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Review | The Last Days of Ellis Island, Gaëlle Josse & Ellis Island: A People’s History, Malgorzata Szejnert

The Last Days of Ellis Island by Gaëlle Josse @WorldEdBooks and Ellis Island: A People’s History by Malgorzata Szejnert @ScribeUKbooks offer an excellent complementary read, giving a different take on getting through the gateway to the Promised Land that was the United States a century ago.

Ellis Island in New York harbour remains the ultimate symbol of American immigration. It was the continent’s busiest inspection station for sixty years until it closed in 1954. Millions of immigrants went through an extensive and elaborate legal and medical vetting process when they disembarked: Jews escaping from political and economic oppression in czarist Russia and Europe; Italians escaping rural poverty; Poles, Hungarians, Czechs, Serbs, Slovaks and Greeks . . . along with arrivants from Syria, Turkey and Armenia. Approximately forty per cent of U.S. citizens today can trace at least one of their ancestors back to Ellis Island.

Greeted by “Lady Liberty”, refugees arrived in a desperate state of dazed expectation and grubby destitution after a gruelling sea voyage packed together like sardines, fearful of being turned away from a new life in Paradise. A beacon of hope, the Mother of Freedom loomed large on her stone pedestal, “majestic in her copper green robe face impassive, arm aloft over the water.

“I am Liberty – God’s daughter!
My symbols – a law and a torch;
Not a sword to threaten and slaughter,
Not a flame to dazzle or scorch;
But a light that the world may see,
And a truth that shall make men free.” – from John Boyle O’Reilly, Liberty Lighting the World

The Last Days of Ellis Island by Gaëlle Josse | Translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer | World Editions 208pp Buy Now

The Last Days of Ellis Island is a clever and evocative piece of historical fiction in which the imagined conversations and thoughts of John Mitchell, an officer of the Bureau of Immigration, “the last guardian and the last prisoner” of the island holding centre are intertwined with flashbacks remembering key memories. He dreads returning to his desolate family home in Willamsburg, Brooklyn, “nine days and nine nights until I am to be sent back to the mainland, to the life of men. To a void, as far as I am concerned. What do I know of people’s lives today?

Over time, the role of the station evolved, as did my own as my duties changed . . .” Seemingly a model of American honesty and virtue, reliability and efficiency, Mitchell recalls the people and events that marked his time on the island, and regrets his errors and misdemeanors. His marriage to Liz, a nurse and the sister of his childhood friend, is cut short when she catches typhus from new arrivals on board the ship Germania in 1920. “After her death, my personal geography, the whole way I comprehended places, was redrawn.”

He is haunted the memory of Nella, a young Italian woman, and her mentally disabled brother, who arrived some years later. He had ended up crossing an invisible line which left him eternally remorseful, “She was still and silent and remained so when I took her, rougher and faster than I had wanted. She stifled a cry of pain, I ejaculated, and it was over.”

A reserved introverted man, Mitchell is civil albeit detached from his colleagues, some of whom he dislikes on humanitarian grounds. He particularly feels hostility towards Augustus Frederick Sherman who is an amateur photographer, even though the hundreds of images of newly arrived immigrants taken by the chief clerk, often with a with a heavily racial slant, now form an iconic eyewitness account of those arriving in the U.S. in pursuit of the American Dream.

Natasha Lehrer’s flowing, subtle, fine translation of Gaëlle Josse’s award-winning fictionalised portrait illuminates the unexpected humanity of a government official at a time when inspection stations were welcome centres helping arrivants to make the transition to a new life, as opposed to being a hostile, rejecting environment as detention centres are today.

An engrossing read, The Last Days of Ellis Island is a remarkable story, and all the more remarkable because it’s true.

Ellis Island: A People’s History by Malgorzata Szejnert, illustrated | Translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye | Scribe UK 400pp illustrated Buy Now

In 1891, as the island grows like a mushroom after rain, sacks full of letters are leaving America in the holds of steamships, and sometimes even sailing ships. They are written by semi-literate people or dictated to scribes who themselves are not much better educated. In all the letters, the word szyfkarta – ship’s ticket – appears again and again . . .”

Joseph Pulitzer, founder of the Pulitzer Prize honouring excellence in journalism, arrived from Hungary in 1864 via Castle Garden Emigrant Landing Depot, the precursor to Ellis Island. From the 1890s, huge numbers from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe emigrated to America “for want of bread, safety and freedom in their home country.” Writing to their wives and relatives, they expected them to follow, but their missives ended up in the censor’s box – undelivered.

From the end of the nineteenth century to the 1950s over 16 million immigrants arrived on the island off Manhattan and more than 610,000 were denied entry.

Romani from Serbia, 1906, by Augustus Francis Sherman

A mosaic of multiple lives and experiences based on the unpublished testimonies, memoirs, diaries and correspondence of internees and immigrants – including Russians, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Germans and Poles, as well as commissioners, interpreters, doctors, and nurses – Ellis Island: A People’s History is a tantalizing and harrowing read and a feat of translation.

Most spent only a few hours there. Those who were less fortunate spent up to several months as they underwent quarantine and tests. Others were not permitted entry because of immigration laws, “Idiots, insane persons, paupers or persons likely to become a public charge, polygamists, persons suffering from loathsome or dangerous contagious disease and persons who have been convicted of a felony or other infamous crime or misdemeanor involving moral turpitude . . .”  When an inspecting doctor noticed something odd he marked the arrivant’s clothes with a letter for the presumed disease and a more thorough check was then performed.

There are unforgettable portraits: John Weber, a Civil War veteran and the first commissioner of Ellis Island, travelled to Russia to find out why so many Jews wanted to come to America . . . Annie Moore, a fifteen-year-old Irishwoman, was the first to be processed at the holding station along with her two brothers . . . Fiorello La Guardia who worked there before going on to become one of New York’s greatest mayors transforming the five boroughs into today’s unified city . . .

Personal, family and collective memories are intertwined to create a pertinent portrait which interrogates our capacity to understand,  live with, and tolerate, difference.

Ellis Island: A People’s History is an impressive piece of meticulously researched literary reportage by leading Polish journalist and non-fiction writer, Malgorzata Szejnert. In 1980, she helped edit the strike bulletin that was later transformed into the newspaper of the Solidarity trade union.  After the fall of communism, she co-founded Poland’s leading daily newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza.

It is about memory: personal, family, collective ; strength and fragility ; honour and survival. The simple but eloquent writing style opens the door to feeling a range of human emotions as you read: fear, anxiety, hope, despair, shame, pity, anger and immense irritation. Movingly current and disturbing, the human voices which fly out of the pages are immediate and compelling.

Thomas Jefferson’s American Dream of achieving a life of liberty, prosperity and success through hard work in a land of opportunity where society had few barriers has since become discredited and tarnished by xenophobia and economic changes. To many it has now become unattainable: what was once defined as ‘normal’ in the decade following World War Two has long gone. Asylum seeker, refugee or migrant: none are the scrounging pariahs so many politicians would have us believe today.

Best remember. Never forget.

the american dream

The Last Days of Ellis Island by Gaëlle Josse translated by Natasha Lehrer | World Editions Ltd | historical fiction PB 208 pages ISBN: 978-1642860719 | December 2020 £11.99

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Ellis Island – a people’s history by Malgorzata Szejnert translated by Sean Gasper Bye | Scribe UK | Non fiction HB 400pp illustrated ISBN: 978-1911617976 | October 2020 £20.00

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Published by

georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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