126 Years Later: Ellis Island – Where Every Man Was an Island


(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By Faygie Grunfeld

At the start of January 1892, Ellis Island became the point of entry for millions of immigrants dreaming of a better life for their families. Historians estimate that 40 percent of Americans can trace their lineage back to the little island that determined the fate of universal newcomers. Along with Czechs, Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Irish, Greeks and more, Eastern European Jewry gazed with starry eyes and laden hearts toward the island that would grant them passage to a life of religious liberty and freedom.

The great irony in the story of Ellis Island is its initial smallness. In our collective minds, Ellis Island is gargantuan, overwhelming in its metaphorical bigness. But back in the 1770s, Ellis Island was a privately owned, tiny slip of rocky land, sold to a man named Samuel Ellis. Its role? A rest stop for fishermen, replete with a pub and spirits. However, business was weak, and by 1794, Samuel Ellis put up the island for sale.

After a long stretch on the market, the New York State government finally purchased it for $10,000. Shortly after, the insignificant island came under the eye of the U.S. government, which soon set its hands on it. To what end? Fighting the war of 1812. The modest island served as a military fortification during this period, and continued its military role in the Civil War as a munitions arsenal.

The first half of the 19th century witnessed the island’s intimate role in the world of war and steel, but of its human relationships, well, that was yet to come.

By 1890, the fledgling island came of age, blossoming into early adulthood as an immigration gateway. A station was commissioned and built on its shores, but first the island was expanded to nearly double its size, thanks to the freshly dug rubble from the New York City subway tunnels. This would prepare it for the high traffic it would soon face.

In 1892, the office opened, and Annie Moore, an Irish girl coming to join her parents in New York, became the first immigrant processed on the island, followed by 700 more that day. During its first year, Ellis Island would support the swell of 450,000 souls eagerly seeking a new life in the New World. Over the course of the next few decades, 12,000,000 would enter the country through this portal.

The island suffered a setback in 1897, when a fire destroyed its wooden offices, and new construction was commissioned, using fireproof materials. By 1900, it was a flurry of activity, sporting new red bricks and limestone trim. By the 20th century, increased numbers of arrivals caused the federal government to expand and create two more islands to flank the original one, becoming home to the hospital staff and contagious-disease ward, as well as the psychiatric ward.

Yet it was in 1907 that the island reached its prime, truly coming into its own. This year the island cushioned the first steps of over 1,000,000 immigrants, its most significant numbers to date. The following years would welcome many more.

The beginning of the end occurred in the 1920s, when immigration quotas were passed with deliberate, racial undertones, and immigration bottlenecked. Although there was still a trickle, further legislation nearly corked the whole enterprise, and the beautiful redbrick and limestone processing office fell into disrepair. During WWII it was revitalized, but this time it took on a more nefarious role as a detention camp for Germans, Italians and Japanese.

After the war, it suffered the fate of neglect as an old storage house for the Coast Guard. But then for a few brief years in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the island came back to life as a detainee center for questionable immigrants with questionable politics like fascism or communism. Yet American liberalism soon put the final nail in the island’s career, eliminating detention centers altogether. Ellis Island was out of work, for the very last time. It gasped its final adieu to Arne Peterssen, a Norwegian sailor who had overstayed his visa and the last detainee to leave the island’s shores, and then accepted its fate. By 1954, the island closed its doors, to be reopened as a museum that can only try to convey some of the hopes, fears and dreams that stampeded through its now-silent halls.

Jewish Immigration

American Jewry experienced three waves of immigration, the first of which was Sephardic and took place during the 17th century. The early 19th century ushered in German Jewry, and late 19th — Eastern Europeans. Fleeing poverty and oppressive legislation, Russian Jews arrived in droves after 1880, and although Ellis Island was, for most, “the island of hope,” for a few it became “Trernindzl — the island of tears.” After a few years of establishing themselves, Eastern European Jews opened organizations to help newcomers, often sending representatives to the island to guide new arrivals through the medical and political examination.

Jewish immigrants often shortened or changed their names when arriving at Ellis Island, either by choice or because immigration officials, struggling with long Jewish names like Shereshefsky and Matyevitz, simply recorded them as ‘Sherman’ and ‘Matthews.’ One of the folktales that has made it into countless publications and books is of the immigrant who is asked his name by the customs official. He smacks his head after trying to remember his newly chosen American name and declares, “Shoin fargessen! — I already forgot!” He is recorded as Sean Ferguson.

Arriving In New York

Before a ship could dock in New York harbor, inspectors came aboard to check 1st- and 2nd-class passengers, briefly screening for cholera, typhoid, measles and diphtheria. These travelers did not undergo a thorough medical or political examination even if they were immigrants, the theory being that middle-class and wealthy travelers were unlikely to carry disease or turn to crime/treason. After inspection, these passengers were ferried to the mainland, while 3rd-class travelers (steerage) were usually kept on board overnight, and then transferred to Ellis Island the next morning.

