The Last Guardian of Ellis Island
by Gaëlle Josse
Translated by Carrina LaCorata
Ellis Island, November 3, 1954
10 o’clock, this morning.
Everything arrived by sea. By sea on those two boats that docked here one day. To me they never left, it is the depths of my flesh and soul they rammed with their anchors and grapnels. Everything I thought I’d acquired was reduced to ashes. In a few days, I’ll be finished with this island that consumed my life. Finished with this island on which I’m the last guardian and the last prisoner. Finished with this island, though I know almost nothing of the rest of the world. I’m only taking two suitcases and a few shoddy pieces of furniture. Trunks of memories. My life.
There are nine days left, not one more, before the men of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services come to officially close down the Ellis Island station. They informed me that they’d arrive early, very early, next Friday, November 12th. Together we’ll survey the island and proceed to the site assessment. I’ll return all the keys — doors, gates, warehouses, storage rooms, offices — and go back with them to Manhattan.
The time will then come for me to carry out the last formalities in one of these glass and steel buildings whose windows, from afar, resemble a beehive’s innumerable alveoli, a grey and upright beehive, a place I must have set foot in only a dozen times over all these years, and finally I’ll be free. Anyway this is what they’re going to tell me, with that mix of pity and envy shown to a colleague who, on a particular day, at a given hour, is no longer part of the group, no longer shares anything of what had constituted over time, year after year, a sort of collective life, made up of preoccupations with more or less common objectives. He leaves the pack, like an old animal goes off to die alone, and the group continues on without him. A somber ceremony usually marks this passage. Formulaic speeches, mentions of shared feats of arms, beer, whiskey, slaps on the back, promises of future gatherings everyone feels obligated to make and forget about immediately, and the one being celebrated goes back home, stumbling, equipped with a fishing rod or a tool kit. I’d rather avoid that. A little Brooklyn apartment I inherited from my parents awaits me in Williamsburg. Three cramped rooms filled with all their furniture that I never used, their whole life embedded within those walls — photos, trinkets, china. To be honest, I’m dreading going back there. My own memories are enough without having to deal with theirs, but that’s where I was born; I don’t have any other place to go, and I don’t think it matters at this point.
Nine more days to roam the empty hallways, the closed-down floors, the deserted staircases, the kitchens, the infirmary, the big hall where for a long time only my footsteps have echoed.
Nine days and nine nights before being returned to the solid ground of the continent, to real life. To nothingness, in other words, as far as I’m concerned. What do I know of real life? Mine is already obscure enough to me, like a book one believes is familiar and suddenly discovers is written in a foreign language. I’m left with this surprising urge to write — I don’t know for whom, sitting at this desk that’s become useless, among the cardboard files, the pencils, the rulers and the stamps — all that that has been my story. A story that, for a few dozen years, was in large part fused with Ellis’, but what I’d like to recount here is my personal story, as difficult as it may be. I think historians will take care of the rest.
Here I’m surrounded by grey, water, cement, and brick. I have barely known any landscape other than the Hudson, with its vista of sky-scrapers that I’ve watched stretch out over the years, stand up, become entangled, pile up to form this rigid jungle and towering immutability that we know today. With the bustling of boats and ferries in the bay at their feet, and the Statue of Liberty, or Miss Liberty, as the European immigrants sometimes called her on first sight, standing on her stone pedestal, in her grey-green robe, in full majesty, with a firm expression and wide-open arms above the water.
No matter the season, the water stays grey as if the sun never succeeded in illuminating its depths, as if an opaque material hidden under the surface kept the sun from plunging in and varying its reflections. Only the sky changes. I know all of its nuances, from the most ardent blue to the most muted purple, and all the shapes of clouds, frayed, puffed or dappled, that give each day its character.
Today, I’m only left in charge of walls. The grass and the plants, carried by wind or birds, grow freely. It wouldn’t take much to form this into a large park, a fallow park at sea level, watched over from afar by a triumphant Liberty firmly pegged to her rock. I sometimes feel that the entire universe has shrunk for me to the size of this island. This island of hope and tears. The place of miracles, at once destructive and rejuvenating, which kept transforming the Irish farmer, the Calabrese shepherd, the German laborer, the Polish rabbi or the Hungarian worker into an American citizen after skinning them of their nationality. It seems to me like they’re all still here — a crowd of ghosts floating around me.
An inexplicable need forces me to look into a past I thought I could forget. In vain. In a few days I’ll be one of those anonymous retirees, simply dressed, living on an ordinary street in a lower middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn, in an apartment that’s like thousands of others, a man taking the bus, greeting his neighbors, feeding his cat and doing his grocery shopping at the local store. I know it’ll only be a façade, quite deceiving. No kids, no parents left, no family. Nothing but memories. Heavy ones. They twist and turn relentlessly, as if all the phantoms of my life woke up as soon as they knew I was leaving and will only be at peace once their story is told.
5 o’clock, this afternoon.
