For decades, Małgorzata Szejnert has been a giant of Polish literary journalism. A veteran of the Solidarity movement and co-founder of Poland’s leading newspaper, she mentored the first generation of Polish journalists working in a free press. Since retiring from the paper, her extensively researched and beautifully crafted books have continued to make a mark. She has written about topics far and wide, from Poland’s industrial heartland to Zanzibar, to the Scottish Isle of Bute—and even the immigration station at Ellis Island.
Now Ellis Island: A People’s History, her lyrical and deeply human portrait of the island and the people who made it, is her first book to be published in English. Szejnert draws on unpublished letters, memoirs and manuscripts to weave a tapestry of interlinked personal stories. With her trademark light touch and deep insight, she shows us the Island as we have never seen it before. I spoke to her by email about what led her to write the book and what its story says about us today.
–Sean Gasper Bye
Sean Gasper Bye: You write in your book that Ellis Island has become part of the American foundational myth similar to the Mayflower. But what significance does it have in Poland?
Małgorzata Szejnert: The myth of Ellis Island is totally nonexistent in Poland. The people who emigrated to the United States and co-created this myth of bravery and hope remained beyond the great water, practically on another planet. The connection between them and their former homeland was impeded by tsarist censorship, the World Wars, Communist governments, and when all that was over, a breakneck and labor-intensive economic transformation. The myth of the Island didn’t make it to Poland as a positive symbol.
SGB: Did anyone from your family ever pass through the Island?
MS: No, but emigration was our family affair. My uncles, officers before the war, made it to the West after the disaster of September 1939, and didn’t return to Poland after the war. They struggled to build lives for themselves in Britain, France, the United States, Australia.
SGB: When did you first see the Island? What impression did it make on you?
MS: I saw it from the tip of the Battery in Manhattan 36 years ago, as a would-be emigrant to the United States. In 1981, after the introduction of martial law in Poland, I lost my job at Literatura magazine. We had a strong reportage department and the whole team refused to work under the conditions being imposed. I couldn’t bear to give up the hope connected with the Solidarity movement. As a reporter, I had seen firsthand the movement’s awakening during the great Szczecin shipyard strike in August 1980, and I wrote a great deal about it.
I decided to leave for the United States with my son because we had family support in New York. Back then, when I looked at Ellis from the Battery, to me it was just a foggy outline on the water. I already knew quite a bit about it, I wanted to see it, but at the time construction was underway to turn it into a large Immigration Museum and it wasn’t possible to go there.
SGB: Neither you nor your son became emigrants.
MS: No, even though I got a job in my profession—working for the Polish newspaper Nowy Dziennikin Manhattan—and my son grew fond of his school and his friends. When the system I’d fled mainly with a mind to my son’s future started falling apart, we went back to Poland. My son wanted to go back too. Very insistently. He was 12 years old.
It was only after the free elections in Poland, once I was working at the newly founded Gazeta Wyborcza—today Poland’s leading newspaper, which I had the joy of co-founding—and could afford a trip to the United States for pleasure, that I rode the ferry to Ellis Island.
Who were the people of the island, the keepers of the gates?
The museum made a huge impression on me: even just its space and construction, the dormitories, the hospitals, the enormous grounds used for the quarantine process, the portraits of arrivals from all over the world taken by the island’s great photographer, Augustus Sherman, mementoes donated by children and grandchildren in response to appeals from the Museum, travel chests, sacks and bundles piled up in a glass tunnel in the entrance hall of the station. And amid the small objects in display cases—a buttonhook.
It all roused extraordinary curiosity—who were the people of the island, the keepers of the gates? How did they cope with their duties—accepting some arrivals and rejecting those who didn’t meet the conditions of the immigration laws? The personnel and organization of the Island as an immense mill of human fate interested me much more than the newcomers themselves. But in those days I wasn’t yet thinking about writing a book. I was very busy at Gazeta Wyborcza.
SGB: I noticed a buttonhook on your desk.
MS: I bought it for next-to-nothing at a flea market in London. It was already after my first visit to Ellis Island and I wanted to have it as a memento. Buttonhooks were used as often at the turn of the century as zippers are today. Women buttoned their dresses and shoes with rows of tiny buttons and a buttonhook—as the name implies—helped with this operation.
As you know, buttonhooks played a sinister role on Ellis Island. They helped the medical personnel test if the new arrivals were bringing trachoma, and they used the buttonhooks to pull back their eyelids. Trachoma was contagious, they didn’t know how to treat it and the United States wouldn’t let in anyone who had it. This let to loved ones being tragically split up, or entire families being sent back if parents didn’t want to separate from their sick children.
