Ellis Island: A People's History

Ellis Island: A People's History Malgorzata Szejnert
Original publisher Znak (Poland), 2009
Publisher (UK) Scribe (World English), October 2020


‘To me Malgorzata Szejnert embodies the image of Poland … She has grace, a gentle tone, and a serene gaze.’ – Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature and author of Secondhand Time


Whilst living in New York, journalist Malgorzata Szejnert would often gaze out from lower Manhattan at Ellis Island, a dark outline on the horizon. How many stories did this tiny patch of land hold? How many people had joyfully embarked on a new life there — or known the despair of being turned away? How many were held there against their will? In this landmark work of history, she brings the voices of the past vividly to life, transforming our understanding of the immigrant experience.

Ellis Island draws on unpublished testimonies, memoirs, and correspondence from internees and immigrants, including Russians, Italians, Jews, Japanese, Germans, and Poles, along with commissioners, interpreters, doctors, and nurses — all of whom knew they were taking part in a tremendous historical phenomenon.

It tells the many stories of the island, from Annie Moore, the Irishwoman who was the first to be processed there, to the diaries of Fiorello La Guardia, who worked at the station before going on to become one of New York City’s greatest mayors, to the ordeal the island went through during the 9/11 attacks.

Far from the open-door policy of myth, we see that deportations from Ellis Island were often based on pseudo-scientific ideas about race, gender, and disability. Sometimes, families were broken up, and new arrivals were held in detention at the Island for days, weeks, or months under quarantine. Indeed, the island compound has spent longer as an internment camp than as a migration station.

Today, the island is no less political. In popular culture, it is a romantic symbol of the generations of immigrants that reshaped the United States. But its true history reveals that today’s immigration debate has deep roots. Now a master storyteller brings its past to life, illustrated with unique archival photographs.



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