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.