True Immigrant Stories_6: A Teenager at Ellis Island

[This is another true story from my immigrant oral histories collection. When Wilhelm retold his story–even 65 years later–the emotional level and tears during his narration were quite moving to this listener.]


“I came by myself to the United States from Germany in 1910 when I was 16 years old.  I had been on small boats on lakes before, but never on such a big ship for so many days.  Like others, I got very seasick.  I kept vomiting and couldn’t keep any food down for days.  Even after, I didn’t eat much. I didn’t like the food and just ate some pieces of chocolate I had with me.

“When I got to Ellis Island, we all had to line up for the medical and they would examine us.  Some people could pass and they marked their coats with chalk.  Some they marked on the left and some they marked on the right lapels.  Those that were marked on one side could go through right away.  Maybe they had been here before, I don’t know.  But I got a mark—‘This is back.’

“So they let us through a big hall and we had to strip naked in a small room.  And we met two fellas.  They were doctors with stethoscopes.  I didn’t know what a stethoscope was—I learned that after.  They tapped us on the chest and on the back and then I had to run around.  I was the only one they examined that way.

“All of a sudden, one doctor yelled and raised his fist.  He was gonna knock the other fella down, the other doctor.  I didn’t know what it meant. I was told afterward.  One said I had consumption, and the other doctor said there was nothing wrong with me—all I needed was a bellyful of food for a couple of months.  I was undernourished.

“Well, finally, I passed.  And when I got out I had to go before an examiner, a judge [Board of Special Inquiry hearing].  My brother had arranged for relatives that lived in Brooklyn to take care of me.  The examiner said to my cousin, ‘You have to put up bail that this young man will not become a burden to the United States.’  My cousin owned property and a business, so that was not a problem for him.

“Then the examiner said to me, ‘You are free to go.’  And [Wilhelm’s voice breaking with emotion as he tells the story] when I—I tell the news ‘you are free,’ I still choke up.  The judge says, ‘the boy [he pauses, with tears streaming down his face] may be undernourished, [he pauses again, and then says, sobbing] but he has a wonderful mind.’  And he said again, ‘You are free to go,’ and we went out into America.”

[You can learn more about immigrants to Ellis Island and romance and corruption among its employees in the 1890s and early 20th century in my historical novel, Guardians of the Gate and its sequel, Defenders of Freedom. Both are based on real people and actual events.]

2 thoughts on “True Immigrant Stories_6: A Teenager at Ellis Island

  1. i am choked up myself. i never knew about this. My grandpa came here from Italy around 1912. He was 17 and came alone through Ellis Island also but never spoke about his experience. When he was 19 he was a soldier in the American army going off to war to Flanders. France in WW I. he survived . He worked .saved his money and bought property with 2 large green houses. He worked day and night and prospered.

    1. There are so many poignant stories about immigrants, Rosemary. Those of your grandpa and Heinz are just two. I tried to include many others in my novel about Ellis Island (Guardians of the Gate). ~Vince Parrillo

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