Ellis Island

It’s hard to believe that it’s been two full years since I stood on the shores of Ellis Island. That visit itself was long overdue. The site had been on my New York City bucket list since high school, but for one reason or another, I never seemed to be able to make it out there during my visits to the Big Apple.

Ellis Island buildings and ferry, early 1900s.

Finally, in March 2011, I managed to get myself and three accomplices onto the ferry and out to Ellis Island. We’d had to hop between various modes of transit – car to the train station, train into NYC, subway down to the harbor, a long line for tickets, and finally, the boat to the island. Although we’d started in the early morning, by now it was mid-afternoon. I was tired, hungry, and cranky. In other words, probably feeling a lot like the immigrants who were waiting for their first glimpse of America.

Like them, I was impatient. I wanted the journey to be over with already. After all the waiting, I just wanted to get there.

I wish I could say that there was a moment of epiphany when it was all worth it. Instead, we had less than an hour to spend at this place that had occupied my imagination for over a decade. You see, Ellis Island was the entry point my grand-grandparents had passed through on their journey to America. I had never met them; both sets had died before I was born, but Ellis Island was such an important part of their story that it became integral to my search for my own story. I was looking for my own American beginnings.

Upon arrival, I bypassed the museum (although I really wanted to go through it) and went straight to the Family Research Center. I had only two names and a rough date, and with that, I began searching.

And searching. I tried spelling variations. I tried different date ranges. I got creative with the country of origin. My forebears were of Polish and Slovakian stock, countries whose boundaries shifted considerably in the early 20th century. Would an immigration official have considered them Polish or Czechoslovakian or even Hungarian?

Despite all my efforts, I left with no more information that what I had arrived with. My great-grandparents and all the details of their arrival remained as much a mystery as ever.

This winter, I’d planned to go back to Ellis Island, but it sustained serious damage from Hurricane Sandy and wasn’t open, to my great disappointment.

I’m still searching. One day, I’ll find a name, a date, a ship’s manifest. I’ll have pieces of a story, and from those pieces, I’ll trace an online of the story of grandparents, my parents, me.

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