island. This institution began in 1892 to process the overwhelming number of people who wanted to emigrate to the United States. When Ellis Island was closed on November 12, 1954, more than 12 million immigrants had passed through its doors; those “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The details of the sad, weary structures came into focus as the ferry drew near and docked at Ellis Island.The buildings bore testimony of the official, functional government architecture of the late 1800’s. They were sparing of those eye-pleasing, attractive touches that make a name for the architect. The history of many Americans is entwined in the history of the Island, and irresistibly draws the sensitive spirit.
The halls are twilight dark, and vaguely musty. Placards filled with bits and pieces of information posted on the walls were to reassure the thousands of bewildered refugees who might have appreciated them if they had been able to read them. Heaps of worn luggage leaned tiredly around the main lobby. There were well-worn boxes and suitcases, which had once been secured by the hopeful grips of their owners. In a corner where few visitors walked, it was easy to imagine the assemblage who had expectantly arrived from the arduous journey.
Whole families had spent weeks in the ship’s bowels as they hoped for a better future.Their voices blended many languages into a continuous murmuring babble of anticipation mingled with the apprehension that someone would find them unfit and deport them by return ship. In another spot, the immigrants were required to part from their ethnic family name in exchange for an American rendition more easily pronounced by unlearned tongues.
Display cases—full of heirlooms brought from the old country—give visitors a glimpse into the newcomers’ lives. Was that samovar a link to the old country in a Russian immigrant’s home? Did the wedding dress, hopefully and gently packed in some young woman’s trunk fulfill its mission? There, the books in Hebrew, Russian, Czech, and many other languages—books carefully preserved—been donated to the museum because the new generation could no longer read them? Where were the children who wore those articles of clothing?
Many members of those “huddled masses” are no longer alive to see their descendants enjoying the fruit of the new beginning that started on Ellis Island.Countless descendants take for granted the freedoms that those families came to find.
One of the saddest things that was displayed at Ellis Island was a traveling exhibit depicting the history of the Japanese internment camps during World War II. The United States government rounded up all of the resident Japanese in the US (including Japanese-American citizens) and put them into what were essentially prison camps. This was not taught in history textbooks when this writer was in school.
This is Ellis Island: a place where history lingers wistfully – and sometimes, sadly.
So, readers, have you visited Ellis Island? Did you learn about the Japanese internment camps when you were growing up?