Editors' pick

Attachments: Faces and Stories From America's Gates

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Editorial Review

Frozen faces, gazing through gate to new lives
By Michael E. Ruane
Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The little girl with the dark circles under her eyes looks as though she’s been crying. She’s clutching a doll and has her left arm looped in the arm of the girl beside her.

It is 1908. The place is the immigration depot on Ellis Island in New York’s harbor. It looks chilly, because many of the children are in hats and scarves. But the youngsters, and some adults, have gathered for a group photograph.

The haunting photo is among the first that visitors see in the National Archives’ new exhibit on the history of the travails of immigration, which opened Friday in the Archives’ main building in downtown Washington.

Titled “Attachments: Faces and Stories From America’s Gates,” it is a look at the difficulties and prejudices faced by immigrants down through the years, and the harrowing roads some traveled to reach America.

Told with documents, letters and affidavits, the exhibit’s power is in its black-and-white photographs -- many blown up to huge size -- of people.

The elegant shot of Wong Lan Fong, 27, the bride of Chinese merchant Yee Shew Ning. She appears coiffed and prosperous to convince immigration officials at California’s Angel Island in 1927 that she is not a prostitute.

The photo of 13-year-old, Polish-born Michael Pupa, his hair carefully parted. It was taken in 1951 after his parents had perished at the hands of the Nazis and he had made his way to the United States, a boy survivor of the Holocaust.

The striking 1926 photo, which curators found in a “dead letter” file, of the Italian musician Pasquale Taraffo posing with his gigantic harp-guitar. The picture was designed to prove Taraffo’s profession so he could enter the country to perform.

The exhibit is one of “individuals who found themselves at America’s gates, and for one reason or another had a difficult time going through those gates,” curator Bruce I. Bustard said.

“We’re not trying to make any comment on the contemporary [immigration] debate,” Bustard said. “We are trying to . . . get people to realize that the debates around immigration have their own long and . . . complicated and conflicted history.”

Bustard said the first immigrants to be photographed were Chinese in the late 1800s, followed by other Asians, and then almost all immigrants after World War I.

Government officials sought to document those who were seeking entry, and the immigrants sought to impress -- and sometimes deceive -- those controlling entry.

In some instances, the government recorded would-be immigrants’ height, weight, condition of teeth and hat size.

Bustard said there were many cases of “paper sons” and “paper daughters,” in which immigrants posed as legal relatives of someone already here to gain entrance.

One story in the exhibit is that of Rock Hang, a Chinese cook in Seattle who was trying to gain reentry to the United States of a boy he claimed was his son. When the boy arrived in 1906, officials doubted the story and had him deported.

Some who arrived were deported for other reasons.

Dubas Wasyl, an Austrian farmhand who, officials noted, had “normal” ears and two missing teeth, was deported from Ellis Island in 1906 after it was discovered that he had served time back home for stealing peas and consorting with thieves.

Francesco Zaccaro was sent home in 1907 after he was found to have been jailed for eight days in his native Italy for “applying [a] vile name to a woman.” He had been in the United States for just three days.

An entry in his file reads: “Excluded as a person having been convicted of a crime involving moral turpitude.”

Some immigrants got in but traveled long and tortured routes.

Stephan Bondareff, a soldier in the White Russian army, left Russia after the Bolshevik Red Army won the Russian Civil War in the early 1920s.

He fled to Turkey, Bulgaria, England and France. He was hired as a Cossack “trick rider” in a Wild West show in France. When the show traveled to Mexico, he slipped across the Rio Grande into Texas.

He made his way to Michigan and went to work for Ford. He became a citizen in 1938 and died in 1978.

Richard Arvay, an Austrian Jewish filmmaker, fled to Paris when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. After Germany defeated France in World War II, Arvay spent a year in a concentration camp.

It’s not clear if he escaped or was released, but he moved to southern France, according to the exhibit catalogue, then Italy, and then was granted entry to what was supposed to be a temporary refu­gee camp in Oswego, N.Y.

The refugees promised to return to Europe after the war.

But in 1944, Arvay filled out a U.S. background form, with a handwritten note that read: “I . . . would find it impossible to live in a country where all my family have been killed and as far as I know no member of my relationship or friends are alive.”

Arvay was allowed to stay and became a citizen. He died in 1970.