[This is another true story from my immigrant oral histories collection.]
“I was born in 1900 and grew up on the island of Rhodes in Greece. I had heard about the great life in America from others who had been there and I wanted to go. It was wartime though, and we couldn’t travel because of the German submarines. When it was safe, my father didn’t want me to go, as I was the oldest boy and he wanted me to help on the farm and help look after my nine brothers and sisters. He wouldn’t give me the passage money, but I was determined to go and borrowed the money from a friend of the family. I had some concerns about leaving my family but the urge was too strong.
“I left with six other young men in a small boat to Greece. In the rough waters of the Icarian Sea, we all got seasick and thought we would die before we reached Greece. Finally, we got there in good order and we stayed in Piraeus [port of Athens] for a long time trying to find a travel agent who could give us a good rate for our tickets to the United States. We knew how much the rate was from others who left months before and they wrote back and told us how much they paid. I don’t remember now the exact rate we paid, but we each had enough for the ticket. I found an agent to get the same price they paid and even got my ticket free for getting him six other tickets. Then we spent a month there before we got on a German boat, the Susquehanna.
“As soon as we got into the Mediterranean, one of the sailors who was painting part of the ship way up, slipped and fell into the sea. I was with another fella and we saw him and we tried to tell someone but we couldn’t speak the language. I found an Italian fellow I had met and, since I knew his language, I told him. He told someone else and they ran the danger bells. The ship stopped and turned around and the spotlights were thrown all over the ocean, and it was really something, a panorama, to see what had happened. In due time, we reached the sailor and we picked him up, and he was thankful that someone saw him fall and notified the other sailors and was safe.
“When the ship got back on its course, a man from the ship’s hospital, in a white uniform, came up on deck and he was climbing on the side of the ship, looking towards the sea. And I was again with the same fella as before when we saw the sailor fall. And we said to ourselves that this fella looks like he wants to jump into the ocean, and before we were sure about that, he did jump into the ocean. So we again go running around the ship to find this Italian fella to tell him someone fell into the ocean again. We did find him and told him, and he thought we were kidding him, but he believed us, and once again the ship stopped, and turned around to pick up the man. We did pick him up in due time. He was alive, but not for long. We learned he had some kind of sickness, which was why he was in the hospital, and all of us had heard on the ship that anybody who was sick would not be permitted to land in the United States. Because he died, we had to stop by Gibraltar and bury him in the sea before we entered Gibraltar territory. Then we headed for the United States.
“During the time we were in the Atlantic Ocean, there were some fellas getting sick or thought they were getting sick, and they were afraid too that they might be denied entrance. But we all tried to keep confident that we would pass. We also had a lot of Albanian Turks on our ship and they seemed to have a lot of lice on their bodies. And we tried to stay away from them, thinking that if we connect with the lice that they had, we might be denied entrance. And, as a result, when we reached the United States, all of us threw the old clothes that we were wearing on the ship into the ocean and we dressed with the clothes we were wearing for our entry.
“We finally were surprised and we were ecstatic when we saw the Statue of Liberty and the United States land. We thought we landed in Paradise. It seemed that we were looking for something unusual and it was something unusual that we saw.
“We were so delighted that we reached here that we were hugging one another. We were crying and laughing, and crying and laughing at the same time. We didn’t know what we were saying to one another. The only thing we could hear among us was, ‘We got here! We’re here! We landed! We landed in America!’ We were so delighted. It was very exciting.”
[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.]