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 darkest 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 for the future and a fear bred of draconian governmental restrictions and waves of tacitly sanctioned violence called pogroms 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 teenager, 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.
Those journeys apparently killed the longing for further movement in both of them, and also 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 being sleepily 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; it had never even been brought up in passing. It was as if this way station had never existed, and I'd always wondered why.
Now, the place having reopened to the public as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, I am in New York harbor myself, taking the short ride on a rickety Circle Line Ferry that is all that stands between me and exploring the reasons for that silence. And going there is making me feel surprisingly uneasy. My parents died before I could question them closely about Ellis, and I feel as if I am returning to a family ancestral home I've never seen, one where I don't quite know what I'll find. For though my parents came from Europe, I feel as if my life as an American in a sense began right here.
Ellis Island was the one experience almost everyone who came to the United States had had in common. Between 1892 and 1924, Ellis's peak years, some 12 million souls entered the United States through this sturdy immigration station. By 1910, 75 percent 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's 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 seating 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 that has been restored, a circa 1900 limestone and brick Beaux-Arts structure distinguished by four 100-foot copper-domed towers. The restoration took eight years and cost a privately-raised $156 million, and the island was officially reopened in September.
As the ferry docks where generations of immigrant ferries have before it, I get an immediate sense of what my parents must have felt -- and it is a shock. This dour, imposing structure, complete with fierce stone eagles, not only radiates the self-confidence of a country that felt sure it had all the answers, but it also feels both frightening and authoritarian, the opposite of welcoming. If the Statue of Liberty said, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," Ellis half a mile away 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 skippable part of the building.
Instead, I pause a moment in front of a wonderful jumble of ancient baggage. A motley, colorful collection of trunks, carpet bags, sacks and baskets piled one on top of the other, this exhibit not only 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 to be it.
To the right of the baggage, a set of stairs leads up to the imposing Registry Room: 160 feet long and two stories high, its ceiling composed of 28,832 (you don't have to count them, someone already did) Gustavino tiles glistening from the light pouring in through great half-circle windows, the magisterial Registry was the heart of the old Ellis as it is of the new.
Patiently sitting on small hard benches, new arrivals could glance out the window and try and draw hope from the sight of the Statue of Liberty as they waited for inspectors, standing at high wooden lecterns like so many demanding schoolmasters, to call their numbers and subject them to a final cross-examination. I can almost feel my parents' contrasting emotions here: anticipation, uncertainty, bewilderment, even fear. The very size of the place must have over-awed them as well, but their son, used to giant auditoriums and even bigger airports, is surprised to find how compact, how manageable it all seems. How small a gate, I think, for so many millions to pour through.
I should perhaps have felt a similar twinge of emotion on those stairs leading up from the baggage room, but I'd already read that they were brand-new, replacing but not duplicating long-gone originals. Though their presence breaks one of the rules of restoration, it was decided, and justly, that they had to be there, because it was on those stairs that the true nature of Ellis Island began to reveal itself to its subjects.
As explained in "Through America's Gate," an exceptionally thorough and totally fascinating exhibit located in refurbished office and medical examination space on the same floor as the Registry Room, the purpose of Ellis was in fact not to welcome but to exclude, to screen out the undesirables, the ill, the disabled, the criminal. To tell single women that they could not leave the island with a man not related to them. To, at different times in our history, send back the politically and economically undesirable. To remove the hard cases too hot for even the melting pot to handle.
So canny medical inspectors stood on the top of those stairs, watching for people who had trouble breathing, those with heart trouble, with any kind of disability. When defects were found, large chalk marks, the equivalent of cattle brands, were written on clothing, a "C" for conjunctivitis, an "X" for suspected mental disease, and so on. A photo of men marked with an X in a circle, signifying deportable mental illnesses, is as unsettling a portrait of group despair as anyone wouldn't want to see.
Some of the most interesting exhibits in "Through America's Gate" involve ways devised to test the intelligence of illiterates. You can peer at a set of little blocks, each with a face with a slightly different expression, the task being to put people with similar expressions together. Another test asked people to draw a diamond, something that, as examples show, proved especially difficult for peasants who had never held a pencil in their lives. Then there were the verbal tests. "How do you wash stairs, from the top or from the bottom?" an inspector asked. "I didn't come to America," came the snappy reply, "to wash stairs."
