True Immigrant Stories: Young Teenager at Ellis Island

[This is another true immigrant story from my oral history collection, gathered as part of my research for the historical novel, Guardians of the Gate.  In 1925 at age 13, Heinz sailed alone from Bremen to live with his aunt and uncle in the United States.

“We arrived on Election Day and our ship was supposed to be guided in by the U.S. pilot, but that’s the one day that guy didn’t work.  So we lay outside the harbor and the next day we docked in Hoboken and from there we were all herded into Ellis Island.  The reason for it is that a sister ship, the Columbus, had come in the day before and the passengers had some sickness—measles, whooping cough, I don’t remember what it was—and they were quarantined and the officials surmised there might be the same thing on our ship and we all had to be quarantined at Ellis Island too.

“That was not one of the most pleasant experiences I ever encountered. That day was very warm, and there was insufficient air in this great, great hall over there.  And, of course, hundreds—thousands—of people were milling around and shunted from one place to another. I was not able to make myself understood because the authorities did not speak German and I could not understand English, only a few words that I had learned just before leaving Germany when I started to study English.  I knew, “How do you do?” and “Goodbye” and maybe a few more words, but that was the extent of my English.

“It was very frustrating to be there.  I felt like I was in prison because of lack of air, because of being uncomfortable with the heat, and the ventilation was very, very poor because all the windows were very high in the domes and you could not see out.

“Finally, in the late afternoon we were given some recreation outside and that was a great relief.  The dining room was really a mess.  There were hundreds and hundreds of people, some of them very unkempt and, unfortunately, I sat next to a few of them.  I never had seen white bread like the Americans eat, and I took a slice of white bread and one of the people who, as far as I was concerned had not had a bath in months, so it seemed, took my piece of bread and put it upright, standing on end, and prayed to it in his language and gave it back to me.  Needless to say, I did not eat that bread.

“Night was another experience that I don’t think I will ever forget.  We were in this tremendous, large dormitory with three deckers and low lights.  The place was jammed and there were people crying, and babies crying, and children crying, and people praying out loud, who I’m sure didn’t know what was going on and neither did I.  It was just a very, very depressing night.  I didn’t sleep very much, I know.  It was one of the unhappiest times that I can think of.  It was not a good first impression of America.


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