|I Was Dreaming of Coming to America
“My first impressions of the new world will always remain etched in my memory, particularly that hazy October morning when I first saw Ellis Island. The steamer Florida, 14 days out of Naples, filled to capacity with 1,600 natives of Italy, had weathered one of the worst storms in our captain’s memory. Glad we were, both children and grown-ups, to leave the open sea and come at last through the narrow into the bay. My mother, my stepfather, my brother Giuseppe, and my two sisters, Liberta and Helvetia, all of us together, happy that we had come through the storm safely, clustered on the foredeck for fear of separation and looked with wonder on this miraculous land of our dreams.”
Arrived in 1907 – age 10
Edward Corsi’s father died in 1903, shortly after being elected the Tuscan representative to the Italian Parliament. Four years later, Corsi’s mother remarried, and the family moved to America. His association with Ellis Island did not end there, however. In 1931, Mr. Corsi was appointed commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island, a position he held until 1934, when he became the director of relief in New York City under Mayor LaGuardia.
“I feel like I had two lives. You plant something in the ground, it has its roots, and then you transplant it where it stays permanently. That’s what happened to me. You put an end. And forget about your childhood; I became a man here. All of a sudden, I started life new, amongst people whose language I didn’t understand…[It was a] different life; everything was different… but I never despaired, I was optimistic, and this is the only country where you’re not a stranger, because we are all strangers. It’s only a matter of time who got here first.”
Arrived in 1920 – age 16
Lazarus Salaman was born in the Transylvania section of Hungary in 1904. He had a hard childhood; Romanian soldiers came and took his father away, and his mother died soon after. In 1920, Lazarus, his brother, and one of his sisters traveled to America aboard the Zeeland. They settled in the Yorkville section of Manhattan and Lazarus eventually became a salesman. He married in 1929.
“Coming to America had meaning. I was a kid of seven and in contrast to what I had gone through, Ellis Island was like not a haven but a heaven. I don’t remember any fright when I got to Ellis Island. My father’s dream and prayer was ‘I must get my family to America’…America was paradise, the streets were covered with gold. And when we arrived here, and when we landed form Ellis Island and [went} to Buffalo, it was as if God’s great promise had been fulfilled that we would eventually find freedom”
Arrived in 1922 – age 7
Born in Turkey to a minister of the Armenian Evangelical Church, Vartan lived in an area were Armenians were subject to harsh political and religious persecution, and in 1922, he and his family escaped to America via Smyrna and Greece. Upon arriving in America, the Hartunian family was detained on Ellis Island for 12 days while a medical condition affecting the parents’ eyes was cleared up. In addition, the quota of Syrians admitted to the US that year had already been filled. After a 12 day waiting period, Vartan’s mother was admitted because of her profession, teaching. The family spent a few months in Buffalo before settling in Philadelphia. Vartan graduated from Swarthmore College with honors and became a minister like his father.
“Most dear to me are the shoes my mother wore when she first set foot on the soil of America… she landed in America in those shoes and somehow or the other she felt that she was going to hang on to them. They are brown high-top shoes that had been soled and resoled and stitched and mended in Sweden to hold them together till she could get to America. We just kept them. And then… as I grew up and everything, I said, ‘don’t throw them away.’”
Brigetta Headman Fichter
Arrived in 1924 – age 6
In 1924, at the age of 6, Brigitta came to America with her family. They spend one night on Ellis Island and, after a brief stay in Vermont, settled in New Jersey. Brigitta married Leslie Fichter in 1938, and they had one son. She eventually became a real-estate agent in New Jersey. Her mother’s shoes and other family heirlooms are on permanent display at the Ellis Island immigration museum.
“There is just so much confusion… We had interpreters and most of them were the Traveler’s Aid. Let me tell you, they’re wonderful. They helped us in every way they could and reassured us, which we needed very badly. Especially, like when we were getting off of Ellis Island, we had all sorts of tags on us – now that I think of it, we must have looked like marked-down merchandise in Gimbel’s basement store or something. ‘Where are you going, who’s waiting for you?’ and all that and then we were put in groups and our group was going to the Erie Railroad station in Jersey City.”
Arrived in 1920 – age 10
Ann Vida was born in a little village in northern Hungary. In 1921, when Ann was 10 years old, she and her mother traveled to America to join her father who was already employed as a steelworker in Ohio. Ann married in 1930 and became a US citizen in 1940.
