Key Island

By Magdalena MiecznickaSeptember 22, 2020

Key Island

Ellis Island by Małgorzata Szejnert

PAULA PITUM, a nine-year-old Jewish girl from Russia, arrives at the Ellis Island immigrant inspection station with her mother and two siblings. It is 1914, and they are joining Paula’s father, who had sailed to the United States earlier. But after a medical examination, the girl is pronounced “retarded” and put on a ship back to Europe. American authorities prefer to send the child back alone rather than run the risk of her becoming a “public charge.”

Pitum is one of the many characters who populate Małgorzata Szejnert’s book Ellis Island: A People’s History (originally published in Polish in 2009 and now available in English translation from Scribe US). Szejnert, a well-established Polish reporter, chooses a pointillist method to tell her story. Her account of the small island off New York City is related through bits and pieces of the lives of people connected to it — the ones who ran it and the ones who passed through it on their way to a new life in the United States.

The story begins with a tiny piece of land known as Seagull Island, occupied by the Lenni Lenape Indians. But Szejnert moves swiftly to the year 1892, by which point the island had become the site of the United States’s largest immigrant inspection station, the role that gave it its lasting fame. In the busiest year, 1907, it admitted over a million immigrants for processing. But by the early 1920s, the US government had clamped down on immigration, and Ellis Island was turned into a detention and deportation facility. It was formally closed in 1954. By then, the predominance of air travel had made it anachronistic. Besides, there was no PR benefit in keeping it open. “[T]he rest of the world associate[d] it more with the end of hopes than with their beginning,” Szejnert writes. Now, Ellis Island is part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument and hosts the National Museum of Immigration, in whose archives Szejnert found much of her material.

Szejnert chooses her stories to mirror the patterns of immigration to the United States. There are Jewish children whose parents died in pogroms in Russia and whose travel was sponsored by a Jewish association. Those arriving from Italy were divided into two groups by American officials: Southern and Northern Italians, the influx of the first, counting more than three million, being the most numerous of all, after a 1908 earthquake in Sicily destroyed 90 percent of structures. After the October Revolution in Russia in 1917, the island hosted victims of Amtorg, a Soviet trade corporation, which, among other missions, encouraged Russian immigrants in the United States to return to the Soviet Union. Those who let themselves be lured, and subsequently succeeded in escaping, often became stranded on the island awaiting readmission.

By the time Ellis Island opened, the first wave of immigration by the British and Irish was over. Those disembarking from the ships were predominantly Eastern and Southern Europeans. They were not necessarily welcome. On the first ship to arrive, the register mentions 77 Jews from Russia, compared to only eight Irish travelers; yet, when a commemorative statue was commissioned, a 15-year old Irish girl, Annie Moore, was chosen as representative of those admitted. Szejnert explains it thus:

The inaugural passenger ought to have been chosen from the largest national group. However, Jewish immigrants are not viewed as suitable godparents for a new immigration station, whose opening cannot risk offending America. To honor a Jewish immigrant would be to show kindness to the very least-desired group. Instead, the first guest at Ellis Island should prompt warmhearted, welcoming feelings for the new arrivals. Annie Moore is meant to be a heroine out of a fairytale — a neat little Cinderella who will turn into a princess in America.

Szejnert revels in quoting juicy gossip. Lawmakers may not have had much time for poor people from Southern and Eastern Europe, preferring those from Britain and Ireland, but not everybody was so judgmental. This is what one of the island’s commissioners, Frederic Clemson Howe, thought about Englishmen:

The British gave the most trouble. When a British subject was detained, he rushed to the telephone to communicate with the consul general in New York or the ambassador at Washington, protesting against the outrage. […] All Englishmen seemed to assume they had a right to go anywhere they liked, and that any interference with this right was an affront to the whole of the British Empire.

American prejudice is a recurrent theme in the book. To readers today, its overtness can seem quite shocking, a reminder of how a society’s sensitivities change. “Most concerning is the rising tide of poor Jews from Russia and the Polish territories under Russian rule,” Szejnert writes of the sentiments of the time. “Opponents suggest these Jewish arrivals are so thoroughly degraded, backward, and physically and morally weak that they are unfit to join into American life and may become public charges.” Legislation was passed to allow only a certain quota into the country. Szejnert doesn’t mention this, but the prejudice against Jews would later have tragic consequences, when many of those in danger of being murdered in the Holocaust were denied entry. The Chinese, and later the Japanese, were banned altogether.

