At age 18, my grandmother left her family, her friends and her country to come to America. Land of the free and home of the brave. She left the family farm in northern Poland, in a region that depending on the time in history was ruled by the Polish or the Russians, to find opportunity. To build a new life. To be free. It was 1908 and she left her home town in Poland and boarded a train to travel across Germany where she would then board a ship with so many others looking for the same freedom. Ultimately, she reached the shores of America and I can only imagine both her excitement and fear when she first saw Ellis Island in the distance as the ship sailed closer.
These photos were taken by me in the early 1980’s, when Ray and I visited NYC for a weekend while still living in the Boston area. At that time Ellis Island was closed to processing immigrants and in a terrible state of disrepair. However, the Park Dept. did offer boat trips from Battery Park to visit the structure. I feel so fortunate to have visited when I did. It was closed a few years later and a major restoration took place turning it into a museum, but I got to see it before the restoration when it still had the “feel” of so many….those tired, poor, struggling people yearning to breathe free.
The Door of Tears ~ Those who didn’t pass the physicals/questions were turned back and left through these doors
I still remember the excitement I felt to retrace a small part of the journey that my grandmother took 74 years earlier. As the boat drew closer and I saw Ellis Island, this beacon of hope to so many, I felt a lump in my throat. Because once again I recalled the story of my grandmother when she left Poland. I had grown up hearing this story and even as a young child, it broke my heart. As an adult, and in light of the events of this past weekend, my heart breaks all over again.
My grandmother’s older brother had left Poland a couple of years before. He had been sponsored by a Polish attorney, now living in Salem, Massachusetts. The brother rented a room in the attorney’s home, found a job and then sponsored his sister, Julia, to come. As much as she also wanted this opportunity, she was reluctant to leave her parents and younger siblings. But her mother kept encouraging her. She actually showed a lack of emotion about her daughter immigrating to a new country. She never cried. Ever. She only supported her daughter with the hope for a better life. The morning of departure arrived and Julia’s parents and siblings stood on the train platform saying their goodbyes. Julia boarded the train, found a window seat and saw her parents still on the platform waving their farewells of encouragement. The train began to move with Julia still looking back out the window. And for some reason, the train stopped momentarily. And in that moment Julia saw and felt the absolute devastation her mother was experiencing. Sobbing, she had collapsed onto the platform, screaming and crying. Julia’s father was attempting to console her. And that, that emotional scene, was to be the last time Julia ever saw her mother again. And that scene has been burned into my mind all of my life. And quite possibly, formed the compassion and empathy I have always felt for immigrants and refugees….people only wanting what I was so fortunate to be born to. My grandmother also settled in Salem, married a few years later, had five sons and one daughter, six grandchildren, and twelve great-grandchildren. She was a devout Catholic and attended daily mass at the Polish church in Salem, led a good and productive life and lived to be age 95. And despite exchanging letters, over many years, through two world wars, she never saw her parents or younger siblings again. So being an immigrant does have a price to pay. Yet, I would bet that every single one would still prefer the choice they made.
Of course we want our country to be safe! That goes without saying. However, keeping it safe cannot be accomplished in the ill-equipped way that it was last Friday. Creating chaos at airports around the world. Detaining people who had been properly vetted and held green cards. People who risked THEIR lives helping our military. And it certainly cannot be accomplished by putting our military in terrible danger. Or by inflicting more risk to this country based on the possibly unconstitutional and inexperienced manner in which this was carried out in the blink of an eye.
See you here next time……..