Ellis Island – The Promise and the Hope

Was it a dream or a nightmare? Or a promise? For hundreds of thousands of prospective immigrants, the sight of the Statue of Liberty was the promise and the hope that their lives and those of their families, and in some cases entire villages, would instantly improve.

They came to America in droves to escape persecution, hunger, and disease. For many, the boat ride over the Atlantic Ocean was almost as harrowing as the conditions they were escaping. But they didn’t care, as long as they made it to the land of promise. For many others, as they were processed for diseases and other health issues in the Ellis Island medical compound, the sight of Lady Liberty only a few hundred yards away was often bitter and deeply disappointing.

I didn’t come to America on one of those ships, but both of my parents and many of my relatives did. I regret that I didn’t record their stories, but many others had similar stories that have been preserved.

Because of my direct connection with the great migration of immigrants to America, I jumped at the chance to join a small group of photographers, led by the incomparable Tony Sweet, that were given the privilege to be escorted through the halls of the decaying hospital on Ellis Island. (Coincidentally, the day we were there was the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which had caused massive destruction to the Ellis Island compound. A strong Nor’Easter hit the area while we were there, adding more than a little bit of drama and atmosphere.)

What is remarkable about the building is that it is full of life-sized photographs of many of those who passed through the very halls and rooms I was photographing. An article in the New York Times describes the effort to awaken these abandoned buildings and re-educate the public about these stories.  The Save Ellis Island Foundation had commissioned JR of France, a world-renowned artist, to head the project.  See this New York Times article for more detail and explanation of the JR project.

How ironic that this effort should be made before the current and latest immigrant crisis had grown so out of proportion that it called into question the Americanism of those of us who were immigrants ourselves or related to them. My parents came to the U.S. from Germany to escape Nazism. The parents and grandparents of my friends growing up came from Italy and Ireland. And I also know so many who have come from Central and South America, Africa, and many Asian countries.  Immigrants have always been the backbone of our economy, and sometimes went even further, becoming our leaders and our conscience.

Many years ago a giant lady was erected in the New York harbor. The words inscribed on the statue by the poet, Emma Lazarus, have never been more relevant. These captivating words, excerpts from her poem, “The New Colossus,” have inspired millions to make a new life in America.  Let us hope it inspires as many to welcome them with open arms.

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

More of Gary’s photos of Ellis Island can be viewed on his website.