Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Whereupon I Travel to Ellis Island

Field trips are a helluva lot better now that I'm not a child. My daughter's fourth-grade class took its annual field trip to Ellis Island and a bus full of parents came along. It was nice that they separated us from the children. We had coffee and donuts on the way up, margaritas on the way back, dancers and a band. The kids, on the other bus, had water and "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall." Okay, maybe not entirely true, but close enough.

All but one of my grandparents were born in this country. Even when they were alive, none liked to talk about themselves or their parents' emigration. I don't believe they were motivated by modesty as much as by a desire to be seen as pure Americans whose loyalty wasn't challenged by Old World ties. Also, a surprising number of them detested some or all of the members of their family. My paternal grandfather, who emigrated from Ireland as a child, so despised his mother that he forbade his children and grandchildren from attending her funeral on pain of excommunication from the family. My maternal grandmother spent at least a few months in an orphanage where her grandmother banished her at birth for the crime of being a girl and therefore useless in the New World. Her mother cried until the old biddy relented. Naturally it was my grandmother who took care of that vicious old bat in her dotage.
This, plus the renaming of several branches of the family different things at Ellis Island (all those intake officers heard the names differently) makes tracing family roots pretty difficult.

Fortunately, we had an easier target for searching. My husband's mother emigrated to this country in the early 20th Century. Though she died several years ago, he did know that she came as a baby and he knew the name she used then: Basche, which she later Anglicized to Beatrice. He wasn't sure of the year, but my daughter and I assumed we could find her. We did. More on that later.

What struck me most about Ellis Island is how attractive it is. Sort of vaguely Eastern European (those turrets remind me of pictures I've seen of Moscow) and graciously proportioned, it sits serenely in the water, with the noble Statue of Liberty in the background. Fleeing pogroms, poverty and hellacious passages in steerage, people arriving with nothing but the clothes on their backs might indeed think they'd arrived somewhere better. When you arrive now as a tourist you watch a 28 minute film narrated by Gene Hackman which doesn't stint on the bad stuff (at least too much). Still, you can't help but think how promising it must have looked. Yes, to some extent you were treated like cattle. On the other hand, you were fed, perhaps briefly housed and then sent on your way to a new life.

Of course, the reason immigration became controlled in this way to begin with was essentially to prevent undesireables (read in the late 19th and 20th centuries as "Asians") from coming here in large numbers. So Ellis Island and its ilk are not all about the good. And people were rejected there, though in proportion fewer than 2% of all applicants. Partly this was due to the screening required by the steamer companies. The US required pre-screening of all passengers and those who failed at a U.S immigration point were returned at the expense of the steamship line. Who knows who was rejected and why at Rotterdam, Dublin, or any of the other many points of departure?

For a $5 donation you get 30 minutes on a computer at Ellis Island and the assistance of some historian/IT geek if required. We paid the money and found the dope on Bosche/Beatrice who arrived in August 1904 at the age of 6 months with her 20 year old mother, Riwlke. The town of their origin is reflected as Mariampol, which is currently in Latvia, though at the time of their emigration it was within Russia. (It also spent time in Poland, thereby becoming a true "immigrant town.") Riwilke's husband had paid for their passage. She had $7.50 in her pocket and an address in Brooklyn to go to.

I called my husband to tell him the details. He was thrilled except he claimed the date had to be wrong. No, I said, I was looking at the handwritten manifest and it showed the date as August 30, 1904. Turns out my mother-in-law routinely told people she had been born in 1910. Turns out she was actually older than my father-in-law, and that her story about being a very young child when her mother died in the influenza epidemic a few years later was false. She grew up on the North Fork of Long Island in pretty extreme poverty. After her mother died, her father essentially abandoned the 4 children to work and they raised themselves. In her adult life, as far as my husband was aware, she rarely spoke to or met her siblings. She refused to discuss any more of her background than that until the day she died. You can only find out so much from an old ship's registry.


LentenStuffe said...

A very fine and evocative post indeed. One of the highlights of living so close to my elderly parents is that my children get to enjoy spending time with them. My father and my oldest son get along like two long lost souls, so much so that my dad was my son's first choice in sponsor for his Confirmation, which takes place tomorow. It's curious to watch your child have a relationship with your father that you lacked yourself. Theirs is a spontaneous and natural rapport, and deep, by all accounts.

Anyway, it's always great to read you.

rundeep said...

Overdue thanks for such great praise, especially since it still needed some basic editing (AARGH). Congratulations to your son and you! I hope he took a great name.

Keifus said...

Interesting. It's escaped my mind whether my paternal grandfather emigrated from Ireland as a boy, or if was born here shortly after his parents arrived. In either case, his parents didn't survive the trip by very long, and he was brought up by an aunt and an uncle. He was an odd duck, my grandfather, kind of privately gruff and uncommunicative at home. He'd have Red Sox or Celtics games blaring when my family visited every week, sitting in his chair and ignoring everyone--I think he and my grandmother drove each other nuts, in a loud, codependent sort of way. According to my father though, get him in a bar and put a cribbage board in front of him, and he turned into a geezerly socialite.

He never, ever talked about his family. "Didn't have any," he'd say, but evidently he did. One or two cousins have popped up, and appear to be quite well adjusted. Don't know what, if anything, estranged him from them, or if he just didn't fit in. Or just didn't want to talk about it.

Too bad. It's interesting sometimes to muse on the trips the little chromosomes might have taken along the globe...

Anyway, sparked a memory.

topazz said...

Wonderful post, I loved that the grandmother lied about her age because she was older than her husband - but what hard and tragic lives so many of our ancestors faced ahead of them in this "new world" during the early part of the last century.

My 3 are going to Ellis Island on a high school field trip tomorrow, coincidentally, which is what drew me in to read this post. Thanks for the heads up; I'm going to make sure to give them the names & dates to look up their own great grandparents' entries.

rundeep said...

Hey Keif: these ancient family memories are the reason for Ellis Island. It's worth a trip if you take the kids to NYC for any reason.

Topazz: It's a cool place. You can do the same searches for free at home, but the $5 does give you their archivist's assistance. It could be worth it.