And when did you first see Ellis? Probably on a school field trip from Pennsylvania?
SGB: I barely remember it. I was maybe five years old. I still have a photo from the trip—black-and-white, with the Statue of Liberty in the background, and in the foreground my little hand holding a plastic model of the Statue. My parents told me we got off at Ellis, visited the main building and looked for records of my mother’s relatives, though we didn’t find any…
MS: So your relatives might have gone through Ellis?
SGB: We think so. My mother’s ancestors sailed over from Poland and Slovakia right at the peak of this period of American immigration—in 1905, more or less. We don’t know if everyone went through Ellis—my grandmother thinks some went to Baltimore.
Incidentally, I learned from your book that my family history is fairly typical. A poor family comes over bit by bit, relatives already in the US help the newer arrivals find work. In my family’s case that was in the coal mines in northeast Pennsylvania. My grandmother remembers her town was almost all immigrants—from Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, Italy, Lithuania, Ireland… And each group apparently had its own Catholic church on the main street.
MS: What about your father’s family?
SGB: Well here we have that contrast you write about between Ellis Island and Plymouth Rock. My father’s ancestors weren’t Pilgrims, but they were English Quakers who received land outside Philadelphia at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries. So I’m a representative of exactly that tension you highlight—between the generations of older colonists and the new immigrants.
MS: Do children in American schools learn in history class about what happened at Ellis?
SGB: Yes, but looking back I can see it was fairly mythologized. The turn of the century was presented as this Golden Age of American immigration—that there was a so-called “open-door policy,” that anyone who wanted could come to the United States. Lots of people I knew in school had some kind of family story from Ellis.
In time I learned about the darker side—about the Chinese Exclusion Act, the quotas and so on. But by then that myth of the Golden Age was already embedded in my mind.
What was it that caused you to go back to the Island to write the book?
MS: It was a short visit to a friend in Warsaw. She was sitting at her computer and was having trouble tracking down an ancestor of hers. I suggested she open up the Ellis Island website. I knew there was an enormous store of information about immigrants based on the ship’s manifests and available in a search engine. We looked through it together and read the captain’s oath at the top of one of these manifests.
That the captain declares that this manifest, subscribed by him, is a full and perfect list of all the Passengers taken on board and truly designates the age, sex, calling, ability to read and/or write, country of citizenship, native country, last residence, the number of pieces of baggage…
The words reminded me of a book I had in my library. It was published in Poland in 1973 under the title Letters of Emigrants from Brazil and the United Sates (1890–1891), and mainly edited by Prof. Witold Kula. It’s one of the most important historical works ever published in Poland. Truly incredible, detailing the criminal activities of tsarist censorship in Russian-ruled Poland.
That afternoon I made up my mind that I should return to Ellis Island as a reporter.
SGB: It seemed to you there was a link between the captain’s oath and the effects of tsarist censorship?
MS:Yes! At least there could be and I wanted to look for it.
In 1941, during the German occupation, Professor Kula was a volunteer teaching assistant at the Underground Free Polish University. He learned by chance that the Polish Historical Archive had inherited from the tsarist authorities an enormous collection of letters sent by emigrants to their families, but withheld by the censors and never delivered. The tsarist government didn’t want its Polish subjects to receive ship tickets from relatives who had managed to leave the country. Workers had been emigrating at a disturbing rate and any means of reining that in was seen as worthwhile. And these confiscated letters from years before ended up in the Archive.
The Germans had closed the academic workroom of the Archive, but they were still employing Polish archivists. With their help, Professor Kula and his students discovered two boxes full of old letters. They got them out in secret, little by little, transcribed them, then just as carefully put them back. The Archive burned down during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, but copies and notes of about 700 letters and around 300 originals not brought back to the Archive survived. They were eventually published in Prof. Kula’s book.
Before I decided to finally write about the Island, I checked what was already known about it in Poland. I couldn’t find anything!
These letters are a rich, utterly priceless source of information about the economic life of immigrants in their towns and villages, their family relationships, customs, unfulfilled longings, and anxieties for their loved ones, because at the will of the police chiefs and censors, silence fell between the senders and their addressees.
Based on the information in these letters (names, addresses, the presumed age of the addressees), I picked out a group of five women and three men who were expected by relatives already established in the United States. I hoped that the manifests would help me check whether these families had eventually been united. I thought that this tragic thread could open a piece of literary journalism about the Island, which processed 1.5 million Poles—or rather Polish-speakers, since in the days of the Partitions their citizenships were different.
