A few weeks ago, Jürgen, a cousin from Germany, visited the U.S. with his wife, Annette. They were making their second extended visit to various Goebelbecker families around the country, that Jürgen found while he was researching his family tree. Jürgen is a research librarian at the University of Karlsruhe, a few kilometers from Liedolsheim.
While he stayed with us we made a visit to Ellis Island. This was my first ever visit to the island. It was compelling enough that my wife and I returned there this weekend. Actually, I am sitting on the island right now writing this.
Like many Americans, I first learned of Ellis Island in school. I remember asking my grandmother if she had gone through Ellis Island when she arrived her. She grew very indignant.
“That was for people that didn’t have anywhere to go.”
And then I learned a little about how my family arrived here, but that’s a different story.
Chances are the fact that my family came over in 1929, after major changes to the immigration system in 1924, probably have more to do with why they avoided Ellis Island than anything else.
But as a result of what my grandmother said, I never felt a connection to Ellis Island. In my often way-too-literal mind, if my family didn’t enter there then it didn’t concern me, and there was no use thinking learning about it.
My two visits here have changed my opinion about that. Immensely.
More than twelve million people entered the United States through the island between 1892 and 1954. Many stayed in the area, taking factory jobs in the city or in nearby New Jersey, while many others headed west. In New Jersey, the ferry leaves from the rail station where many immigrants took trains to their new homes.
My great-grandfather and his brother arrived here soon after the island opened, and headed to the Cuyahoga Valley. A few years later, for reasons unknown, my great-grandfather returned to Germany.
The museum has three floors. On the first floor are displays describing immigrants’ experiences before the creation of Ellis Island, when they entered freely via several ports on the east coast.
The second floor has exhibits about their experiences after leaving the Island, as well as the famous main hall.
The third floor has examples of where the people stayed if they were held over on the Island.
Immigration is a hot topic right now, of course, and that makes my discovery of the museum seem timely. But even without that extra context, visiting here makes me think long and hard about what my grandfather must have experienced arriving in New York City alone 87 years ago, and working to save the money to send for his family almost a year later.
One of my cousins here in the U.S. had a plaque put up to commemorate my grandparents. I am glad he did.
Regardless of where they entered the U.S, they took on a huge risk and laid the foundation for good lives for all of us. They should be remembered.
No set of pictures from New York Harbor is complete without this.
If you are ever in New York City are, a visit to Ellis Island is worth your time. Spend some time there, too.
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