Book Reviews

Ellis Island: A People’s History by Małgorzata Szejnert, Sean Gasper Bye (Translator)


Despite my love of history, I never got around to doing any serious reading about Ellis Island. My knowledge consisted mainly of what I was taught in school (most of which I’ve long since forgotten) and random information gleaned from things I read over the years that briefly mentioned its history and purpose, but only in relation to the topic I was reading about at the time. When I discovered this book on Edelweiss, I felt excited to (finally) read a book focusing on Ellis Island, its employees, and the emigrants who arrived there full of hopes and dreams of a new life in the United States.

The book is broken up into seven parts, rather than individual chapters. Each part is further divided with sub-headings dealing with particular topics or people. This makes for easy reading, without the risk of losing focus on the overall topic of each part. The text within these sections are concise, but greatly informative. People introduced early on are revisited (some many times), when their experiences and/or contributions on the island are relevant to later parts of the book. For those whose connection to the island spanned decades, it provided a more complete look into their lives that was gratifying to read.

The book begins with the early history of the island: from its indigenous inhabitants and the eventual ownership (a century later) of its namesake, to the construction of the Statue of Liberty and the original immigration station that existed in the years before Ellis Island was put into service. Although it’s brief, I learned many things, and it made for fascinating reading.

1892-7 First-Immigrant-Station
First Ellis Island Immigrant Station, 1892-1897

Ellis Island officially opened on January 1, 1892. 700 immigrants would pass through the station that day, including Annie Moore from Ireland—the very first person to be processed.  By the end of the year, nearly 450,000 would pass through the station. On June 5, 1897, the wooden buildings of the immigration station were destroyed by fire. During the five years it was in operation, approximately 1.5 million immigrants were processed. A second, fireproof station—designed to process up to 5,000 immigrants a day—opened December 17, 1900.

Second Ellis Island Immigration Station
Second Ellis Island Immigration Station, c. 1905

I have to admit that I didn’t expect to be as interested by the stories of the people who worked at the station. I assumed the stories of the immigrants would be far more compelling to read about, and worried that stories about those employed there would be boring. I’m happy to report that I was completely wrong, because both sides were equally engrossing. Many people worked at the station (in one capacity of another) for decades—including some who were immigrants themselves at one time.

1902 arrival
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, 1902

About 12 million emigrants passed through the immigration station at Ellis Island during its years of operation. Of that number, about two percent of them would be denied entry into the United States for various reasons. Those with contagious diseases, physical disabilities, or signs of insanity would be barred on the grounds that they would likely become wards of the state. Anarchists, people with criminal backgrounds, and people who showed signs of “low moral character” were equally unwelcome. The Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 made further restrictions, banning emigrants from certain countries as well as introducing immigration quotas. Being allowed entry didn’t protect an emigrant from later deportation, either. During World War II, Ellis Island was used as a detention center for ‘alien enemies’, served as a hospital for wounded soldiers, and was even used by the Coast Guard to train approximately 60,000 servicemen.

Radicals Awaiting Deportation
Original caption: “1/3/1920-New York, NY: Photo shows anarchists, reds, and radicals who were rounded up in NYC in last nights raids, arriving at Ellis Island. These undesirables will remain at Ellis Island until investigation and deportation proceedings have been completed. Many arrested in Newark and other nearby cities arrived at the Island during the afternoon.”

The information I’ve shared in this review barely scratches the surface of everything that can be learned by reading this book. Writings from people who were there provide both information and personal insights, allowing the reader to better understand what life what like back then—for the emigrants, as well as the people who decided their fates.

It goes without saying that—like most things concerning history—the story of Ellis Island isn’t always a pretty one. Its history includes the disgrace of racism and anti-Semitism. Abuse of power and extortion from those who had so little, committed by those entrusted with performing important duties. Women who came here believing they were to be married, only to be trapped in sexual slavery. For all the hope it represented to people arriving there, it’s important that the uglier aspects of Ellis Island were acknowledged in this book.

I honestly can’t say which parts of the book I enjoyed the most, because it was all interesting to me. Much of what I read was completely unknown to me, whether it focused on the island’s heyday as an immigration hub, what became of it in the years after its closure, and finally, its restoration and eventual rebirth as a national monument and tourist destination. I learned a great deal from this book, and will likely reference it in the future when I need to refresh my memory on the topics and/or people it covers.

Highly recommended for readers who love history, particularly those who want to learn more about immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The wealth of information contained in this book makes it well worth the time spent reading it.

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Scribe US via Edelweiss.

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Author: Małgorzata Szejnert
Translated by: Sean Gasper Bye
Title: Ellis Island: A People’s History
Genre: History, Social Science
Publication Date: August 4, 2020 by Scribe US
Rating: 5 stars

About the Book

A moving, dramatic, multi-vocal account of the agony and ecstasy of arriving in Ellis Island, by the greatest living Polish journalist

Sifting thousands of archival recordings and mountains of impounded correspondence of the experience of passing through Ellis Island and beyond (or being turned back from it), the great Polish reporter Malgorzata Szejnert has pieced together the dramatic experiences of Polish, Jewish, German and Italian emigrants. With her reporter’s passion and an inquisitive mind, she has also brought to life the Ellis Island station employees: the doctors, nurses, commissioners, interpreters, social care workers, even chaperons, illustrating her story for greater vividness with unique archival photographs.

About the Author

For forty years, MALGORZATA SZEJNERT (b. 1936) has been one of Poland’s most important non-fiction writers and editors, shaping a generation of Polish literary reportage. She began writing about challenging social issues in the 1970s, and was an active member of the opposition during the Solidarity period. After the fall of Communism, she co-founded Poland’s leading daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and led its reportage division for 15 years. Since retiring, she has devoted herself entirely to book writing. Her topics range from Poland to America to Zanzibar, always with a warm, personal focus, allowing marginalized people speak for themselves through her work.

About the Translator

SEAN GASPER BYE is a translator of Polish, French, and Russian literature. His translations of fiction, reportage, and drama have appeared in Words Without Borders, Catapult, Continents, and elsewhere is a winner of the 2016 Asymptote Close Approximations Prize. He was awarded an NEA Translation Fellowship to work on this book.

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