Rosalia’s Story Part 12: Release from Ellis Island

Continued from October 20, 2016

Excitement, combined with the cries of children and the snores of old ladies, made sleep difficult. Rosalia awoke before dawn and stared at her surroundings.

“What are you doing? That’s mine!” she shouted at a woman who was rifling through Rosalia’s carry-all. The look in the woman’s eyes let Rosalia know that this was no case of mis-identification. Life was obviously very different from that in the small village she’d left, a village where she could trust everyone.

A hurried breakfast led to even more processing. Prove that your papers are in order. Show the letter from a relative as your proof that you would be employable. Prove that you were not a contract laborer—and ask for a translation of what that meant. But mostly, prove that you aren’t dangerous. (“Stay calm. Carry no knives. Let them look in your eyes” was the advice that circulated from passenger to nervous passenger.)

*Interpreters led groups through the main doorway and directed them up a steep stairway to the Registry Room. Rosalia, like the others did not realize it but they were already taking their first test: A doctor stood at the top of the stairs watching for signs of lameness, heavy breathing that might indicate a heart condition or “bewildered gazes” that might be a sign of a mental condition. 

The doctor held a piece of chalk that he used to mark each immigrant’s sleeve or lapel with a mysterious code: B indicated possible back problems; Pg, pregnancy; Sc, a scalp infection; and so on. If an immigrant was marked, he or she continued with the process and then wa
s directed to rooms set aside for further examination.

Sometimes whole groups would be made to bathe with disinfectant solutions before being cleared—not too surprising, considering how many were unable to bathe during the crossing. Again the line moved on. The next group of doctors were the dreaded “eye men.” They were looking for symptoms of trachoma, an eye disease that caused blindness and even death. A diagnosis meant certain deportation.

Sick children age 12 or older were sent back to Europe alone and were released in the port from which they had come. Children younger than 12 had to be accompanied by a parent. There were many tearful scenes as families with a sick child decided who would go and who would stay. 

This questioning process was designed to verify the 31 items of information contained on the manifest. Since each “primary line” inspector had only about two minutes in which to decide whether each immigrant was “clearly and beyond a doubt entitled to land,” most of the immigrants received curt nods of approval and were ­allowed to pass. In total, about 20 percent of those arriving at Ellis Island were detained for medical treatment or a legal hearing; the rest were free to go after only a few hours. Only two percent of the immigrants seeking refuge in America would fail to be admitted.

Once more they huddled in another long line that led to Ellis’ Great Hall, and more questions:

“Country of origin?”

“City of destination?”

“How much money do you have?”

With a shaking hand, Rosalia showed the $25 it had taken her two years to save…above and beyond what she’d needed for passage.

“How do you spell your name?”

Unlike the passenger in the line next to her who answered “I don’t know; you decide”, Rosalia proudly spelled her name to the Polish interpreter. But her last name was misspelled and for the rest of her relatively short life, Rosalia—now Rosa—was forced to fight with three different spellings of her maiden name.


A last she heard the long-awaited words: “You’re free to go!”


Author: Judy Westergard

Retired English teacher, self-taught painter, inveterate reader and still lovin' my Kindle!

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