Saturday, January 8, 2011

Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears

Happy New Year All!

Having failed to make my way to Ellis Island during the melting season of August (when I first arrived), I thought I'd fill my January days with a long over due visit.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ellis Island, it is the island in which 12 million immigrants between 1892-1924 past through in order to come to America. After disuse and disrepair, the island now serves as a historical landmark that chronicles the immigrant experiences. It is an integral part of America's existence: Americans can trace their ancestry through the catalog worth of records that are stored on the island, even if the immigrants dispersed to all points of the country their arrival was recorded and documented.

The very essence of the United States of America stems from Ellis Island. Ellis Island if you like, is the bedrock of Modern America. The fabric of American society was enriched with the plethora of nationalities merging together to carry out the sought after American Dream- this dream was essentially freedom.
The exhibit now stands to give voice to each and every immigrant whose story bares witness to unwavering strength and willpower.

"Freedom Means The Opportunity To Be What We Never Thought We Would Be"
 - Daniel J. Boorstin

And it is with the above school of thought, that propelled hopeful immigrants to Ellis Island, to disembark the past and to embark upon prosperity. But it wasn't as simple as just arriving and thus gaining admission- the process of approval was fraught with angst, fatigue and uncertainty.

I wanted to try and experience as much of the real thing as possible. Granted, this is now a museum and therefore the experience of passing through the building bares little resemblance to the reality of what it was like then. But knowing that I was to trace over millions of footsteps would provide me with the appropriate poignancy.

On this white Friday morning I arrived at Battery Park to the ferry point to commence my trip to the island. It was snowing a fair bit, so I appeared to have been suffering from a severe case of dandruff- it wasn't a good look.
Stark Naked Trees
Because Ellis Island is such a prominent feature in the U.S.A, one has to endure airport style security before you board the ferry. Luckily, the peak season for Ellis Island tourism doesn't fall in the winter months, so I escaped long, snake-like lines and proceeded through to the waiting point. Having said that, there were big clusters of tourists who bunched and crunched together eagerly awaiting the ferry. It was as if we were subliminally adapting to the conditions of that epoch, where you were stood shoulder to shoulder with little breathing space.
A 15 minute ferry ride to Jersey City, and there I was: The Gateway To America. 

This Was Just The Beginning For Immigrants
Once the boats/ships docked the immigrants would pile up outside the entrance to the building. Rain, snow or shine- the immigrants were at the mercy of the elements as they stood outside waiting for their impending fate to be delivered.
Flocks of Immigrants Ready For A Journey After The Journey

Try and place yourself in this position: after days of traveling on a boat filled with disease and determination; squeezed in to occupy every last square meter, you are subject to legal and unethical examination. It just goes to show what America stands for in their eyes: happiness and success. They were willing to undergo anything to put bread on the table and a few notes in the kitty.

As I stepped inside this grand building, I bought an audio guide to assist my own journey into this journey. As with any audio tour there were several stops to mark each significant stage in the process of entering America.

1. Baggage Claim
Each Piece Has A Story
Every immigrant would come with luggage that had their whole lives packed inside. Some carried their own (small enough) baggage, but those that were too big were taken off and thrown into the entrance space for the exhausted people to identify. Tensions ran high as misplacement and confusion of baggage were mounting; officers reportedly threw some luggage aside if they were not attended to quick enough- compassion did not exist.
As the immigrants awaited to go up to the famous Registry Room, they stood clenching medical forms between their teeth with all their possessions wrapped around them- the imminent emotional hardship was just a staircase away.

2. Registry Room

The Great Hall
It Has Been Beautifully Restored
As the flags hang ever so prominently, one felt overpowered by the American opulence, the American stature and the American 'system' as it were. This hall is the pulsing heartbeat of Ellis Island.
Even as the people were shifting towards the staircase, the scrutiny was undergone in full, the doctors and officers would prowl around them waiting to receive an indication of poor health. In a way, I can imagine they were hoping to pounce on someone for ill-health because the scores of people waiting to enter America was so overwhelming they needed to weed out the unfit. Even the movement on the stairs was so key to the officers because it signified whether they were physically healthy or not- the inability to walk up with a healthy and strong stride signaled a physical fault. However exposing this prelude was, the immigrants wholeheartedly endured this humiliation to secure their advancement to the Gateway of America.

Once they arrived at The Great Hall, small groups of people were motioned to sit momentarily on the benches to wait for their legal and medical examination.

The Discomfort Continued
100s of languages echoed off the ceiling tiles and 100s of questions were fired at unsuspecting victims. The officers treated them with the same respect given to a criminal. As people were called up to carry out the various inspections, the start of the rejections began.....

