Two years ago during the month of March I was able to celebrate my big 5-OH birthday in NYC with my children and while there I was privileged to be able to go to Ellis Island. Above all else this was the one thing I dearly wanted to do and I wanted my children to be a part of that experience with me. Long before this became a reality to me I have been interested in the genealogy of my family.
My dear cousin Sabrina took a lot of time and money and researched our grandparents on our mother’s side. Both grandmother and grandfather she was able to trace back eight generations to Germany and their political/religious refuge to Russia.
My grandparents were German speaking but both born in Russia as were their parents and quite a few generations before them. How lucky my family is to be able to trace these roots. I feel very fortunate. We have pictures and stories and facts. Amazing, it truly is.
I know where my American roots began on both my mother and father’s side (my father’s family did not enter through Ellis Island). My mother’s parents came to Ellis Island in 1905 and 1910 respectively. My grandmother Rosina was 6 years old and she came in 1905 and my grandfather David was 12 years old and came in 1910. They had to travel from Russia back to Germany and catch a boat in Germany bound for New York City.
I know where in Germany they departed from, what ships they took and who the family members were that accompanied them, who had made the trip before them and where they lived in America. I have pictures of the ships and copies of the ship’s manifests when they arrived in Ellis Island. I have a beginning!
When I was a child, I never really cared much about all this. Yes, I knew my grandparents were not born in America. They spoke German first English second. They married and had 11 children. These 11 children were first born Americans. My mother being one of them. That makes me a second generation American.
Even now as I sit and write this I have tears welling up in my eyes and there is a lump in my throat. I find it difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that 100 years ago my grandparents came here. They were not some relative so far back on the family tree that they were just names and pictures. They were flesh and blood to me, real. I knew them, loved them, touched them and I stood in the Great Hall at Ellis Island maybe in the exact same spot that they did. To say it was an emotional experience is truly an understatement. I was completely overcome by it and broke down crying several times.
Today the building is virtually empty and even with ferries full of people coming and going all day, it never fills up like it did all those years ago. There are pictures of what it was like then, stacks of suitcases that were like the ones they brought with them, pictures of passports and people.
If you close your eyes, you can almost feel the people and hear the sounds of so many different languages raised in fear, happiness, anxiety, and anticipation. Think how scary it must have been for them. My grandparents never talked about it. Neither of them would even when asked. They were children, but I know the enormity of it all was not lost on them. They knew no English and yet here were workers talking to them in a foreign language, asking them questions, poking, prodding, searching, demanding.
From 1892 to 1954 over 12,000,000 immigrants entered into the United States through the portal of Ellis Island. The peak year was 1907 when more than 1,000,000 people entered. If you were lucky enough to hold a first or second class ticket you arrived in New York Harbor and were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. The theory was that if you could afford to purchase this type of ticket you were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons. They were only sent on to Ellis Island and further inspected if they were sick or had legal problems.
My grandparents were part of the “steerage” or third class passengers. They traveled in crowded often unsanitary conditions for the weeks it took to cross the Atlantic Ocean. When they arrived in New York City, the ships would dock at the Hudson or East River piers and they then would be transported to Ellis Island by ferry or barge where they would undergo a medical and legal inspection.
The medical inspection process lasted approximately three to five hours if they were in reasonably good health and their papers were in order. This inspection took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall). The ship’s manifest that had been filled out at the port they had embarked from contained the immigrant’s name, and his/her answers to 29 questions. Using this document they were cross-examined by the legal inspectors during the process. The vast majority of the immigrants were treated respectfully and courteously and were free to begin their new lives in America after only these few short hours on Ellis Island.
If you are at all interested in your heritage and if you know that your family came through Ellis Island you can go to the site and do all of your research on line. If you get lucky enough to visit the island, they have a huge room full of computers and people willing to assist you in your search.
I feel so fortunate to have had all that information before I visited thanks to my wonderful cousin. She was also instrumental in getting my grandmother’s family (names) engraved on the wall that is outside the building standing as a monument to the millions of people who passed through this place. Maybe one day we will get my grandfather’s family up there too! I encourage you to visit even if your family never passed through this port, it is a special place and you will certainly “feel” that around every corner.
(All colored pictures are my own as well as the first black and white picture of my grandparents. The rest of the black and white photos are courtesy of the Ellis Island archives.)