Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Ellis Island Museum



Last week my husband, my son and I went to Ellis Island Museum. I can’t believe that in all these years, I never managed to get it together to visit the Museum. With Trump waging a war against immigrants, it seemed like a good time to learn a little more about the history of immigration. It’s worth being reminded that hostility to immigrants is nothing new in American history. We are both a nation of immigrants and a nation with an unfortunate history of animosity towards immigrants.

I’ve never had the fascination with my own immigrant ancestors that many people have. My son Cris is one of those intensely interested in the experience of his immigrant forbears. On my side he has 4 great grandparents who emigrated from Ireland in the late 19th century and on his father’s side two grandparents who emigrated from Ecuador in the 1950s.
Cris at Ellis Island

The passenger records are now available online for the ships that landed over 51 million immigrants, crew members and other travelers at the Port of New York and Ellis Island from 1892 to 1957. Cris managed to locate the ships that my four Irish grandparents arrived on and has also done research on my husband’s grandparents who emigrated from Eastern Europe and located some of their records. I would never have had the patience to sift through all that archival material.


One of the most interesting exhibits was the section on immigration post 1945. And many of the people visiting the museum looked like they were part of the post-1945 wave of immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean.

Many first hand testimonies were available and I found myself especially drawn to the experiences of women immigrants. Just a few examples:

“My mother was a twister, in the twisting room in the Lawrence mills…It was unusual…In Italy there were no jobs for women…In fact the people who heard about it back in the village, didn’t like the idea of women working. But my mother felt like she was doing no different from the other women[in Lawrence, MA] so she decided she was going to work. Make some money.’ Josephine Costanza, an Italian immigrant in 1923, interviewed in 1986.

“They asked us questions. How much is two and two?’ But the next young girl also from our city, went and they asked her, ‘How do you wash stairs, from the top or from the bottom?' She says, ‘I don't go to America to wash stairs.’ "
Pauline Notkoff, a Polish Jewish immigrant in 1917, interviewed in 1985.
I'd give a lot to know what happened to that young girl!

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