Years back, my father got a replica of the rectangular plaque documenting that his paternal grandparents came through Ellis Island on their journey from Romania to New York, in about 1895. Their second son, my grandfather, was born in the United States. Dad’s maternal grandfather came to New York from Odessa shortly after 1900, intending to make money and return to the Ukraine. However, pogroms changed those plans, and he sent for his wife, son, and daughter (my grandmother), who arrived at Ellis Island in May, 1906.
How they made their way in this strange place to find my great grandfather, with no money and speaking no English, I have no idea.
My mother’s family has no such clear documentation. Her maternal grandparents remained in Europe while her mother and seven siblings arrived in America singly or in pairs, the young women fleeing the hunger and chaos of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for the privations of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the young men escaping conscription for the Russo-Japanese war. By the early 1900s, my mother’s paternal grandfather must have arrived in New York. All I’ve been told is that some time later her grandmother sailed from Europe with two daughters and a four-year-old son (my grandfather).
At Ellis Island, immigrants were screened for health issues and could be detained or sent back for communicable diseases or other problems. My mother told me that, a day out from arriving in New York harbor, my grandfather developed a rash. My great grandmother was terrified that they would not be admitted at Ellis Island. Apparently the ship was to make other stops before reaching its destination at Ellis Island. My great grandmother managed to identify a ship’s officer, slipped off her diamond ring, and thus persuaded him to secretly let the family off on a dock somewhere along the rivers of New York. How they made their way in this strange place to find my great grandfather, with no money and speaking no English, I have no idea.
In the past months I’ve thought often about this illegal entry. The little boy with a rash did become an American citizen, and I am a citizen and the daughter of citizens. But what is legal? How far back does a birthright go? Somehow, if ICE raiders were to come down the street in my diverse neighborhood tomorrow, I would have to offer them my wrists and say, “Take me as well.”
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.
Don’t we live in “interesting” times? You raise the interesting question of when did our forebears become citizens. When did they gain the right to vote. Yours by-passed Ellis Island as their entry point, but you and your parents were born here, so you are citizens. The current regime really needs to get over themselves, take a long look at how their ancestors arrived and became “legal” and what contributions they made (or didn’t make) way back when so we can all move forward in harmony. I suspect those who are screaming the loudest now are those who feel they have the most to lose or have contributed the least throughout the generations.
Your story of how your great-grandmother and her three children arrived as undocumented immigrants, terrified of rejection with the help of a shipboard “coyote,” is instructive for today’s immigration debate. Thank you for sharing this important story.
Very appropriately, this story came up today in Past Stories You May Have Missed. And apparently I did miss it, or at least didn’t comment on it five years ago. I don’t think we remembered that we had done an Immigrants prompt when we decided to do Refugees. Thanks for this fascinating story of getting off the ship before it got to Ellis Island.