Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Ellis Island: who knew?

When I visited Ellis Island and its awesome museum (yes, it does inspire awe because of the human history and stories it contains), I was deeply moved by the entire experience, which should not be part of America alone, but a treasure of all mankind. Witnessing what immigrants had to go through, from the voyage by sea to the severe medicals they had to undergo, was a lot to take in. The system was in some cases brutal, for instance, if one of the immigrants had a disease, they were immediately separated from the rest of their family (like in a concentration camp, I thought), and boarded on the ship to be sent back to an unknown future. Hence, ship companies, in order to prevent these situations, applied even stricter rules for their passengers to save their own interests. Passing through the rooms where people were examined and questioned gave me the chills; that is where I learned the story of an admirable man, Fiorello LaGuardia, whose career started here as an interpreter and helped many immigrants getting through the interviews. If only those walls could talk how many stories they could tell!
At the end of the visit, in the computer room, I accepted the challenge, or rather the invitation, to check if any of my own relatives had passed through its doors. To me was nothing more than a game because, as far as I knew, none of my ancestors had moved farther than 50 km from their native village, let alone crossing the ocean in those steam ships! In my mind I was giggling at the idea of imaging one of my folks, people from the mountains, undertaking this adventure in open sea. I wanted to prove the computer wrong 'see, told you I am the first one ever in my family to have set foot on American soil', which of course makes you stand up in the family!
My fingers started tapping on the keyboard. My jaw just dropped: I had found my maternal great grandfather who arrived at Ellis Island in 1912, more than a century ago. He came from a village that at the time was in Austria, and he was 32. He was so old, I thought, for that time. Looking at the dates though it made perfect sense, probably he was running away from the great war, who knows? But why leaving all his family behind? Probably he couldn't afford to pay for them all. He was already married and had some kids (one of them was my much beloved and missed grandpa).
Without realizing, I started crying. I felt so stupid for thinking those petty things a little while ago and laughing about it so lightheartedly, while now I was facing the whole tragedy of a man who was there for a better future, like all people who had passed there. I had so many questions and once I was back home, I was able to ask them to one of his children who was still alive.
When I was in New England I thought that was a terrific opportunity to grasp, so I convinced my husband to explore the place where my great-grandfather had lived. I delved a bit into his story and found out that he was headed for a mining village in Vermont. We drove to this village, forgotten even by God, and my mind went stray. 'How did he reach this place at the beginning of the 20th century?' It was Thanksgiving day and while everyone was eating turkey, we left our car and browsed around the area. It felt chilly, "was he covered enough?" I tried to find a sign of his passage. Dilapidated buildings, almost a ghost town, no sign of human life. I felt a pang 'certainly this place has known better days' I said to myself. But deep down I was crying' why on earth did you leave your lousy village to come to a shitty place like this one? Couldn't you have picked a warmer and nicer place, for God's sake?" He must have heard me and for my insolence he punished me straight away!! In fact, all the pictures I took of that desolate place to show back at home were gone, my camera just vanished like in thin air!
I have all the admiration in the world for what my great-grandfather went through. Four years later he left the USA, moved back home, as penniless as he left, he died of emphysema caused by his years working in the coal mines. Another forgotten soul that contributed to making America big.

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