MANY AMERICANS FIRST HEARD the stories in this book from their own immigrant grandparents. Like all really good stories, the classic tale of a journey across the ocean to a strange land only becomes more interesting as it becomes more familiar.
"We left from Germany and we got water in the boat and all the children got measles. Some of them died and they threw them into the water like cattle. It was a pathetic thing that they couldn't ride with the bodies, they had to throw them into the water. It was something that I will never forget. And you can imagine how the women carried on. They took a child away from them and they just tossed it in, nice and quiet . . . .And my mother hid the baby, I remember, in a big apron. . . .She wouldn't let anybody see the baby. Maybe the baby was going to catch it (measles). So she had the baby in her apron and the baby could hardly walk and was crying. We had to say, 'Sh, sh. Somebody's coming, sh.' All the time, and that's how we struggled."
This book consists primarily of personal interviews with men and women, now in their seventies and eighties, who arrived in the United States in the period of massive immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe that ended in 1924 with the imposition of a highly restrictive system of "national origins quotas." (The quota system was a major factor in the entrapment of German and East European Jews as the Nazis came to power in the 1930s.)
The interviews focus on the immigrants' decision to leave home, their journey across the ocean in steerage and their first taste of bureaucracy in the new land at Ellis Island -- the "island of hope, island of tears." There is scarcely a dull story in the lot, and the sharp, detailed recollections of the voyage from one world to another explain a great deal about the value of immigration to American society.
Although the concept of America as a "nation of immigrants" is enshrined in the national mythology, it has never been easy for Americans to make the leap of imagination required to comprehend the special bravery and resourcefulness of the immigrant. The current fears that the "boat people" will become a permanent drain on the American economy are nothing new in American history; the same fears were voiced even more stridently at the turn of the century as the migration from Europe reached its peak.
Today, it seems ludicrous that Americans ever had any doubts about the value of immigrants like Irene Meladaki Zambelli, who left her native Greece in 1914. She remembers:
"After we passed Gibraltar the sea began to get rough and one by one the passengers started to get seasick and stayed in their beds. Sarah [a friend] and I picked up courage and got up on the top deck . . . . So we held to the railing, and went to the hospital. There was the doctor and the captain of the ship and the captain said to Sarah, 'Sit on my lap.' And as we did not know who was the captain and who was the doctor -- they both wore uniforms -- she sat on his lap, thinkning she was to be examined. He did examine her all right. He started feeling her breasts at the same time the doctor was feeling mine. But I fixed him. I vomited on him and he let me go. . . ."
Because this book depends so heavily on personal interviews, it contains a good deal more about the female immigrant experience than most conventional immigration history books. There are, of course, many more women than men who have survived into their seventies and eighties. They have a good deal to say about the special obstacles that faced women who arrived alone at Ellis Island -- brides and fiances, for example, who were treated as potential prostitutes because they were not accompanied by men.
The interviews were compiled by a husband-wife-son writing team. The authors are not historians, and some of the information surrounding the first-person interviews is incorrect. For example, the national origins quota system, which the authors say is still in effect, was in fact abolished in 1965. More than 400,000 legal immigrants enter the United States each year under the current system.
But the firsthand accounts by the immigrants are compelling and filled with experience that can never be outdated in a nation of immigrants.