Once on the island, immigrants were instructed to walk up a flight of steps. Unbeknownst to them, the medical examination had already begun; doctors stood at the top, watching the patients, scanning for weakness or injury. As the line of passengers moved past the doctors, there would be a ‘six second physical’ — a quick inspection of hands, face and stride. Those who were deemed questionable had a specific letter drawn on them in chalk, indicating what the next examination should look for (e.g., “H” for heart problems, “K” for hernias, “Sc” for scalp problems, “X” for mental disability). About 20 percent of people were pulled over for this additional step, with trachoma (infection leading to blindness) being the most dominant medical issue. Those with curable conditions were sent to the hospital; those with incurable or disabling conditions were deported at the shipping line’s expense. Only 2 percent of immigrants suffered this fate.

The next stage was interrogation, which lasted a few minutes and included a few dozen standard questions about name, home country, occupation, American family members, criminal record and so on. After passing this step, immigrants received a landing card and proceeded to meet family members at a designated spot. Women and children traveling alone were detained for their protection until family members came to pick them up.


Immigration to America was a pretty unencumbered business for the 18th and 19th centuries. Historically this nation has encouraged the arrival of newcomers and their inclusion in American prosperity. However, with the immigration boom in the 1880s, economic and practical considerations as well as racial prejudice spurred policymakers to legislate certain demographic groups away. 1882 witnessed the exclusion of Chinese laborers as well as the mentally unstable. 1891 barred those with contagious diseases and questionable morals. 1917 introduced a literacy test, ensuring that immigrants were fluent in their native language. Medical examinations also became more rigorous.

However, it was 1921 that proved to be the real enemy of the immigrant. This law, for the first time in U.S. history, limited immigration based on the country of origin. Immigration took a nosedive during this decade, effectively ending the mass migration of the early 20th century. 1924 reinforced this system with even more restrictive numbers. The regions hardest hit were southern and eastern Europe, which was the apparent intention of legislators, reflecting the American perception that western and northern Europeans were more compatible with American life. This legislation highlights the xenophobia that became commonplace between the two world wars, evident in various sources from literature, jingles, cartoons and newspapers. The 1960s would introduce much looser immigration policies, returning to its American roots regarding immigration as a national good and America as a country for all.

Personal Accounts

Mae (Malka) (Rappaport) Abrams
Born: 1908
Arrival: 1913

I was born, we didn’t have a date. In Russia they did not keep records, so when we came to America we, the four of us [children] made up dates for our birthdays, and we kept it since then. We asked my mother, “When about were [we] born?” She said, “Oh, you were born near this holiday, and you were born near this holiday.” So they picked me for July 29th. …

I was born in a little town called Zerometz. I remember living there in a very small one-bedroom, one-room house, because we had been dispossessed from the big estate where my father was the keeper. …

My father left three years before we did, and he left my mother and the four small children, well, one of the children wasn’t born yet. … I didn’t even remember my father when we met him at the Ellis Island. I remember when I saw him at Ellis Island, we used to call it Castle Garden or something. And I said to myself, I was five, “Ooh, he’s an old man.” You know, something to the effect, because I hadn’t seen him.

[On the trip from Russia to America] I remember being on the boat in the very, very lowest part of the boat in one room, four children and my mother. And most of us were sick most of the time. I think it took us about three weeks to come over. But I remember going up on the [deck] and the people from the First Class used to throw down pennies and oranges and bananas, and we had never seen oranges or bananas, because I don’t think Russia, where we lived it wasn’t a warm enough climate. We only had apples and, you know, other fruits that would come from colder climates. Oh, and then when we got to Ellis Island we — I went there with a group recently and they were telling us how difficult it was for people to get in. They had to have medical exams and they were so scared and they were sent back, but nothing like that happened to us. We seemed to go through like, like with Vaseline, you know. And before we knew it we were called, and my father picks us up.

Jacob (Yankel) Auerbach
Born: 1903
Arrival: 1921

I was born [in] a little town by the name of Shershev, you’ll probably not find it on any map. I was there all my life, my 18 years, with the exception of two and a half that I went to another city to study. The city was a well-known town, Brest-Litovsk. … [My family was] economically of the upper strata. Below us were the tailors and the shoemakers and the peddlers and some other workers who worked, hard labor, building houses. Of course, the upper shift were the learned people, the Rabbis and the assistant Rabbis and the learned ones, the educated people, they were the top layer.

(Auerbach describes the terrible suffering of the Jews during WWI and his ability to secure a ticket from a family member in America.)

I had to make about two dozen different kinds of these papers: Medical certificates, birth records, police records, statements from my parents that they have no objection to my travel, statements from the local authorities that I don’t owe any money to anybody … and then I was put on a horse and wagon in order to get to the railroad station because, as I said before, it was several hours’ trip. And literally the whole town came out to say goodbye, so to say. That was the custom. It was somebody going to America, to America, it was like going to heaven.

I will just enumerate the stages of the trip. By train to Danzig. Danzig was a free city at the time. It [belonged] neither to Germany nor to Austria. From Danzig we went, oh, in Danzig we underwent quarantine for 14 days. We were put in quarantine, in isolation. We were inspected every day. We were given injections every day for 14 days, everybody. And from there, from Danzig we went by small boat to Hull, England. Hull, and then to Glasgow. And in Scotland we took the boat. And we arrived in New York a day or two before a new quota act went into effect.