But before I decided to finally write about the Island, I checked what was already known about it in Poland. I couldn’t find anything! In the collections of the National Library in Warsaw there was no publication about Ellis Island, not in Polish, not in translation, not published abroad. It was as if, preoccupied with everything going on in our country, we’d completely forgotten about the Island. That more or less assured me—I had to go there and write. I e-mailed the Director of the Immigration Museum, Diana Pardue, as well as the librarian and writer Barry Moreno, asking if I could count on having access to their source materials, and I got an encouraging response.
SGB: When I went to the Island to do my own research for the translation, I found the librarians at Ellis remember you well. Barry Moreno asked after you. How was it working with them?
MS:They not only shared with me unpublished manuscripts, recordings and photographs, and took me around the buildings that were as yet unrenovated and had been frozen in time—you could almost feel the breath of the people there, now long gone. They also gave me an invaluable piece of practical help, namely a daily spot on the official National Park boat running between the tip of Manhattan and Ellis Island.
SGB: Did you manage to find anything out about “your” group of eight people who never got the letters and the ship tickets? Did they make it to the Island?
MS: Tracking them down was very tricky, because I had to try many different versions of their names and search across a fairly broad timeframe. There was only one person I managed to find. In 1912 the steamer Königen Luisebrought to Ellis Island Franciszka Jagielska, 42 years old, a petite blonde, illiterate, penniless, from the village of Dulsk (today in Poland, then in Russia). It was her first time in the US, she’d been invited by her husband, who lived in Pittsburgh. She was without a doubt the same Franciszka Jagielska whose husband had sent her a despair-filled letter from Pittsburgh that had been intercepted by the tsarist censors. She went to join him 20 years later!
This thread did turn out to be helpful in the book, but when I started looking through the archives on the Island I found a huge amount of information about what had intuitively struck me before—the organization of the place and its people. The conflict they were wrestling with. They were the children or grandchildren of immigrants themselves, after all, decent people raised in a spirit of democracy. But, as loyal citizens, they had to carry out the demands of the immigration laws, which oftentimes required acts of cruelty.
SGB: The book doesn’t have a single, overarching narrative, but rather is made up of interwoven individual stories that come together to form the history of the Island. What made you chose this sort of form?
MS: I’m a reporter, people are what interest me. I was struck by the richness of their roles and personalities. They could feel they were playing a role in history, which meant many of them left behind incredibly interesting memoirs.
SGB: Such as Ludmila Foxlee, a Czech-American social worker on the Island, whose recollections you often quote.
MS: She lifted the spirits of Slavic peasant women who arrived worn out by the journey and apprehensive. She found them beautiful American dresses so they would feel more confident as they stepped onto land to meet their waiting husbands or fiancés.
Or the first commissioner of the Island, John Weber, who went specially to Russia to investigate why so many Jews wanted to leave that country. He spoke to impoverished women in a stocking factory, to patients in hospitals, to prisoners and witnesses of pogroms, to students and soldiers. The report he wrote affected the approach taken with immigrants from the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire.
Ellis Island and the current migration crises are different experiences. But they do have something in common: the battle between selfishness and humanitarian values.
Or the interpreter—and later mayor of New York City—Fiorello La Guardia, who did what he could to get the immigrants through the island smoothly and honestly.
Or Dr. Howard Knox, who developed an insightful system to test people suspected of mental illness, who were often simply frightened and confused by the conditions in a developed country that they’d never seen before.
SGB: It’s wonderful that we have pictures of these protagonists as well.
MS: Did you find anything in the book that was surprising to you, as an American?
SGB: Yes! The discrimination against unmarried women, who as a matter of course were suspected of prostitution. And the singling out of people with physical and mental disabilities. The separation of families at Ellis Island was a real shock for me. You tell an awful story where an old Jewish man arrives with his adult son, but the older man is sent back for being a potential burden for the United States. And both the father and the son accept the situation in silent despair.
Just as I was translating that passage, the news was full of the separations of immigrant families on our southern border. Some people were saying nothing like this had ever happened in the history of our country. And others noted that before the Civil War, enslaved families were often split up. But I don’t think I heard anyone talking about Ellis Island.
MS: Do you find my book topical?
SGB: I think since it came out in Poland ten years ago it’s only gotten more topical—the whole world is going through a migration crisis. But I’ve noticed you’re hesitant to compare the past of Ellis Island with the conditions of the crisis today. Is that the reserve of an experienced journalist who’s seen a great deal and understands the danger of easy comparisons?
MS: Exactly. Ellis Island and the current migration crises are different experiences. But they do have something in common: the battle between selfishness and humanitarian values. If a book about Ellis Island is topical, it’s because it draws attention to the pride of Ellis and the shame of Ellis.
Małgorzata Szejnert’s book Ellis Island: A People’s History, translated by Sean Gasper Bye, is available now.