Ellis Island/NY: Arrival Camp for Immigrants | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 29.10.2001
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Culture

Ellis Island/NY: Arrival Camp for Immigrants

After months at sea, poor immigrants climbed off their respective vessels and set foot on the Island of Tears and Hope.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island

It was built on a small island not far from the Statue of Liberty called Ellis Island. Some twelve million people from Europe arrived on Ellis Island, out of which one million were Germans.

Ellis Island

Ellis Island

Today, Ellis Island houses an immigration museum and a center for genealogical research. Tourists arrive on Ellis Island much the same way the immigrants did between 1892 and 1954: aboard small boats and ships. After crossing the seas aboard an ocean steamer, the poorer immigrants who had travelled in third class would be shipped off to Ellis Island, clutching the bundles that were their only belongings. The more fortunate wealthier people, who had crossed the ocean in first or second class, were allowed to go ashore at the harbor's overseas wharf.

On Ellis Island, the newcomers first entered a brick building with four impregnable towers. The huge arrival hall could accommodate up to 5.000 people. The immigrants had to wait in line to have their papers inspected and for a quick medical examination. Vincent Dipietro from the Ellis Island Museum explains, "As immigrants arrived into the building, they would climb a staircase to this hall: the great hall, the registry-room and this is where doctors from the United States public health service would give them their medical examination - a very quick look from head to toe. It actually took only about six seconds per person. They called it the 'Six-second-physical'."

Ellis Island

Ellis Island

Immigrants who had contagious diseases or who were too weak to work were simply sent back to their native countries. Sick children over the age of twelve were sent back on their own. In such cases, the parents had to decide whether they should return with their children, or whether one of them should remain in America - a tough choice for people who had often spent their entire fortune on the crossing. Such dramatic incidents soon gave Ellis Island its nickname: "Island of Tears".

"Many people did cry here - especially because they were worried about what would happen to them. But for most it would be an island of hope because it completed the immigrants' dream of being allowed to enter the United States. 98 percent of all the immigrants who arrived here at Ellis Island for inspection were able to pass through and remain in the United States," continues Dipietro.

Passenger lists of the immigrant ships lay untouched for generations in the Ellis Island archives. Meanwhile, these records have been scanned and stored on computers. At the American Family Immigration History Center, which opened in April, descendants of the immigrants can now use these computers to track down their families.

"I am searching for my grandparents," says Helga Mahlmann from Oakland California. "They came from Hamburg and Berlin to America, roughly between 1890 and 1920. I'm trying to find their ship and indicators that would tell me where they arrived."

At one of the computers screens, Helga Mahlmann scrutinizes the 50 immigrants named Mahlmann. However, none seem to fit the bill, given their age and port of arrival. "It is possible that the name was not spelled correctly. There are names here that are spelled 'Mehl' instead of 'Mahl'", Helga Mahlmann explains. "Look here, yes, here it is, Karl Mehlmann!", she says, surprised: The computer shows a Karl Mehlmann from Hamburg, who embarked on his voyage in 1908 in Bremerhaven. "That must have been my grandfather. I've finally found him now," Helga Mahlmann says delighted. She will have a copy of the original passenger list made and hang it framed on her living room wall. Helga Mahlmann was born in America, but always spoke German with her parents at home. She has also taught the language to her children.

Today, some 6000 tourists visit Ellis Island every day. That's more people than the number of immigrants who passed through these halls during the peak days of immigration. About a quarter of all Americans are descended from German immigrants.

In 1954, the transit camp for immigrants at Ellis Island was cllllloosed because the flood of immigrants had receded. Most of those who still came, no longer came by ship, but by airplane. It was only in 1990 that the restored buildings on the "Island of Tears and Hope" were reopened, however this time as a museum. These days the island's visitors are not desperate immigrants, but tourists and Americans tracing the roots of their immigrant forefathers.

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