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World: Ellis Island -- Isle of Hope

Washington, 12 August 1997 (RFE/RL) - For 62 years, a tiny island at the tip of New York Harbor served as a gateway to America for millions of immigrants fleeing religious persecution, economic hardship, war and famine in their native countries.

Called Ellis Island after one of its many private owners, the isle became a symbolic landmark to immigrants around the world who came to America seeking a new and better life.

For the vast majority, Ellis Island became known as the Isle of Hope -- an open doorway to a land of promise and opportunity. Yet for those who were turned away, Ellis Island became known as the Isle of Tears -- a place where many people saw their dreams and hopes come to an abrupt and sorrowful end.

For centuries, Ellis Island was little more than a sandbar of about 1.3 hectares. The Indians who lived in the area called it "Gull Island" after the seabirds which inhabited the island.

In 1630 a Dutchman purchased the island from the Indians and renamed it "Oyster Island" because of a rich deposit of oysters nearby. For many years afterwards, the island passed through many hands, finally landing in the possession of Samuel Ellis -- the island's namesake -- in 1780.

Ellis was a businessman who developed the island for eight years as a recreation spot. He then sold it in 1788 to another private owner, who in turn sold the land to the U.S. government in 1808.

From 1808 to 1892, the U.S. government used Ellis Island primarily for military purposes. Finally, the U.S. Congress decided to develop the island as an immigration station to help handle the growing influx of new arrivals to the country.

However, Congress deemed the island too small and ordered it to be enlarged. The island was eventually landfilled to reach to about 11 hectares -- its current size.

The Ellis Island Immigration Station officially opened its doors on January 1, 1892. A ten-year old girl from Ireland was the nation's first immigrant to pass through its doors.

As many as 5,000 people daily would be medically examined and questioned at the station. During the island's peak years of immigration -- 1892 to 1924 -- the majority of those new arrivals came from southern and eastern Europe.

According to records, most of the European immigrants were fleeing poverty, oppression, high taxes and religious persecution.

Jeff Dosik, a park historian on Ellis Island, said that during the Island's peak years, approximately 2.5 million of the immigrants who came through the island were Jews from Romania, Russia, Poland and other east European countries.

Dosik said harsh, discriminatory laws in these countries caused Jews to flee in large numbers amid pogroms, riots and civic intolerance.

Other immigrants fleeing persecution at this time were Poles, Croats, Serbs and the Irish.

For most European immigrants the journey to America was long and arduous. However, by the 1890's, steam-powered ships were already in use which hastened the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. What used to take approximately three months by sail, now took only two weeks under steam. Some steam ships were so large they could hold as many as two thousand passengers at a time.

Conditions on the ships were usually miserable. Large rooms under the ship's deck were crammed with metal bunk beds. Men were separated from the women and children. There were no toilet facilities -- and on the early steam ships -- no separate dining locations. Dirt, grime, rotting food and the smell of unwashed bodies caused nearly unbearable conditions. Lice, disease and other contagious ailments spread rapidly.

But most of the immigrants refused to despair.

Oral interviews of immigrants gathered by Ellis Island staff and maintained on the isle in a library open to the public, testify to the immigrants' sense of determination and resolve.

Louise Nagy, an immigrant from Poland who came to America in 1913 said that no matter how difficult the trip, people never gave up hope.

"That's all you heard," Nagy said. "Gold on the streets of America. There's no North America and no South America, not United States, just America. It was all good things."

Martha Levashesky Gardner, a Russian Jew who arrived at Ellis Island at age 10 in 1921 agreed, but said that people were still frightened at what lay ahead for them in America.

"We were scared about so many things, you know," Gardner said. "The anticipation of going to a new place and not knowing. We looked forward to it. We were excited, but we also were scared."

For many immigrants, the first glimpse of America was the Statue of Liberty. The giant statue of a woman with her arm outstretched, holding a lit torch was a gift to America from the French in 1885 and was intended to represent the essence of freedom and liberty. The statue was dedicated in October 1886 and placed on a small island in New York Harbor just a few meters south of Ellis Island.

Gardner said seeing the Statue of Liberty was the "highlight" of her life.

"We were on one of the decks when we could see the Statue of Liberty," she said. "And it was the most marvelous sight. Everybody was cheering and clapping and laughing and saying, 'At last we have arrived.' And we were just very, very cheerful."

The steam ships sailed past Liberty Island and docked at Ellis Island. For most immigrants, this was the moment of reckoning when their fate would be sealed by a handful of people on the island.

People disembarked from the ships, some clutching precious baggage they had brought from their homelands, others with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Immigrants were led from the dock to an enormous area called the Baggage Room. There the new arrivals were met by a team of doctors, interpreters and inspectors who herded them up a steep flight of stairs to another big chamber called the Registry Room.

What many immigrants didn't know was that they were already being closely examined as they climbed the steps. Those who had difficulty climbing the stairs or who looked ill or overly fatigued were immediately pulled aside for further medical inspection.

Children who were more than two years of age were required to walk without the assistance of their parents and were asked their names to ensure they were not deaf or mute.

Doctors then began examining the immigrants for medical problems. The staff was especially concerned about cholera, scalp and nail fungus, insanity and trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease which was relatively rare in the U.S., but fairly common in Europe. At the time, trachoma was untreatable and those who had the disease were immediately rejected.

Others who were suspected of being sick were sent to the island hospital for further tests and treatment. Those who recovered were allowed to enter. Those who did not were sent back.

Immigrants also had to prove they were sound of mind. According to a 1917 U.S. Public Health Service manual, about nine out of every 100 immigrants were pulled aside for a mental examination.

Pauline Notkoff, a Polish immigrant who came to America in 1917 said she was asked a few easy mathematical questions during her test. But she said that another young Polish girl behind her was asked, "How do you wash stairs, from the top or from the bottom?" Notkoff said the girl answered, "I don't go to America to wash stairs."

For the large majority, the entire process on Ellis Island only took three to five hours. They were registered, medically cleared and taken by ferry boat to New York City where they could catch a train for any destination they chose in the United States.

For an unlucky two percent, there was a refusal of entry and eventual deportation.

But for most, the experience at Ellis Island was the beginning of a new life.

John Alabilikian was an Armenian living in Turkey when he decided to go to America in 1922 at age 14. For him, Ellis Island was truly an Island of Hope.

Alabilikian said: "When the horns started to blow and we saw the Statue of Liberty, I thought I was in heaven. Really. It was something like she's up there saying, 'Come on in. From now on you are a free person. You do as you please. And as long as you behave yourself, you're coming to a country where you can, if you want, to make success. It's up to you' ... I want to thank America. I want to thank the Constitution that gave us all of this."

For more than six decades, from 1892 to 1954, more than 12 million immigrants passed through Ellis Island. Approximately eight million left the immediate New York area and scattered throughout the United States.

However, by the turn of the century, most immigrants were settling primarily in the northeastern section of the nation. Approximately 65 percent went to the four most industrialized states -- New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Massachusetts -- where they could easily obtain work in factories.

In fact, by 1910, historical records show that 75 percent of the residents of New York City, Boston, Massachusetts, and Chicago, Illinois were either immigrants or the children of immigrants.

Today, more than 40 percent -- or over 100 million people living in the United States -- can trace their roots to an ancestor who came through the station at Ellis Island.

This is the first in a three-part series on Ellis Island. See part-two World: America's Ellis Island -- Isle of Tears and part-three World: Ellis Island - Restoration of a Historical Landmark