NEW YORK -- Although she was only 11, Nelly Rattner Myers remembers very clearly the day 50 years ago when the ship pulled into New York Harbor and she glimpsed the Statue of Liberty for the first time. Her family, with the exception of her father, had escaped the Nazis, then caught the last train from Vienna and the last ship to America.
"I heard so much about it in Vienna," she says of the statue. "It means freedom. When we saw it from the boat, we were so thrilled. There was a lot of excitement."
But her family's elation was premature. On Ellis Island, immigration officials detained them, not convinced that the family could support itself. Although Myers's grandmother was a seamstress and her uncle a tailor, the whole group was held back because Myers, her sister, her mother and uncle were deaf.
Ellis Island became known as both the Isle of Hope and the Isle of Tears. The great majority of immigrants saw dreams fulfilled as more than 17 million passed through its portals between 1892 and 1954. It is said that half of all Americans can trace their ancestry to those travelers.
A victim of decay and disrepair for years, although the Statue of Liberty on nearby Liberty Island was refurbished in 1986, Ellis Island is being reborn. Next Sunday, President Bush is to dedicate the island as a museum and shrine to American immigration.
Workers have been laboring overtime to paint the grand columns, assemble exhibits and polish wooden benches where impatient immigrants once sat. Visitors can retrace steps taken by their forebears.
But the route reveals that Ellis Island was not as much an open door as a guarded gate that swung shut on the ill, the very old, the paupers, the single women, the illiterates and, in certain eras, the anarchists and people of Asian descent.
The island's celebrated rebirth has prompted a reexamination of assumptions about American immigration, long romanticized by the Emma Lazarus verse that is engraved at Lady Liberty's feet and begins: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. . . . ".
"Emma Lazarus's poem is all very lovely, but it's badly misleading," said Julian Simon, a University of Maryland professor who has written widely about immigration. "The people who came and who are coming now were not tired, were not the bedraggled bottom of the economic barrel at all. The people who came then came when they were young, strong and vibrant.
"And yet, the poem makes us feel good -- Lady Bountiful. It's just not warranted by the facts."
To say the government wanted to keep people out, however, is "mythology," according to Alan Kraut, a history professor at American University and a member of the history committee of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. "America wanted those immigrants," he said. "We were competing with Canada and Australia, which were already industrialized. The purpose was to weed out those who were too ill or disabled to support themselves, the idea being that the U.S. should not become the almshouse of the world."
Those who made the arduous journey at least had money, strength and the pluck to leave their homes. The weeding-out process began even before they boarded ship. The Immigration Service required that transatlantic steamship companies examine prospective travelers and screen those who were sick or could not earn a living. The companies had an incentive to do a thorough job because those rejected at Ellis Island were returned to their places of origin at the companies' expense.
Yet another hurdle was that a ticket to America in 1900 cost from $10 to $35 for steerage class, in which the majority of immigrants rode jammed like luggage below decks, often seasick and miserable. Those of greater means could travel more comfortably in cabins for about $40 second-class or about $80 first-class. Such sums amounted to perhaps years of savings, sometimes by a relative already in America who sent money back home.
After as long as a month at sea, the ships steamed into New York Harbor where, by some accounts, so many passengers crowded one side to see Miss Liberty that the ships would tilt precariously.
In the harbor, state medical inspectors boarded to check for epidemic diseases, such as cholera or typhoid. First- and second-class passengers were examined in their cabins, and most simply walked down the gangway to freedom at the dock in lower Manhattan. Only those in steerage were crowded onto wooden ferries and brought the last mile to Ellis Island.
In groups of about 20, they were let onto the island, dressed in their best woolen suits, embroidered dresses and hats often bought for the trip. They carried their belongings, necessary and sentimental, wrapped in blankets, mattresses, battered suitcases and wide baskets.
"Treasures from Home" is one exhibit featured in the museum to open next Sunday. It includes a pillow-beater from Poland, a violin from the Ukraine, a wooden ale bowl from Norway and even a moldy coconut brought from West Guyana by one Reginald Ferguson in 1914 to remind him of home.
The selection process began even before immigrants were aware of it. After depositing their belongings in the baggage room of the impressive Beaux-Arts main building, they climbed stairs to the Registry Room. They did not know that a Public Health Service doctor was watching from the top for evidence of lameness or wheezing, a possible sign of heart disease or tuberculosis.
Stepping into the grandeur of the Great Hall, with its high arches, tiled ceiling and windows overlooking Manhattan, immigrants walked a gantlet of medical officers who thumped the newcomers' chests, checked scalps, looked at facial expressions and inspected skin and nails.
Many immigrants had been forewarned: "Beware the eye man." He raised eyelids with a finger, hairpin or buttonhook to look for trachoma, a contagious disease resulting in blindness. Any indication of it meant that the immigrant's clothing would be marked in chalk with an "E," a sign of certain rejection.
Other ominous marks included "H" for heart trouble, "K" for hernia, "F" for facial rash, "S" for senility, "L" for lameness and "X" for mental deficiency. A circle around the "X" indicated extreme mental deficiency.
Those immigrants who passed these tests stepped to one end of the room under a giant American flag, where they faced the "primary inspector," who would decide whether they could enter America. Through interpreters, they were asked 29 questions. Are you married? Do you have any skills? Do you have a job waiting for you here? Are you an anarchist? Are you a polygamist?
Eighty percent of newcomers passed through Ellis Island within about six hours. The rest were sent to detention pens, many simply to wait until a relative or friend vouched for them. Some with illnesses were hospitalized on the island. Although only 2 percent eventually were returned home, a few, such as Myers and her family, lived in uncertainty on the island for as long as several months.
After 1910, when the island's reception system was reformed in answer to critics, memoirs of most immigrants indicate that they were treated well -- fed heartily, entertained with movies and concerts and allowed to exercise. Myers amused herself by learning English in the library and waving to sailors in passing boats.
"I could look one way and see the skyscrapers in Manhattan," she said during an interview in which she read lips and spoke in a strong voice laced with a trace of a European accent. "I could look the other way and see the Statue of Liberty. I always dreamed, but I couldn't go there. I couldn't. I was stuck in the middle."
The family appeared many times before the island's hearing officers. "They thought we were not able to work, that we were helpless," she said. "They were stupid. . . . I was so anxious. My mother was so afraid we would be sent back by another ship."
Social workers pleaded the family's case before an appeals board in the somber Inquiry Room, still equipped with the long wooden desk where the judges sat. Only after five months, when a Swiss philanthropist posted a $2,500 bond, was the family released.
The Rattners quickly proved that they would not become a burden to their new nation. Within five years, the mother and uncle paid back the $2,500 and established themselves in Manhattan, where Myers still lives.
She has a photo album that she carried from Vienna and another filled with photographs from her early days in America. In one, she stands on the roof of a Bronx apartment building dressed for her first Halloween in America. She wears a gauzy cape and a crown and holds up a torch, just like Miss Liberty.