Ellis Island in New York Harbor was the gateway through which 12 million immigrants entered the United States between 1892 and 1954.
Friday, November 12, marked 50 years from the day the Island was closed as a portal for newcomers to the United States. An innovative program run by the Board of Jewish Education of Greater Washington, aims to help young people understand the experience of the immigrants who came through Ellis Island at the beginning of the last century.
The program is called “The Immigrant in Each of Us”. Every sixth-grader that attends Hebrew Sunday school in the Washington area is asked to identify an immigrant relative and find out as much as they can about how, and why, this person came to America.
“We had to research an ancestor that traveled from Europe or Russia or somewhere to Ellis Island or another port on the U.S. coast," says participant Eliana Eitches. "And to prepare for it we had to figure out everything about them - what they did, and how much money they brought with them, and what else did they bring besides money, and why did they come, and did they have a job waiting for them, and stuff.”
Eliana Eitches, 11, was one of the 400 or so Hebrew School sixth-graders who gathered at a fairground outside Washington one sunny Sunday to re-enact their immigrant ancestor's arrival at Ellis Island in the year 1910. The kids dressed in clothes that might have been worn by immigrants of the time, carried bundles, and for one day assumed the identity of their relatives from long ago.
"I'm Hyman Braverman, and I'm running from the czarist army because I blew up a barrack," says a participant. "It was me and my brother. We're going to New York. We have cousins in New York. And the czarist army won't even try to come, ‘cause they have no clue where we are."
Each child was issued a passport - the facsimile of an actual 1910 identity card printed in English, Russian, German and French. Each received a small bundle of paper rubles, the Russian currency of the time. The new immigrants also received a newspaper called Der Yiddisher Emigrant, with copies of articles that actually appeared in a newspaper of that name in the early 1900s. Among the articles was one, for instance, with the headline "Warning to Young Ladies. Beware of any person who gives addresses, offers you easy, well paid work, or even marriage. There are many evil men and women who have in this way led girls to destruction."
The first hurdle the sixth-graders encountered as new immigrants at Ellis Island was a medical inspection. To show how confusing these first contacts must have been for the new arrivals, the doctors - in actual fact, teachers or parent volunteers - spoke gruffly and in languages the kids didn't understand. In this case it was German.
"Say 'ahh. Say ahhhh. Stick you tongue out. Speak English," the 'medical doctors' say to the would be immigrants. "What is your name? Your name? In America we all speak English, ja?"
After passing the medical inspection, the children were directed to a table where they could exchange their rubles for make-believe American dollars. Eliana Eitches saw this as an opportunity for unscrupulous people to take advantage of the new immigrants.
They obviously would have been cheated out of their money, because they wouldn't know the currency, like somebody might have given them, like, bottle caps, and they wouldn't know, because it just might be American currency for them.
With American 'money' in their hands, the young immigrants bought train tickets to take them to their destination outside of New York. As the kids crowded around the ticket counter, the 'ticket sellers' were brusque and impatient. "Could you people who don't know our country, please take a step back," they shout to the children. "We wait in lines here. Where you going? Then go, go. Come on, come on, next in line, next, next, next."
Having completed the formalities of arrival in a new land, the 'immigrants' exited the port of New York to the welcoming strains of familiar old world music.
The simulation of the immigrant experience didn't end there, however. Years pass, and the next event awaiting the immigrants is naturalization as American citizens. The children sat on folding chairs in rows to simulate a courtroom, facing a lectern flanked by two American flags. The swearing-in ceremony was designed to be as authentic as possible.
“Oyez, oyez, oyez, all rise for the honorable Judge Jonathan Habert, presiding for the Circuit Court of New York. All be seated," the clerk shouts to the 'immigrants.'
The judge arrived addresses the crowd. “I'm very proud of the accomplishments that you have made since arriving in America. When you first arrived in this country you didn't know the language, the customs, or even how you would be earning a living. All you had were your dreams and determination that your lives, and the lives of your family, would be better here in America than what you left behind,” he told them.
The judge administered the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America, and led the group of newly-minted American citizens in singing God Bless America.
As part of the “Immigrant in Each of Us” program, later in the year, the Washington-area Hebrew School sixth-graders are taken on a field trip to New York to visit the real Ellis Island - now a museum of immigration and a popular tourist destination.