A landmark work of history that brings the voices of the past vividly to life, transforming our understanding of the immigrant’s experience in America.
Ellis Island. How many stories does this tiny patch of land hold? How many people had joyfully embarked on a new life here — or known the despair of being turned away? How many were held there against their will?
To tell its manifold stories, Ellis Island draws on unpublished testimonies, memoirs and correspondence from many internees and immigrants, including Russians, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Germans, and Poles, along with the commissioners, interpreters, doctors, and nurses who shepherded them — all of whom knew they were taking part in a significant historical phenomenon.
We see that deportations from Ellis Island were often based on pseudo-scientific ideas about race, gender, and disability. Sometimes, families were broken up, and new arrivals were held in detention at the Island for days, weeks, or months under quarantine. Indeed the island compound has spent longer as an internment camp than as a migration station.
Today, the island is no less political. In popular culture, it is a romantic symbol of the generations of immigrants who reshaped the United States. But its true history reveals that today’s fierce immigration debate has deep roots. Now a master storyteller brings its past to life, illustrated with unique archival photographs.
‘This ‘people’s history’ comprises intimate views of Ellis Island both from immigrants and from staff, including doctors, social workers, commissioners, and interpreters (among them the future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia). Policies were shaped by anti-Semitism, fear of Communism, and xenophobia, and monthly immigration quotas in the twenties led to ‘a peculiar type of boat race’ in New York Harbor, as ships rushed to deliver their passengers. Szejnert also records the idealism and the compassion of those employed there — such as the social worker who gave new arrivals stylish American clothing — many of whom were immigrants themselves.’
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‘As Szejnert shows, it would be difficult to find a scrap of land that better revealed the moral state of the Northern hemisphere during the first half of the 20th century than Ellis Island … a pleasurable read for anyone wanting to know more about those who immigrated to the United States and those who, because of prejudice or sheer bad luck, never made it.’
LA Review of Books
‘Making extensive use of primary documents, including letters written by immigrants to family in the old country, the author captures the mingled hope and fear experienced as people entered the massive main building … Szejnert does not scant the fear of “degraded, backward” people “unfit to join into American life” that culminated in the 1924 law that basically slammed the door on Italian and Jewish immigration. But her emphasis is on the immigrants’ fortitude and resilience and the empathetic assistance of Ellis Island personnel — many themselves immigrants … Warmly human and extremely moving — a welcome addition to the Ellis Island literature.’ STARRED REVIEW
‘With fine-grained details and fluid writing, Szejnert humanises the immigrant experience in late 19th- and early 20th-century America.’
‘In addition to filling a gap in American history, [Ellis Island] gives attention to a female journalist in the male-dominated genre of Polish reportage. Anyone looking to learn more about the history of immigration in the United States will enjoy this intimate portrayal of American history.’
‘[A] giant account of testimonies, memoirs, photographs, and letters that bring to life all of the varied experiences of arguably the most famous landmark of immigration in the world.’
‘Drawing on a huge archive of previously unpublished correspondence and recordings, a Polish journalist and outstanding storyteller brings alive the experiences of immigrants who ended up at Ellis Island as well as the wide range of employees who dealt with them. It’s a story that is still relevant today.’
Matt Witt, World Wide Work
‘A feat of historical documentation, Ellis Island tells the story of this fabled strip of land through the experiences of the people who sought a new life in America. A prescient and thought-provoking book about hope, despair and what it means to find yourself in a new world.’
Dan Shaw, Happy Magazine
‘From the internments of PoWs during the First and Second World Wars, to deportations based on social discrimination, this emotive account charts [Ellis Island’s] central role in decades of American political life.’
‘Read these words and travel back in time.’
Mauricio Ruiz, Words Without Borders
‘Excellent … Ellis Island’s real achievement lies in recreating not just what it was like but what it felt like to be there. It is, in its understated way, quite remarkable.’
‘The veteran Polish journalist Malgorzata Szejnert uncovers stories with a reporter’s instinct.’
‘[Ellis Island] is a fascinating catalogue of the wonderful array of characters and broad spectrum of humanity which passed through the island’s buildings.’ FOUR STARS
Miles Kemp, The Advertiser
‘One of the best evocations of the blend of yearning and disenchantment I have read.’
Fran Bigman, TLS