A dramatic, multi-vocal account of the personal agonies and ecstasies that played out within the walls of Ellis Island, as told by Poland’s greatest living journalist
This is the people’s history of Ellis Island—the people who passed through it, and the people who were turned away from it.
From Annie Moore, the Irishwoman who was the first to be processed there, to Arne Peterssen, the Norwegian who was the last to be taken away from the island via the official ferry boat in 1954, Ellis Island weaves together the personal experiences of forgotten individuals with those who live on in history: Fiorello La Guardia, Lee Iacocca, and other American leaders whose paths led them to the Island for various reasons through the years.
Award-winning journalist Malgorzata Szejnert draws on unpublished testimonies, memoirs, archival photographs, and correspondence from many internees and immigrants, including Russians, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Germans, and Poles. At the book’s core is a trove of personal letters from immigrants to their loved ones back home—letters which were confiscated and never delivered, finally discovered in a basement in Warsaw.
But also brought to life are the Ellis Island employees: the doctors, nurses, commissioners, interpreters, social care workers, and even chaperones, who controlled the fates of these émigrés—often basing their decisions on pseudo-scientific ideas about race, gender, and disability. Sometimes families were broken up, and new arrivals were detained and quarantined for days, weeks, or even months.
All told, the island compound spent longer as an internment camp than as a migration way-point—in addition to filling other roles through the years, including that of rescue station in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Now brought back to life by a master storyteller, this is a story of a place and its people, steeped in politics and history, that reshaped the United States.
“This ‘people’s history’ comprises intimate views of Ellis Island both from immigrants and from staff, including doctors, social workers, commissioners, and interpreters (among them the future mayor Fiorello LaGuardia). Policies were shaped by anti-Semitism, fear of Communism, and xenophobia, and monthly immigration quotas in the twenties led to ‘a peculiar type of boat race’ in New York Harbor, as ships rushed to deliver their passengers. Szejnert also records the idealism and the compassion of those employed there — such as the social worker who gave new arrivals stylish American clothing — many of whom were immigrants themselves.”
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“As Szejnert shows, it would be difficult to find a scrap of land that better revealed the moral state of the Northern hemisphere during the first half of the 20th century than Ellis Island … a pleasurable read for anyone wanting to know more about those who immigrated to the United States and those who, because of prejudice or sheer bad luck, never made it”
LA Review of Books
“Making extensive use of primary documents, including letters written by immigrants to family in the old country, the author captures the mingled hope and fear experienced as people entered the massive main building…Szejnert does not scant the fear of ‘degraded, backward’ people ‘unfit to join into American life’ that culminated in the 1924 law that basically slammed the door on Italian and Jewish immigration. But her emphasis is on the immigrants’ fortitude and resilience and the empathetic assistance of Ellis Island personnel—many themselves immigrants…Warmly human and extremely moving—a welcome addition to the Ellis Island literature.” STARRED REVIEW
“With fine-grained details and fluid writing, Szejnert humanizes the immigrant experience in late 19th- and early 20th-century America.”
“In addition to filling a gap in American history, [Ellis Island] gives attention to a female journalist in the male-dominated genre of Polish reportage. Anyone looking to learn more about the history of immigration in the United States will enjoy this intimate portrayal of American history.”
“[A] giant account of testimonies, memoirs, photographs, and letters that bring to life all of the varied experiences of arguably the most famous landmark of immigration in the world.”
“Drawing on a huge archive of previously unpublished correspondence and recordings, a Polish journalist and outstanding storyteller brings alive the experiences of immigrants who ended up at Ellis Island as well as the wide range of employees who dealt with them. It’s a story that is still relevant today.”
Matt Witt, World Wide Work
“A feat of historical documentation, Ellis Island tells the story of this fabled strip of land through the experiences of the people who sought a new life in America. A prescient and thought-provoking book about hope, despair and what it means to find yourself in a new world.”
Dan Shaw, Happy Magazine
“Excellent … Ellis Island’s real achievement lies in recreating not just what it was like but what it felt like to be there. It is, in its understated way, quite remarkable.”
“[Ellis Island] is a fascinating catalogue of the wonderful array of characters and broad spectrum of humanity which passed through the island’s buildings.”
Miles Kemp, The Advertiser, starred review
“A vibrant addition to the sizable bibliography in English [on Ellis Island] … Drawing freely on letters, diaries, photographs and oral histories, most of the book recounts what Ellis Island was like for immigrants and government employees. Some of the most poignant passages draw from hundreds of letters sent back home — when Poland was absorbed into Russia — by Polish immigrants … Though Szejnert’s book first appeared in 2009, its translation now is a reminder that the United States need not be defined only by a border wall.”
Steven G. Kellman, Forward
“[Szejnert] provides a plethora of raw data, including nationality quotas, how many people arrived on ships, the date when commissioners left their post — but her primary mode of storytelling is encouraging her audience to read between the lines, and her book does much in the service of contextualising immigration to the US as fraught with discriminatory snap judgments on the merits of arriving individuals’ human value, rather than a triumphant articulation of American values, with a welcome mat in New York harbour.”
J. Howard Rosier, The Nation
“Szejnert has a style distinguished by pithy realism, deft plotting via recurring details and motifs … Szejnert’s Ellis Island leads us down as many surprising, sobering paths as the corridors connecting almost all of the buildings on the island … Guided by a keenly perceptive, curious foreigner, we emerge from her reportage with vivid, individualised memories of newcomers’ hardships endured, nativist fears aroused, official injustices carried, and the wide range of goodwill efforts invested in the processing and treatment of the more than sixteen million people who risked everything to resettle in the United States.”
Beth Holmgren, The Women's Review of Books
“An almost poetic, deeply evocative social history of the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island en route to the USA, and the officials and officialdom that met them. This timely book about immigrant experience has huge resonance and impact. A fabulous translation too.”
Judges’ comments from the HWA Non-Fiction Crown shortlist 2021