Coming to America

If you get frustrated after a few hours on a crowded plane, or in a long airport security line, consider what it was like when your ancestors came to America. Next time you are visiting New York City, take a trip to Ellis Island to get an idea of what their ordeal was like.

Your forefathers didn't come on the QE2. More likely it was eight to 15 days in the dregs—steerage. They were only allowed up on deck once a day. The motion of the Atlantic was not conducive to eating. Besides, the meals were downright rotten. See? Being squashed in the middle seat and eating a Barbie-doll-sized meal on a transatlantic flight doesn't seem so bad now, does it?"

Of course, if your great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents had bucks enough to buy a cabin-class—about $65—it was like having airline status. Those passengers didn't endure the grueling immigration lines. Processing was done on the piers in an area called the Narrows. The mindset was that if one could afford at least a second-class ticket, one had money plus a job.

Probably your relatives didn't have that kind of cash. Likely they were the ones that scrimped and saved for a steerage ticket, which, around 1915, cost about $30. On board, they were tutored about the immigration process. This was not a philanthropic gesture on the steamship companies' part, but rather an economic one. If a passenger was refused entry, it was the company's responsibility to return him to his point of embarkation.

This tutoring reminds me that inspectors made up names for people who couldn't speak English. Remember the old immigrant joke? A Jewish man was asked how he got such an Irish name. "Vell, I practiced and practiced during the whole trip, but vhen they asked my name, I said, 'Shane fargesn' (I forgot). So, my name became Sean Fergusson."

Between 1855 and 1890, the primary processing center for steerage passengers was Castle Garden in Battery Park. (Yes, it was the original kesslegarten). From 1890-1892, Battery Park's Coast Guard Station was the immigration facility. Unsavory characters hung around the park and preyed on immigrants. Just imagine being far away from home and not knowing anyone. Someone starts speaking to you in your native language and offers to help you find lodging. You think America is wonderful. But these were thieves and would soon relieve you of your meager possessions. Beware. Their progeny still lurk in Battery Park.

In 1892, when Ellis Island opened, some of those problems were alleviated. At least 5,000 people per day—one day over 12,000—passed through its facilities. The grueling process took about six hours.

I feel sorry for the immigrants, but sorrier for the inspectors. It was very difficult for them," says history buff and guide Tom Bernardin. During Bernardin's tours, the Ellis Island process comes alive. This is what you would have experienced coming through Ellis.

You are exhausted from the arduous journey. On the ferry ride to Ellis Island, the sight of the Statue of Liberty gives you a second wind. From the boat, you enter a room where you are told to leave your baggage. No way. Your "luggage," a sewn-up sack, contains worldly possessions—clothes, a few prized items like a Bible, maybe a family history or a perene—a comforter made from chicken down which is part of your daughter's dowry—and maybe some treasured family recipes. Such old country recipes, donated by relatives of the immigrants, have been preserved in Tom Bernardin's The Ellis Island Immigrant Cookbook. Matzoh meal pancakes, salted pickled herring, fried spinach cutlets—not exactly the kind of recipes your cardiologist would recommend.

The next step in immigration is up—to the second floor for medical exams. Six medical "cattle pens" for the "six-second inspections" await. (Makes you think that medicine has not changed much in 100 years.).

Actually, exams begin during the crowded stair ascent. Two doctors scan the crowd. You better look healthy and certainly not limp or you will get a white chalk mark on your shoulder. The mark signifies you have to see a specialist. Bad sign. A contagious disease or other malady can mean some days in the hospital, then back to the old country.

Still, rejection is rare since the steamship company usually examines everyone before boarding. They don't want to foot the bill for room, board and the return passage. If for any reason you are detained, there are dorms, a hospital, a kosher kitchen and even a rooftop playground at the facility.

The process is so long you get hungry. You are given some food, maybe even a banana. What is this strange-looking food? Often older folks threw away the inside and ate the peel.

So now you have eaten the banana and passed the physical. Only the cross-examination is left. If it is between 1907 and 1910, you might be lucky enough to get one of the more caring grand inquisitors, the multilingual Fiorello LaGuardia. Still, all those questions are so grueling. Oy! "How much money do you have? Do you have a place to stay? Do you have relatives here?"

Finally the inspector is satisfied. Immigration is granted. The Golden Medina has been reached. Relatives and friends are waiting for you at the "kissing post." Hugs, kisses, tears!

If you have no one waiting for you, you go to the "help" area. Agencies like the National Council of Jewish Women and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society will help you get settled. Special services for single women, children and even legal assistance are provided. Then it is out one of three doors. About a third of the people stay in the New York City area. The other two doors are for points south and west. You have reached America!

The influx of immigrants to America soon became so great, a quota law was passed in 1921. Later, until the 1950s, the island was used for detained World War II aliens and their families. Ellis Island closed in 1954.
The modern day Ellis Island has been restored. Visitors can see the Baggage Room, Registry Hall and other exhibits. The American Family Immigration History Center allows anyone to search the passenger arrival records for relatives. For $100, you can have your family's name inscribed on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor. My husband's cousin did, though she didn't double-check her facts before coughing up the money. The family immigrated through Baltimore. Still, we have an Official Certificate of Registration in the American Immigrant Wall of Honor.

IF YOU GO: You can go to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty is open 8:30-6:15 daily. For an in-depth tour, contact Ellis Island Tours, (212) 209-3370; website: www.EllisIslandTours.com; fee: $20 plus the cost of the ferry tickets. Advance reservations are required. Tom Bernardin still has copies of the Ellis Island Cookbook for sale.


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