24 March 2012

When the Ferry Is a Time Machine

by Elizabeth Zelvin

Have you ever been to Ellis Island? It’s a short ferry ride from the Battery, at the tip of Manhattan, through New York Harbor to Ellis Island, a trip that costs only $13 ($10 if you’re 62 or over) and allows the visitor to travel more than a hundred years into the past.
The gateway to America for 12 million immigrants from all over the world in search of a better life between 1892 and 1954, Ellis Island has been completely restored and is now managed by the National Park Service as a monument to the melting pot that shaped American culture.

My visit, with a French friend in New York on vacation, was no mere museum trip or history lesson for me. Both my parents came to America through Ellis Island: my father from Ekaterinaslav in the Ukraine in 1905 at the age of six, and my mother from Papa in Hungary in 1906 at the age of four. I’ve always regretted that I never visited Ellis Island with them. They went with a cousin shortly after the restoration in the 1980s, and both said that they remembered the Registry Room with its vaulted ceilings and high arched windows.

My mother’s most vivid memory was of her own mother, my grandmother, crying as she said goodbye to her mother, whom she knew she would never see again. My father remembered being given a banana as he waited to board the ship, and how, puzzled by this strange fruit, he bit into it skin and all.

Before you go, prepare for your visit by going online. The site www.ellisisland.com offers information about the Immigration Museum, while www.ellisisland.org allows users to search for passengers on the ships that brought the immigrants past the Statue of Liberty to Ellis Island. At the click of a mouse, I found both my father, on the ship’s manifest of the Caronia out of Liverpool and my mother, listed as a passenger on the Deutschland, departing from Hamburg. I discovered that my Aunt Anna and my Aunt Sophie, younger than my father, were actually named Chane and Schifre. I already knew that my mother, named Judith (and called Judy her whole life, till she died at 96), got an inadvertent name change at Ellis Island, when an immigration official heard the Hungarian pronunciation Yoo-deet and wrote down “Edith”—which is how she was listed on the records I found. (Her official signature was always “Edith Judith” or “Edith J.”—though the only people who called her Edith were telemarketers.)

The cousin who visited the museum with my parents enrolled my mother’s mother, our beloved Gran, on the American Immigrant Wall of Honor outside the Great Hall, overlooking the harbor and the Lower Manhattan skyline. When I emailed him, he reminded me that at the time, none of the cousins wanted to pay the hundred bucks to list our grandfather, who died long before we were born. I was moved to find my grandmother’s name among the 700,000 remembered in this beautiful and historic spot. Since then, I’ve put both my parents’ names and countries of origin on the Wall and am eagerly waiting for my granddaughters to be old enough to enjoy seeing them there.


  1. I've been wanting to see Ellis Island, though my folks came thought the port of Boston and in from Canada.

  2. Interesting, Liz! I've always been fascinated by Ellis Island.

    By the way, one of Nevada Barr's mysteries, Liberty Falling, puts Ellis Island and Liberty Island at center stage, and features some great maps. (I like novels that include maps of the setting.)

  3. Herschel Cozine24 March, 2012 12:42

    Liz, what a thrill it must be to see those names. If the walls could only talk. When I think about how those folks left their homeland to come to a place they had never been to before to start a new life, I marvel at their courage. I'm not sure I could have done that.

    (Aside to Dale: I saw your comment on Deborah's post. I was relating an old joke. Your are absolutely right. Sorry for the misunderstanding.)

  4. I went about 30 years ago and it was GREAT. We were on the first tour of the day and there were very few people. This gave the guide a chance to essentially divide his talk into two parts: the official stuff and the stories he had been told by other visitors about their and their relatives experiences at Ellis Island. Guess which was more interestin!

  5. Liz, years before the restoration, my husband and I called our congressman and asked if there was any way we could get to Ellis Island to shoot pictures. Congressman Ben Rosenthal arranged for a Park Service boat to pick us up at the Battery, drop us at the island for a couple of hours, then take us back to Manhattan. We've visited Ellis Island twice since the restoration. It is, as you say, a very moving experience, especially for those of us whose families came through there.

  6. I don't think your relatives have to have entered the country via Ellis Island to be entitled to have their names on the Wall of Honor. New Orleans, for example, was a big port of entry during the 19th century.

  7. Liz, thanks for another interesting piece of history.

  8. This was just wonderful, Liz. REALLY enjoyed it!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>