The Human Spirit: On Ellis Island

The reluctance to bring more Jews to the US in the 1920s went beyond the official quotas.

statue of liberty  88 (photo credit: )
statue of liberty 88
(photo credit: )
Somehow I don't expect the intense security check with X-ray machines and metal detectors on the quay for boarding the ferry to Ellis Island. It saddens me, but of course, there's a real concern since September 11, 2001 about someone blowing up the Statue of Liberty - the first stop on my boat ride. The site was closed for a long time after the attack on America. The boat fills with tourists despite the nippy winter air. The bay is deep blue and seagulls serenade the short voyage. I try to picture my grandparents arriving here a century ago. Eastern European immigrants in steerage class, tired, poor and yearning to breathe free. The "mighty woman with a torch... mother of exiles" was already standing in welcome in the harbor. The great registry hall of Ellis Island, which opened as an immigration station in 1892, was in place to process the 12 million immigrants who came through in the two decades that followed. Being an Israeli and having experienced what we call aliya and klita, immigration and absorption, myself, I'm fascinated by every step of the process, from boat to inspection to eventual departure. Most days, 5,000 immigrants were allowed to come ashore from their ships. Physicians watched them from balconies, scouting for limps or shortness of breath, signs of physical problems. Examinations were aimed at identifying the feeble-minded: If you were washing steps, would you start from the top or the bottom? The immigrants hadn't come to America to wash steps. I am full of questions that I'll never be able to answer. How did my grandparents feel when they reached America, if they worried that they'd be among the small percentage rejected and sent back, what they thought about the electric lights of New York in the distance, how they felt when the clerk changed their multisyllable name to Smith. There are ships' manifests, photos of the ships themselves and computerized lists of names ( I'D ALWAYS known that my grandfather arrived before my grandmother, but only on checking the Ellis Island records did I realize that two years had gone by. How did they feel at the reunion, a couple younger than my children are today, their only child buried alone by my grandmother. How I wish they'd written diaries. Growing up in America, the details of their lives "over there" were of more family interest. It's a lesson to all of us who are careless about recording our own chapters in family history. The ancestors of the vast majority of American Jews, with their enormous energy and many talents, arrived among the huddled masses at Ellis Island, be they Irving Berlin, who wrote the song "God Bless America," or the parents of both polio-vaccine inventors, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. But there's another side of the immigration saga: the backlash among native-born Americans and their desire to keep undesirables out, even if there was a potential Salk or Sabin or Anne Frank among them. When you need metal detectors to board a ferry for the island, it's even possible to sympathize with an instinct to isolationism. Nonetheless, not only my own history is with me at the museum. Much on my mind is the family of Anne Frank. The letters revealed just recently (kudos to volunteer Estelle Guzik in the YIVO Institute of Jewish Research in New York) show the failed attempts of Anne's father, Otto Frank, to pry open the doors of America to his save his family. Otto Frank was among those who arrived in New York in 1909. He worked for two years as an intern at Macy's department store, then owned by immigrants Isador and Nathan Strauss (for whom Netanya is named). But then Frank returned to Germany. By the 1920s, the marvelous flow of immigration had slowed. Federal laws set quotas based on national origin, reflecting a growing ambivalence about immigration. The reluctance to bring more Jews went beyond the official quotas, which often went unfilled. This worsened as danger encroached on the lives of European Jewry. Officially sanctioned dithering slowed the process while Jews were trapped in Europe. In 1941, the easily employable Otto Frank applied to bring his wife and daughters to the United States. He never received the passport to freedom that would have saved them. Had it come through, superbly talented Anne could have been a 77-year-old writer living in the US today. Although we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to the United States for receiving our ancestors, the policies and actions that limited immigration for those facing extinction need to be remembered as reprehensible. Millions of schoolchildren study Anne's wonderful diary every year. It provides the most poignant window into the heart and soul of a single victim with whom we can identify and, according to a teacher friend in northern Idaho, is often a touchstone for some of the school system's most emotive classes. But the question of purposeful moral culpability for slamming the gates in front of Anne and her family needs to be confronted, too. In view of the newest discoveries, we can hope that the curriculum will be amended to ponder the fears and prejudices - some justified, some not - that led to the closing of freedom's gates.