“The language was a problem of course, but it was overcome by the use of interpreters. We had interpreters on the island who spoke practically every language. It would happen sometimes that these interpreters – some of them- were really softhearted people and hated to see people being deported and they would, at times, help the aliens by interpreting in such a manner as to benefit the alien and not the government. Unless you saw it, you couldn’t visualize the misery of these people who come to the United States from Europe… they were tired, they had gone through an awful lot of hardships. It’s impossible for anyone who had not gone through the experience to imagine what it was.”
Inspector, Ellis Island
Arrived in 1906 – age 12
Edward Ferro was born in Sicily in 1894. At the age of 12 he immigrated to America with his mother and five brothers and sisters to join his father, a physician who had come to New York six months earlier. Edward graduated form Columbia University in 1914, and became a pharmacist. After serving in the air force during WWI, he decided that he no longer wanted to work in a pharmacy. He passed the Immigration and Naturalization Services examination for interpreter, and was appointed an interpreter on Ellis Island in 1920.
“I never saw such a big building [Ellis Island] – the size of it. I think the size of it got to me. According to the houses I left in my town, this was like a whole city in one, in one building. It was an enormous thing to see, I tell you. I almost felt smaller than I am to see that beautiful [building], it looked beautiful. My basket, my little basket, that’s all I had with me. There was hardly any things. My mother gave me the sorrah [kind of sandwich], and I had one change of clothes. That’s what I brought from Europe.”
Arrived in 1914 – age 12
Celia Adler came to the United States from Russia alone, with only a small basket of food and clothing that her mother had packed for her. After staying with her sister in New Jersey for a while, she settled in New York City where she worked as a dressmaker. She eventually married and in the mid-1940’s became a US citizen.
“When I was about 10 years old I said, ‘I have to go to America.’ Because my uncles were here already, and it kind of got me that I wanted to go to America, too… I was dreaming about it. I was writing to my uncles, I said I wish one day I’ll be in America, I was dreaming to come to America…. And I was dreaming, and my dream come true. When I came here, I was in a different world. It was so peaceful. It was quiet. You were not afraid to go out in the middle of the night… I’m free. I’m just like a bird. You can fly and land on any tree and you are free.”
Arrived in 1920 – age 20
Helen Cohen was born in 1900 to a tailor and his wife in the town of Susnowiec, Poland. The family owned a general store but lost it during WWI. Helen’s uncles were already in the US, and when Helen was 20 she and her father and youngest brother come to America to join them. They spend 10 days on Ellis Island and heard the celebrated opera singer Enrico Caruso perform there on Christmas Eve. The family settled in Washington, DC where Ms Cohen worked as a salesperson in a hat store. In 1923 she married a man from Russia and they had twin girls in 1925. At the age of 25, Ms Cohen became a US citizen.
“My father, who had by now moved form New York to Milwaukee, was barely making a living. He wrote back that he hoped to get a job working on the railway and soon he would have enough money for our tickets… I can remember only the hustle and bustle of those last weeks in Pinsk, the farewells from the family, the embraces and the tears. Going to America then was almost like going to the moon… We were all bound for places about which we knew nothing at all and for a country that was totally strange to us.”
Arrived in 1 906 – age 8
Golda Meir was born in Kiev, Russia in 1898. She came to America with her mother and 2 sisters to meet her father in Milwaukee. In 1921, Ms Meir emigrated to Palestine and was instrumental in establishing the state of Israel in 1948. She was elected to the Knesset in 1949 and became Israel’s foreign minister in 1956. Ten years later, she was elected general secretary of the Mapai party, and became prime minister in 1969, a position she held until her retirement in 1974.
“It was quite a large embarkation, but it was crowded with immigrants, especially the third class – the so-called steerage class – it was very crowded. But we managed [the] time between meals was spent on the deck if the weather was good. In the evening there was usually dancing and music. Some immigrant would always come out with a harmonica or some musical instrument and the dance would follow. And during the day, of course, there were always acquaintances to be made, discussions about America, the conditions in America, and preparation for life in America. Right among the people themselves, I circulated around quite a bit, I know a few words in English, in French, and in German already at that time, so I was able to understand some of the talk, even from the sailors.”
Arrived in 1920 – age 16
Paul’s father, a cheese maker, came to the US in 1913, after his business failed. Paul, his mother, brother and two sisters were not able to join him until after WWI. They were detained on Ellis Island for two and a half days until Paul’s father came and claimed them. Paul was married in 1926.