ELLIS ISLAND — My parents were not the adventurous type. They didn't own a car, considered cabs reserved for medical emergencies, and treated the subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan as the equivalent of an ocean crossing. As to leaving New York City, or, God forbid, the state, you might as well be talking about a trip to the dark side of the moon.
Yet, as both my sister and I were acutely aware, our parents had crossed an ocean, had in fact made a journey whose Arabian Nights immensity we could barely imagine. An unsettling combination of hope and fear had led them to flee from their homes in Europe's Pale of Settlement, the area of Western Russia where the czars confined their Jews. Both found places in steerage--my father, a teen-ager, traveled alone, while my mother, just shy of school age, went with her family--and, with a detour to Argentina for my father, both ended up in New York.
Yet not only did those journeys apparently kill the longing for further movement in both of them, they had also totally obliterated any desire on their part to talk about the experience they'd been through. True, a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty might cause my mother to reminisce about sleepily being taken on deck to see it when her ship entered New York harbor, but neither of them mentioned Ellis Island, the refugee's first stop in this country, and I'd always wondered why.
Now, the place having reopened to the public in September as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum after eight years and a privately raised $156 million spent on renovations, I was in New York harbor myself, taking the short ride on a rickety Circle Line ferry that was all that stood between me and exploring the reasons for that silence. Going there made me feel surprisingly uneasy, as if I was returning to an ancestral home I'd never seen, one where I didn't quite know what I'd find. For though my parents had come from Europe, I felt as if my life as an American had in a sense begun right there.
Ellis Island was the one experience the biggest portion of those who came to the United States had had in common. Between 1892 and 1924, some 12 million souls had entered America through this sturdy immigration station, easily the busiest in the nation. By 1910, 75% of the residents of New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and Boston were either immigrants or their children, and today some 100 million people, nearly half America's population, trace their ancestry to someone who passed through Ellis' gates.
Originally a three-acre mud flat best known for the hanging of traitors and pirates, Ellis passed to the control of the federal government in 1808 and gradually, through land fill, was enlarged to three connected islands covering 27.5 acres. A self-contained world just a stone's throw from the Statue of Liberty, Ellis contained everything from a laundry and a dining room that sat 1,200 to a morgue and a hospital with wards for diseases running the gamut from contagious to psychiatric.
It is the island's main building which has been restored, a circa 1900 limestone-and-brick beaux-arts structure distinguished by four 100-foot copper-domed towers. As the ferry docked where generations of immigrant ferries had before it, I got an immediate sense of what my parents must have felt, and it was a shock. For this dour, imposing structure, complete with fierce stone eagles, not only radiated the self-confidence of a country that felt sure it had all the answers, it also felt both frightening and authoritarian, the opposite of welcoming. If the Statue of Liberty had said, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," Ellis half a mile away had replied, "That's fine for you, but over here they'd better stand in line if they know what's good for them."
The entrance canopy, a new glass and metal covering that coexists uneasily with the grand old building, leads directly into the former baggage room, where, appropriately enough, everyone mills around for a few moments, uncertain as to where to go first. The far part of the room, with wonderful picture windows facing Manhattan, has been turned from a railroad ticketing office to a statistic-and model-heavy exhibit about immigration history that is the most skipable part of the building.
Instead, pause a moment in front of a wonderful jumble of ancient baggage. A motley, colorful collection of trunks, carpet bags, sacks, and baskets have been piled one on top of the other. This exhibit that now calls to mind how Ellis looked in its heyday but also personalizes the place, reminds us that people with cares, hopes and too many linens came through these doors.
It is a reminder, actually, that is only partially necessary, because those who come to Ellis today, with their forebears clearly in mind, invariably pay the most careful attention to everything. If any museum in America actually means something to its visitors, this has got to be it.