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from the December 2020 issue

As American as Immigration: Małgorzata Szejnert Brings to Life the Many Stories of Ellis Island

Reviewed by Mauricio Ruiz

Drawing on unpublished letters and journals, the Polish journalist always keeps an eye on revealing details in her new book "Ellis Island: A People's History," the result of extensive research into the manifold trajectories of those who set foot on a new continent and helped forge the modern US.

Here’s the key, take it. Read these words and travel back in time. This is what Polish writer and editor Małgorzata Szejnert has decided to offer her readers in Ellis Island: A People’s History: a miniature travel machine. Szjenert is a magician of the eye and of memory. From the opening page she leads the reader to the bank of an infinite river and points upstream, to the sources of the past: this patch of land, now called Ellis Island, is where the Lenni Lenape Indians once lived. In one phrase, she conveys how nature shaped their world: “The oysters here are large, and fat enough to choke on . . . when burying their dead—both humans and dogs—the Lenape seal the bodies up tight with these shells; they are indestructible.” Lenni Lenape means the True People. By 1630, Szjenert informs us, the True People no longer feel safe and sell the island to the Dutch West India Company.

In 1774, the island is acquired by Samuel Ellis, a wealthy fish merchant whose name remains linked to the island’s history. Years go by and the landscape is no longer the same; little by little everything is changing. By the mid-1880s, on neighboring Bedloe Island, works of a magnitude never before seen are being carried out. In Szjenert’s hands, even a construction site becomes a playground for original imagery. “You might be forgiven for thinking it conceals an elephant, raised on its hind legs and stretching its trunk into the air,” she writes. A magnificent copper statue will soon light the waters for ships entering New York’s Harbor. “Once freed from its cocoon, the elephant trunk turns out to be an arm raising a torch.”

Born in 1936, Szejnert is one of the leading chroniclers and editors in Poland, and was a mentor to the first generation of journalists working in the country after the fall of the Iron Curtain. She wrote about the rising tide of tensions in Poland in the 1970s and later became an active member of the opposition movement during the Solidarity period. To write this book, she drew on unpublished letters, journals, and manuscript—shared with her by Diana Pardue, director of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, and writer Barry Moreno—to create a vast canvas of the lives of those arriving in a new world. She also relied on the work of historian Witold Kula, who at the time of the German occupation was a volunteer teaching assistant at the Underground Free Polish University. He was able to ensure the safekeeping of an enormous collection of letters sent by Polish emigrants back to their families. Szejnert's broad experience as a journalist is palpable in the specificity of details, notes, and images she includes. Though the book describes the journeys (often hindered) taken by many different peoples across the Old World—Slovaks, Ukrainians, Italians, Lithuanians, Irish, Norwegians, and many more—the author keeps a keen eye on the connections to her native Poland, which at the turn of the nineteenth century was under Russian rule. The reader learns of the many letters confiscated by czarist censors, letters that could never reach the brother, the aunt, or the spouse who were meant to join their loved ones in the new country. Authorities wanted to stop the exodus by any means possible, and several ship tickets were never received. How many families were split apart? This implicit question recurs throughout the book.

Ellis Island opened for operation in 1892. From the late 1800s until the 1950s, it was the entry point for nearly twelve million people into the US. While describing the immigration station itself, Szejnert’s writing becomes a cane for the visually impaired. She sees the unseen, the neglected ordinary details that reveal the character of an individual. Through her portrayals of doctors, nurses, photographers, commissioners, interpreters, social workers, and others, the reader discovers how a luggage handler can determine a migrant’s country of origin just by looking at their bags. “Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians have the most tightly packed luggage . . . The suitcases of the English and French are in better condition than others’ and are the most modern. Greeks and Arabs have bundles large as mountains.”

For her exhaustive research, the author spent time in New York visiting archives at the library of the Immigration Museum—to this day, the librarians still remember her. Her book interweaves images of the past and present, how the urban landscape looks to her now, and how it must have looked to those who arrived to a new life after many days at sea, cramped on the third class deck, spent yet hopeful.

Szejnert is sensitive to nuance. She knows of the success stories of migrants such as Albert Einstein, Bob Hope, Annie Moore, or Joseph Pulitzer, but also wants to shed light on the many untold stories of people who tried to come to the US. Upon arrival, migrants were subjected to methodical physical and psychological examinations; signs of mental instability or of a contagious disease could mean deportation. There was the Kissing Gate, an area where those admitted met relatives; after a battery of procedures and check-ups, it was a moment of joyous relief. Then there were the Stairs of Separation, silent witness to dashed hopes and tearful faces. Built in gray marble, the stairs stood solid and ice cold. They were divided into three lines by barriers: the right led to the railroad ticket office; the left to the ferry to New York. Then there was the one in the middle: “Those who are sent on the middle route, between the barriers, are in deepest despair. Bereft and terrified. The middle line of stairs cuts them off from their families, their traveling companions, their hope for a new life.”

The author’s tone is that of someone who empathizes with the plight of migrants, someone who understands the implications of uprooting oneself. In 1981, martial law was introduced in Poland and Szejnert lost her job. The situation became untenable and she left for the US with her son. Though in the end she didn’t stay—she returned to Poland when the Iron Curtain fell—she knew firsthand how such an experience could mark an individual.

And perhaps that’s also why she empathizes with the discrimination that the Chinese faced, and with the dreadful conditions many Jews in the Russian Empire had to endure. She describes how John B. Weber, Ellis Island’s first commissioner, traveled to Russia to understand why so many people were emigrating to America. What he encounters leaves him devastated: “…a hospital where he investigates and confirms what he can hardly believe: that Pasteur’s life-saving rabies vaccine is forbidden to Jews, because they are Jews.” Weber is indefatigable. He travels, he interviews people. He wants to understand and record what he sees. “It is inhumane of us to push these people back into the pit from which they have crawled. When we do this we should extinguish the torch of the Goddess of Liberty.” It makes the reader wonder to what extent today’s US immigration authorities care to understand why people ever want to leave their lands.

In Sean Gasper Bye's translation, Szejnert's prose enters the ear like a wave of silken murmurs. Syntax, idiomatic expressions, word choice––nothing is left uncared for in the hands of Bye, tailor of sentences. He was the literature and humanities curator of the Polish Cultural Institute New York, and his own mother's family sailed over from Poland and Slovakia at the beginning of the twentieth century. He received a National Endowment for the Arts Translation Fellowship for the translation of this book. 

In the pages of Ellis Island, we learn not only of the evolution and tightening of the US immigration laws, but also gain glimpses into millions of lives passing through its gate. Szejnert has created a portal through which the reader can hear the voices of those who set foot on the new continent and helped forge the modern US, as well as those who could not make it but deserve to be remembered nonetheless.

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