A United States Public Health Service doctor would come on board from the hospital. And every boat had, of course, a ship doctor. A ship doctor had to have a report as to any sicknesses that occurred en route that he knows about, and any patients who were not well, whatever happened. [Sometimes a ship was put in quarantine]. … [After arriving] I spent the night on the boat, but was allowed to roam the higher decks. The mysterious Hudson River with lights blinking all over. Something that I never saw, a light, an electric light. The only light we had was a kerosene lamp. We couldn’t get over it, there was flashings like a giant hand writing in the sky: Lipton’s Coffee, Lipton’s Tea…

We were taken in the morning to Ellis Island. I got on line with the number A, the line beneath my name. I was inspected within five minutes. I was discharged … to the HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) building. They had representatives to help.

My first job I could find was as a clerk. I did not like the job, I did not like the pay. The most thing was that it was not interesting enough. I wanted to deal with people. So I said to myself, “I have experience as an immigrant. I know what it feels like it. I know that this country, the U.S.A., is built of immigrants. What can I do about it?” … I took an examination as an immigration inspector, and I figured I would make use of my English and my knowledge of the languages Yiddish and Russian, some Polish and German, and I could also read some French … I received my first appointment to Ellis Island in 1930 … it feels as if somebody, as if a Russian were made the czar of Moscow, they couldn’t have felt more exhilarated than I was, especially the work itself, to talk to people. My job was to ask them questions, to check their papers, to find out whether they are eligible to land, whom they are going to, and so on and so forth.

In the beginning, most of [the immigration inspectors] had to use interpreters. I didn’t have to. I mean, they knew my languages. Whenever they saw a Jewish name and a Polish name and a Russian name and a German name, it came to me. And I enjoyed it. It was beautiful.

[There was] camaraderie between a number of the inspectors, who were either themselves immigrants, maybe one or two or three, but most of them were sons of immigrants. Everybody had a warm feeling for the job and for this situation … I’ve heard stories of the roughness [toward immigrants] and so on. The roughness consisted of somebody who did not make it. That was tough. That was worse than killing them. But we had to be honest enough. We had to go by the law … The people will say the ordeal they went through was not with the immigrant inspectors. It was with the doctors.

Mrs. Esther (Kresch) Furman
Born: 1946
Arrival: 1948

My parents were living in Poland during the war; they had married in the year 1942. Somehow, they managed to keep evading the Nazis during that period. My grandfather had a lumber and leather business, and one of the non-Jewish workers agreed to hide my parents in his attic. There was no standing space, only sitting area, and they lived in those conditions for nine months, eating potato soup and other foods that offered bare nutrition. It was difficult for my parents to share their memories of this time.

In 1945, at the war’s conclusion, my parents made their way to Paris, where I was born. With the hope of coming to America, my parents began to reach out to relatives in Pittsburgh for help. Immigration quotas in 1948 were quite rigid, although there was greater leniency shown to clergymen, therefore my father quickly obtained Rabbinic ordination! Although my parents came to this country with only 50 dollars to their name, they made sure to dress well and present themselves properly, which would help them through the process. My father was also multi-lingual, which helped him through those years of displacement.

They still needed to be sponsored, which is where the Pittsburgh cousins helped out, and my parents and I arrived on American soil. At first my parents visited their Pittsburgh cousins as well as wealthy relatives in Chicago to seek out a place for themselves, but my mother, upon discovering that Yiddishkeit was not very strong in these communities, insisted on Williamsburg. After everything they had been through, preserving their mesorah was of paramount importance.

During those first few years, my parents would visit the Landsmanshaft regularly, which was an immigrant society, but it became more of a support group to survivors who had a place to convene and reminisce about the past. They would take me along, because there were no babysitters back then! I vaguely remember those visits and how the room was always enveloped in smoke. After some time, my mother began to feel uncomfortable with the crowd of people who gathered there, many of whom were not religious, so we stopped going.

My mother’s sister had settled in Williamsburg before my parents’ arrival, and along with three young children, one who was deaf, and without a husband, she opened a grocery and cared for her family. My father tried working in the sewing industry, but it paid quite badly, maybe 24 cents an hour. Impressed with my aunt’s growing grocery, my father sought out similar work in a different neighborhood. He found a grocer on Lee Avenue who was close to retirement, and became something of an apprentice to the man, and eventually took over the store. My parents ran that grocery until 1967, when they moved to Boro Park and reopened the store in their new community.

1. Beth S. Wenger, The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Voices (Doubleday 2007), pg. 90.
2. Courtesy of National Park Service, Statue of Liberty National Monument and Ellis Island, Bob Hope Memorial Library.
3. These are just a few of the 1900 interviews documenting the experience of various immigrants as well as customs officials who passed through Ellis Island.
4. Note: Mrs. Furman’s parents did not pass through Ellis Island, which no longer served as a primary immigration processing center at the time they came to America, but their story is still characteristic of the immigrant experience.

To Read The Full Story

Are you already a subscriber?
Click to log in!