Ellis Island - 'It's where we got our start'

Jewish immigrants look back fondly as their entry point to the US marks the centenary of its busiest day.

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
Stanley Mulfeld has no hesitation calling himself an American. But like many Jews, the roots of his American identity are still young. The grandson of immigrants, he can count the decades since his family first arrived on the shores of New York on two hands, and trace his origins to a small stretch of land just off the coast of New York. Like most immigrants coming to America in the early 20th century, Mulfeld's grandmother and her four children entered the New World through Ellis Island, a small stretch of land off the coast of New York. Here immigrants bought train tickets for cities across America. Here they traded their drakhmas, liras, or rubles for dollars. And here they waited to be given permission to enter the United States. "Ellis Island was their first connection to the other side," said Mulfeld, 60, an Internet entrepreneur. "That's where we got our start." It was a Saturday afternoon, and Mulfeld's grandfather - who had been in America for five years - stood waiting for the ship carrying his wife and four children (including Stanley's mother) to arrive. The ship arrived from Paris, where the family was delayed on their yearlong journey from a small town outside Kiev. "My grandfather was Orthodox and this Saturday in 1925 was the only Shabbat he would break," said Mulfeld. Tuesday marks the centennial of the busiest day in Ellis Island's history, when 11,747 individuals arrived. A usual day saw some 5,000 immigrants processed. It was the highpoint of 1907 when 1,285,349 immigrants entered the United States, with Ellis Island processing nearly 80 percent of those new arrivals. The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation will celebrate by holding its sixth Annual Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards to honor three notable Americans with roots to Ellis Island: Duke University basketball coach Mike ("Coach K") Krzyzewski; Bill Novelli, CEO of AARP and John Mack, CEO of Morgan Stanley. "Because Eastern European Jews were the second largest group to come to the US, Ellis Island is an inherently Jewish story," said American University history professor Alan Kraut, whose ancestors also passed through the island in 1904. Like many Jewish immigrants, Kraut's grandfather came to work in the garment industry, and eventually opened up his own tailor shop in Harlem. The waves of pogroms that infected the Jewish Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1880s led to massive migrations to the US. On a typical day, a large steam ship - the White Star, Cunard or Hamburg-America were among the biggest shipping lines serving the route - would enter New York Harbor. First and second class passengers were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island, but were quickly examined aboard the ship. The theory was that if a person could afford a first or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a burden to the state. Procedures were far different for "steerage" or third class passengers, who often traveled across the Atlantic in crowded, unclean conditions at the bottom of steamships. From the Hudson and East River piers, where the steamship would dock, these passengers were brought by ferry or barge to Ellis Island for legal and medical inspection. If you were in relatively good health, inspections would last roughly three to five hours. But doctors at Ellis Island soon became good at "six second physicals" to identify conditions ranging from anemia to goiters to varicose veins. "One of the most amazing things about the island is that only 2-3 percent inspected on Ellis were rejected, but the vast majority came through," said Kraut. Waiting for them would be representatives of different immigrant aid organizations there to help them find housing and jobs. From the start, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society was there to greet Jews. In the half century following its establishment in 1904, the society's bureau on Ellis Island helped more than 100,000 Jews. The group provided services to help facilitate legal entry such as translation services; guiding immigrants through medical screenings; arguing on their behalf against deportations; lending Jews in need the $25 landing fee and obtaining bonds guaranteeing their employable status. "My grandmother was the businessman," said Mulfeld. "In the Ukraine they were middlemen for grain merchants and she ran the operation." About seven years after immigrating to the US, Mulfeld's grandparents bought a a four-story tenement building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and made money as landlords. Like many descendants of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island, Mulfeld was interested in tracing his family's history, some of which had been lost over the years. He began searching through the microfilm at the New York Public Library for a record of his mother's family. What he eventually ended up with was a ship's log, filed by every immigrant at the port of departure, which contained the immigrant's name and his or her answers to 29 questions. This document was used by legal inspectors at Ellis Island to cross-examine immigrants. Among the list of personal details, Mulfeld discovered the name of the village where his grandmother was from, her profession and the language they spoke. "That alone was meaningful," said Mulfeld. "We don't have much of a history, and I needed to connect with my roots."