3. Medical Inspections

The most vitally important stage that one desired to pass with a clear record was the medical inspection. At a time where disease was easily contracted, immigrants were at a great risk especially from the boat journey where a simple uncovered cough and sneeze transmitted deadly illnesses. 

What I deem relatively mild, the doctors of the time would deem deadly. Aside from the common cold and the expected sniffs, doctors used button hooks to detect Trachoma.
A Hook On The Eyelid
Trachoma, is an infectious eye disease that can lead to ultimate blindness. The doctors were cautious of immigrants coming into the country and becoming visually impaired and thus passing it on. Any detections of Trachoma or any signs suggesting it will develop was reason enough to deny ones entry. Anyone suspected of the disease was a public health risk.
For those who had indeterminable medical cases were summoned to a separate room for doctors to conduct more tests...
However, the inspections did not only encompass physical health, but mental health too. The officers and doctors would peer with dart eyes onto immigrants who appeared to be harboring a mental problem. Even wide-eyed bewilderment was mistaken for mental illness- a common expression of a deer caught in headlights was very suspicious. But for the immigrants, this whole process was so  immense that they could not mask their astonishment, the language barrier alone manifested confusion! In response to these possible mental disorders, doctors governed the suspected to the same room to carry out visual and oral tests to verify their mental stability. Those who failed were put in a pen to wait for further examination- their coats were marked with an 'X' so that those dealing with them thereafter would attempt to get to the root of the problem.

4. Legal Inspection
The most nitty gritty part. In today's terms this part is what we now call: Border Control. Today, one is admitted with paper work- I have a DS2019 form (student exchange) accompanied with a Nonimmigrant visa with a valid Passport. I must declare these to ensure my (re)admittance to the country. Those entering the country for work must have the infamous green card along with stashes of paperwork. It wasn't and never will be easy. Even if you have all the documents required, in order, all signed, you still might encounter problems. Back then, this legal process consisted of questions- like an interview. There were 29 possible questions, but in the interest of time only a fraction were asked. Here's something that really fascinated me: 
What's your name? 
There is a myth that persists to this day that many names were simplified or changed. One of the reasons I wanted to go to Ellis Island was to trace my own ancestor: Athanassios Nalbantis. He was my Great, great Uncle who entered America in 1918 and left in 1924. With this fresh information at the forefront of my mind, I had a feeling finding him would prove to be a challenge! I did find many Greek/Turkish men who had come from Greece around the same time but the last name was rendered to 'Nalbandi' - maybe he is in the records somewhere but his original name was most likely lost in translation. The audio guide did inform me that names such as 'Koutsoghianopoulos'- a Greek surname were hard to decipher because they were on hand-written manifests; they were then simplified.

For those who met more confusion during the legal inspection, had yet another obstacle on the horizon. They were taken to the court room within the grounds of Ellis Island.
The Room Was Recreated To Appear As It Was Then
The hearing room was for further review of health/legal cases. Some were dismissed for being too poor to enter the country, others were rejected with ample grounds, notably health grounds. But this is why Ellis Island has come to be known as Isle of Hope and Isle of Tears: Immigrants would enter in rapture, only to be reduced to tears gushing out of their swelled bodies.

Those who were detained put their stamp on Ellis Island, even if the Border officers didn't put a legal stamp on their papers. The exhibit has preserved the many walls scribbled with graffiti. The immigrants passed time by scribing their words on walls.
If You Know The Greek Alphabet, You Can See Some Letters
Making Their Mark
5. Free To Land
I know it seems I have pressed on about the 'rejected' and the 'dismissed' but in actual fact only 2% were turned away. But the extra processes to verify an immigrants good standing was prevalent- they eventually left Ellis Island, but in the meantime they were sequestered to a room until they passed examinations.
Cattle Conditions
But once they were freed, immigrants were able to do a money exchange
The Greek Drachma- Before The Godforsaken Euro!
After the immigrants sorted themselves out, they would take a ferry (like the one I took) to Battery Park, New York. Battery Park is on the tip of Downtown Manhattan. They would be met with family members and overjoyed senses- their senses would have be on overdrive from the prolonged process of getting out of Ellis Island, which allegedly could take up to weeks if they were subject to further review.

But, not all immigrants were coming to New York. As I said earlier, they spread themselves across the Nation, and below is the staircase of separation:

Left: To The West. Center: Detention. Right: New York and Further East

6. Hall of Fame

I thought I'd show you some faces of those who set foot on Ellis Island

All Walks Of Life
America Is Still The Recipient Of Thousands Of Immigrants
Even though I am not an immigrant, I still feel soooo fortunate to be here and very proud that I had the opportunity to come. It feels very good to be a part of this country's existence.

I thought I'd have some fun at the gift shop!

Best Wishes,

1 comment:

  1. Bravo, Georgie! I've read thru and enjoyed every bit of your article - good work! Tasoula