It is difficult to pass through this exhibit without thinking how frightening this melange of incomprehensible tests, rigid rules and unbending doctors must have been to people like my parents, how it must have reminded them of everything authoritarian they fled the old country to escape.
Ellis Island must have been their first inkling that the New World, far from boasting streets paved with gold, would very much have its share of difficulties. And, more positively, it also must have given them the sense that if they could survive Ellis's rigors, they could survive on the mainland as well.
On the opposite end of the second floor is another, equally compelling exhibit, "Peak Immigration Years." With a wall of immigrant passports, as well as reproductions of steamship ads and such oddities as a poster warning young German girls not to be lured into prostitution, this section talks of why so many millions found this trip necessary and how wrenching an experience it turned out to be.
"Going to America was almost like going to the moon," reads a quote from Golda Meir, the future prime minister of Israel, and another woman noted that when she left, her mother told her that seeing her at the railway station "was just like seeing me go into my casket."
Also worth more than a glance are a huge recruiting poster for California, describing the state as "the Cornucopia of the World ... A Climate for Health and Wealth -- Without Cyclones or Blizzards," and a wall of immigrant-themed sheet music, everything from "I'm Going Back to the Land of Spaghetti" to "Yonkle the Cow-boy Jew" -- "sung by that Yiddish hoofer, Glenn Burt."
Though there are more exhibits on the building's third floor -- including "Treasures From Home," a cross-section of the kinds of things immigrants brought with them, and an examination both of how the island looked during the years of its decline and how it came to be restored -- the second floor has emotionally wrung me out.
I walk down the original Stairs of Separation, where immigrants were directed either off the island or to detention and possible deportation, past the newly painted Kissing Post, where anxious families often waited for new arrivals, and wander across the baggage room to the inevitable souvenir shop and snack bar, with Ellis Island ashtrays and coffee mugs available in the former, Greek salads, Jewish rye and Norwegian fish sandwiches served in the latter.
Isn't this always the way, I think. Our institutions go from vitality to bureaucratization to decay, only to find an afterlife in restoration and kitsch souvenirs.
But, finally, the triumph of the Ellis Island restoration is that it confronts you with the realization that what happened here was so real, so strong, it absolutely overwhelms the kitsch, overpowers the puny whiff of commercialization.
I walk outside to the patio and confront one of the many brainchilds of Lee Iacocca, who, as chairman of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, masterminded the necessary restoration fund-raising.
Stretched out in front of me is the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, the self-described "world's longest wall of names," where for $100 per you can have inscribed the names of members of your family who immigrated to the United States, and who, no doubt, would be both shocked and pleased that their descendants can afford such largess.
When I'd first heard about the wall, I'd been less than enthusiastic about adding my mother's and father's names to the list. I considered it a rather dubious gimmick, not something I wanted to be associated with.
But now, after spending most of a day with the memories of my parents, feeling what they must have felt, I am no longer so cocky, so sure.
Maybe I do want to be part of what is happening here. Maybe I do want to commemorate their unsettling journey and be somehow connected with this small, nearly forgotten island that meant so much to so many people not so very long ago.
Kenneth Turan is interim book editor of the Los Angeles Times. WAYS & MEANS
Ellis Island is increasing in popularity, and a visit in the winter will probably be less hectic than one during the peak summer months, as well as having the virtue of being suitably overcast. The island is open daily except Christmas Day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.. To get there, now as in the past, you have to take a boat. And while there is no charge to enter the museum, the boat company is not similarly generous. For more information about the island, call 212-363-3204 (a recording).
Though a ferry is available from Liberty State Park in Jersey City, N.J., most visitors take the Circle Line Ferry from Battery Park (just west of the Staten Island Ferry) at the foot of Manhattan. The South Ferry subway station leaves you off about a three-minute walk from the spot. In the summer, boats leave Battery Park for the 15-minute trip every half-hour. In the winter, the trip is longer (up to 45 minutes), because the boats stop at Liberty Island before going on to Ellis; departures are every 45 minutes. The fee is $6 for adults, $3 for children ages 3 to 17. For more information on the Battery Park boat, call 212-269-5755. For information on the Jersey City boat, call 201-435-9499.
READING: For those wanting an illustrated look at Ellis past and present, two excellent books are available. Both "Ellis Island, Echoes From a Nation's Past" (Aperture) and "Ellis Island" (Contemporary Books) capture the spirit of this most unusual place and are available in the gift shop on the island. -- Kenneth Turan