During epidemics of cholera and other diseases, people were held in lengthy quarantine. The mentally or physically disabled, or those deemed to be so, were treated in ways defying today’s moral standards. By a wild turn of events, Paula Pitum ended up staying in the United States — her ship was turned back at the news that World War I had begun. For years to come, she would be subjected to humiliating reassessments, running the risk of being sent back. Paula was just one of a myriad of such cases.

According to Commissioner Howe (quoted by Szejnert), Ellis Island was “a storehouse of sob stories for the press; deportations, dismembered families, unnecessary cruelties made it one of the tragic places of the world.” Szejnert’s assessments of the authorities are far from damning, however, with many showing compassion toward the immigrants stranded on the island. The book is full of warmhearted secretaries, matrons looking out for victims of human trafficking, nurses and other caregivers. The stories told by the island’s employees make for a fascinating collection of period details. Doctors performed eye tests with the help of a buttonhook. Fiorello La Guardia, who went on to become a popular mayor of New York, was an interpreter at the island, speaking English, Italian, Serbo-Croat, German, Yiddish, and French. One luggage handler could tell a Greek from a Frenchman, and both from an Italian, by the type of knots they used to tie their baggage together. The neatest packers were, unsurprisingly, the Scandinavians.

As Szejnert shows, it would be difficult to find a scrap of land that better revealed the moral state of the Northern hemisphere during the first half of the 20th century than Ellis Island. The United States may have had its shortcomings, but some of the countries from which the migrants were escaping were much worse. Before the station opened, its first appointed commissioner, John Baptiste Weber, traveled to Russia to find out why so many Russian Jews were coming to the United States. The situation he discovered hadn’t changed much since the country was visited by the French aristocrat Marquis de Custine some 50 years earlier: Russia remained a land of oppression, corruption, and misery. It also treated Jews abominably, dictating where they could live and only allowing a small number into universities. Pogroms were never far away.

Małgorzata Szejnert is a well-known journalist in Poland. She was one of the founders of Gazeta Wyborcza, the liberal daily newspaper launched before Poland’s first semi-free elections of 1989. Gazeta Wyborcza has shaped the Polish political and media scene in a way that no other newspaper has since the fall of communism. Szejnert ran the paper’s reportage pages for some 15 years, commissioning and editing some of the most important pieces of journalism in the early years of Polish democracy, and teaching a generation of Polish reporters their profession.

Before the fall of communism, Szejnert spent some time in the United States in the 1980s, and she has written about Polish immigrants to the country. After retiring from her editing position at Gazeta Wyborcza some 15 years ago, she returned to her own writing. She decided to take on the subject of Ellis Island after discovering that not only had there never been a Polish book about it, but also that no book on the subject had ever been translated into Polish. The island had, however, been a place of great importance to the Polish people, millions of whom passed through when it was an active place of entry. Ellis Island: A People’s History was originally published as Island Key (or Key Island), presumably because the site unlocked entry to the hallowed land.

Among the fascinating tidbits Szejnert unearthed during her research was a 1973 Polish book that collected letters from 1890–’91 sent by Poles already in the United States (and Brazil) to their families back home. In these missives, men promise that they will send tickets to their wives and children and inquire anxiously about their health and welfare. The one Szejnert chooses to quote was written by Józef Jagielski, then in Pittsburgh, to his wife Franciszka in Dulsk. It had been 11 weeks since his last letter promising to send tickets for travel to the United States and she hadn’t replied. Perhaps she never did, and if so, we know the reason why. It is the same reason that we can read the letters in the first place: they were intercepted by tsarist officials on the border and never delivered. Russia didn’t want its subjects to leave, and breaking up families was the least of its concerns.

Szejnert has written about two other islands: Zanzibar and, most recently, the Isle of Bute. In both cases, what attracted her to the subject was a Polish episode related to the place. Ellis Island: A People’s History contributes to our knowledge of the island’s history through its Polish (and Polish Jewish) perspective. In Sean Gasper Bye’s skillful translation, and with lots of archival pictures, the book is also a pleasurable read for anyone wanting to know more about those who immigrated to the United States and those who, because of prejudice or sheer bad luck, never made it.


Magdalena Miecznicka is a Polish journalist, critic, playwright, and novelist currently based in London.

LARB Contributor

Magdalena Miecznicka is a Polish journalist, critic, playwright, and novelist currently based in London. She holds degrees from Warsaw University and the University of Paris III-Sorbonne Nouvelle, and has studied under the auspices of the Open Society Foundations at Kalamazoo College in Michigan. She worked at the Institute of Literary Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences and Humanities as an assistant in the Historical Poetics Laboratory. Her academic research focused primarily on the work of Witold Gombrowicz. She is the author of two novels and several plays in Polish and is working on her first novel in English.


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