True Immigrant Stories_8: Hunger in the Ellis Island Cages

[If you didn’t read last week’s post, I suggest you do so first, as this is a continuation of Helen’s immigrant experience. This is a true story, told in her own words. This material comes from my research for my historical novel about Ellis Island in the 1890s, Guardians of the Gate, and its sequel, Defenders of Freedom.]

“In the building you had to walk single file by families in a line that was, like, a mile long, up to a man at a table who was evidently a doctor although we didn’t know it. So we walked up to him and I learned after he observed you walking towards him and he could see whether you had any walking disability, if you limped or whatever.

med exam 1902

“So we got through that phase of it and got to a woman, dressed like a matron, and she took the three boys roughly and pushed them to the side.  She then said to my mother, my sister and I, ‘You go on this line.’ When the boys were separated from us, the fun began because they started screaming, “I want to go with my mother! I want to go with my mother!’

“The woman said, ‘No, you go over there. You have to go over there. You have to go through your medical.  You have to go with the men.’

Image“Well, here’s three little boys, scared out of their wits, and wondering if they’re going to get their mother again.  With no choice, they go with the men and we go in a room and had to strip for a complete physical, which we had already had before we left.  We get through this medical as, fortunately, everything was okay.  We come out of there and we stand around waiting for the boys to come out.  We didn’t know where they were or what they were doing.  Finally, they come out, the tears rolling down their faces. They were buttoning up their shirts, crying, ‘Mommy, mommy, what did they do to us?’  At this time my mother is so fed up that she didn’t care if she came to America.  If they had asked her, ‘Do you want to go back home on the boat and endure those heavy days back on the ocean,’ she would go.

“Then we’re put in a pen.  We’re together again.  We’re a family, all together again, but we’re in a pen, with big bars—one nationality here, one nationality there, all in different cages.  Actually, that’s what it was—a cage.  By this time, it would be about two o’clock and we hadn’t had a bite to eat all day, not even a glass of water.   The kids are dejected.  They’re hungry and it wasn’t at all pleasant on that island.

“Through the bars I could see a Polish family in the next cage and they were eating bread.  We didn’t know where they got the bread.  Somehow they must have brought it with them. I’m standing there looking at them, and I must have been drooling.  The woman looked up and she made a motion for would you like some?  I nodded, and she broke off a big hunk of bread and brought it over. That sustained us, I guess, for the rest of the day.

“Anyway, there was a man and he was walking like he had all these cages and they had a corridor.  On the other end of that, there were cages again. And the people who were coming to claim you, they were far down at the other end of this building.  So you could see through the cages all the way up.  It was a big, long shaft.  They had cages on the one side, with a corridor and cages on the other side.


“So, anyway, it’s now mid-afternoon, and this man’s walking back and forth in that corridor and he’s calling names out.  And one by one the families were leaving.  So it got to our family and one other family.  We knew—they had told you—if you don’t get claimed by four o’clock, you’re kept there, locked up on the island.  My mother happened to look all the way down, and by this time it had emptied out, and you could distinguish the people who were at the other end because it wasn’t so crowded now.  So she saw my father.  He’s making motions to her for the man who was walking back and forth.  By this time we were numb, we were absolutely numb with fright and wondering what was going to happen next, knowing that if we didn’t get off this island by four o’clock, we were stuck until another time, which could have been the next day, I don’t know.

“So my father’s motioning to my mother, to the man, and my mother’s gesturing ‘forget it.’  She couldn’t hear what he was saying.  We were these two families left.  They were four people; we were six. Finally, this man comes over to my mother and he takes the paper and he sticks it under her nose and he says, “Is this your name?”  She looks at it and she says, “Yes, that’s my name.”

“He says, ‘I’ve been calling you for the last hour.’

“She says, ‘Well, you’re not saying the name properly.’

“He yells at her, ‘What’s the difference?  Do you want to get out of here?’

“He probably was a foreigner himself, and he was yelling ‘Car-na-GEE, Car-na-GEE.’

“Our name is “Car-NEG-e” and we couldn’t understand that he was calling us, but my father knew it and he was getting desperate and screaming.

“The man said, ‘You’re the only one left on this island with six people in the family.  This has got to be you.’

“Finally, we got checked out and we got down to where my father was.  He took us on the ferry to our new home in New Jersey.”

[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.]

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