Thursday, October 20, 2011

History Lesson: Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty

More than one hundred million Americans can trace at least one ancestor who went through Ellis Island during its years of operation in 1892 and 1924.
Are you one of them? My parents came separately from Switzerland, my dad in the 1950s and my mother in the 1960s, both settling in New York City where they met and married. After living in Queens with my sister, the year I was born, 1975, they were off to the suburbs in northern New Jersey where they still live. No escaping poverty, hunger, or political strife, just wanting to pursue happiness and live the American dream.

Would you be able to make a new start in a country, leaving virtually all of your cherished possessions behind, not knowing the language, unable to read or write, with no money in your pocket after months or years of saving for the passage across a sea?

That was the question posed to us by a ranger. A "sterner people who gave us the Greatest Generation" is what he called them.

Our guide asked us to ponder our many possessions, stumbling out of our closets, garages and such. All the things (we think) we can't live without. Not to diminish today's hard times, but one takes pause considering how little people truly had, while we grumble about not having enough to pay our cell phone and cable bills.

Knowing how hard it is for my parents to be separated all these years later from their families, I think of the permanent separation immigrants endured.

"The day I left home my mother came with me to the railroad station. When we said good-bye, she said it was just like seeing me go into my casket," said Julia, a Lithuanian immigrant. In our very modern world of instant communication tools like Skype, twitter and even e-mail (the last of which is slow for some) consider how different it was.

I considered this sign about fear of immigrants taking American jobs, but it seems it's often jobs Americans don't want, as evidenced by some farmers inability to get Americans to do the work in this recent New York Times article. Land of plenty? I recall a remark I read during my first visit to Ellis Island from a new immigrant to our shores that he thought the streets would be paved with gold, then he found out they weren't paved, and that he would have to pave them.

Eight of the 12 million immigrants would leave New York City to points all over the country. Here a sign enticing new arrivals to come to California.

Just 2 percent of those who came were sent back. This was one of them, an Austrian laborer (reason unknown). In a short film we watched, one man said he would leap into the water rather than face a fate of going back to Russia again.

"My boyish imagination was aflame with America...At that time I accepted as truth nearly everything I heard about America. I believed that a single cattleman owned more cattle than were in the entire Balkans, and my credulity was not strained when I heard there were gold mines in California, and trees more than a thousand years old with trunks so enormous that it required a dozen men, clasping each other's hands, to encircle them with their arms. In America, everything was possible," said Louis Adamic, a Slovenian immigrant in 1913 in his autobiography, Landing in the Jungle.

Photo, of an Italian boy.

Checking for trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease that could lead to blindness. Almost unknown in the United States, it was common in southeastern Europe. Passengers being inspect with a tool for an inflammation of the inner eye lid.

Picture brides courted through the mail by immigrants longing for wives from the old country with a shared language and customs.

A food menu from November 19, 1906:
Coffee with milk and sugar, and bread and butter.
Crackers and milk for women and children.

Beef stew, boiled potatoes and rye bread.
Smoked and pickled herring for Hebrews.
Crackers and milk for women and children.

Baked beans, stewed prunes, rye bread, and tea with milk and sugar.
Crackers and milk for women and children.

The Statue of Liberty. From the National Park Service web site,

"The idea of the Statue originated around 1865 with Edouard de Laboulaye who saw the United States as a country that had proved that democracy was a viable type of government- after all they had just survived a Civil War and abolished slavery. Laboulaye also saw the gift as a way to reflect his wish for a democracy in France. Artist Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, who was known for large-scale work, was commissioned to design this sculpture. Nothing happened for some time, but finally in 1871 Bartholdi came to the United States to look for a location for his monument. He saw Bedloe's Island from his ship as he sailed into the New York Harbor, and realized it would be a perfect location - since here his statue would always have an audience." Learn more.

Do you think America is still the land of opportunity?


  1. America is still the land of opportunity. It worked out well for me. I arrived in 1978 at JFK to begin my new life in NYC. However, my first American landfall was Guam, having to land there because of engine trouble. But, immigrations control was in Honolulu. I had never been on a plane before nor have I ever been overseas. Going through immigrations and customs was intimidating for this ignorant and uncouth 20-yr old. I had one suitcase and $500 and an aunt and uncle at Stuyvesant Town on 20th street to help me out with my lodgings. There are so many variables, and I am not sure about blaming a country when one fails is fair enough. America offers a lot of opportunities to succeed, or at least achieve a decent life. We are still a very accepting nation in spite of all the bellyaching about our immigration laws. Like any other country, you are expected to get off your easy chair and get to work. Then, America will provide. I consider myself a liberal, but I don't appreciate immigrants who expect America to come knocking on their door, bringing gifts.

  2. Hi Ted. Thanks for sharing your story. My father came here as a young man to New York City, he too just had an uncle living in Rochester. He still refers to his two annual visits to Switzerland as "going home" even though he's been here since the 1950s. Immigrants and non-immigrants alike, we seem to be much softer stock when it comes to hard work.

    I'm fairly conservative on the issue myself. I was considering going to culinary school but got an apprenticeship first in a nice French restaurant and decided not to invest in going to school. I simply could not compete with those working in the kitchen who would work for extremely low wages with no healthcare. Many of these workers were here illegally. They no doubt about it drove the wages down, but of course were exploited themselves in their own right. The local authorities of course would look the other way.