So many images come to me and overwhelm me to the point of dizziness. Perhaps I’ll escape the past if I can free myself of it through these pages. They bear the seal of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services. Ellis Island station. Director. All of this is laughable. I only try to hold back the phantoms that appeared at the foot of my bed and seem determined to stay. Nine days. Nine nights. Will I have the time to say everything?
Yes, everything arrived by sea, by those boats filled with destitute masses packed like cattle in the ship’s filthy steerage from which they’d emerge, stunned, numb, and unsteady, to meet their hopes and dreams. I can see them again now. All languages are spoken here. It is a new Babel, but truncated, leveled, halted in its momentum and fastened to the ground. A Babel after its obliteration by the God of Genesis, a Babel of desolation, of everyone’s dispersion and return to their original language.
I was eventually able to distinguish the different sounds of all these languages, to no longer confuse them, and notice common behaviors among people from the same country, even the same region. Not everyone experiences fear the same way; anguish comes across as much through words as through silence.
There is fear and expectation in their eyes, and also the anguish of saying something, of committing an act that would prohibit them from ever entering this paradise, without even knowing what is expected of them. So, to disembark, most of them have put on their most presentable attire in order to face the inspection that awaits them. Impeccable white shirts for the men — one wonders how the shirts were kept in that state after two to three weeks at sea in such sordid conditions; long skirts, fitted jackets and light-colored blouses for the women. They arrive in the outfits that are a source of pride back home and cause us to measure the distance between their worlds and ours here. Loose, belted coats, embroidered vests, fur hats, long, black caftans, tweed caps, scarves over their hair or cascades of beaded necklaces made of colored glass or coral. All worlds meet, and America is the only word they have in common.
The first test takes place without them knowing, and it’s the most deciding moment — a Golgotha they don’t suspect, the last stage of a Stations of the Cross where they will eventually be saved, or lost. A long two-flight staircase they must climb after they’ve dropped their bags. How many exhausted women have I heard moan in finding this staircase standing before them. Prego, aspetti, Signore, ein Moment, bitte…The men take the youngest children in their arms, many are asleep with their cheek pressed against their father’s shoulder, the mothers follow, out of breath, lifting the bottom of their skirts to keep from tripping.
During this ascent several health officers observe them from their positions at the top of the staircase, leaning on the railing, with what seemed like indifference to these crowds in great poverty. A few seconds, they say, no more than six on average, to seal the fate of the passengers. Nothing escapes their practiced, professional gaze. With a piece of chalk in hand, they mark the clothing of some with a symbol.
These different alphabet letters drawn on the jacket or coat correspond to a particular pathology, rapidly identified, or very likely. L for lungs, B for back, E for eyes, H for heart, G for goiter… These passengers are immediately taken away for a complimentary medical examination, which will allow the officers to decide what outcome to give to this diagnosis. On-site treatment, unproven pathology, benign pathology, or definitive refusal to enter the territory.
Those who’ve passed this stage without incident reach the large room equipped with long wooden benches that streak the space in parallels, where they join the hundreds of other waiting passengers. They will then be asked twenty-nine questions. Their future depends on their answers. Sit down, we will call you.
Other employees of the station make them come up one by one. Sit down, once again. A few minutes to answer this questionnaire, with the help of an interpreter. What is your final destination? Who paid for your trip? Do you have fifty dollars? Are you meeting up with family? What are their names and addresses? Have you ever been imprisoned or committed for mental problems, or stayed in charity institutions? Are you polygamous? Are you an anarchist? Do you have an offer, a promise, or a contract for work? What is your state of health? Do you have a handicap or an illness? What is your height? The color of your skin, your eyes?
The travelers who met the Sphinx on the road to Thebes were not subjected to so many questions! And if the immigrants whose answers were not satisfying were neither cut up alive nor devoured by the winged monster with the body of a lion, the fate that awaited them wasn’t much better. It is the twenty-ninth question that led them to Gehenna or Paradise, like in the game of dice children like, where you have to avoid certain squares on a path drawn on colored cardboard, at risk of having to move backwards or pass your turn several times, or find yourself being sent to jail or fall to the bottom of a well. Here, the sanction is cruel, and there is only one. The worst that can be inflicted on them. The door to America remains closed to them.
These are only memories now. The flow of immigrants has dried up for a long time, and a boat docking here has become a rare event. In front of my eyes, these images of the past still move – so present, so real. The steam boats succeeding each other to the pontoons, the thousands of passengers arriving, sometimes in one single day, their ways of dressing, speaking, introducing themselves — changing little by little over the years. They form the submissive, anxious lines that need to be moved along, rushed, guided, informed, examined. Are you worthy of becoming one of us? What’s the gain, what’s the risk in welcoming you? What do you have to offer us? Some years, the station was busy day and night to deal with those who arrived. I can see the employees again, our doctors, the nurses, exhausted and dazed, in front of these flows of men and women even more exhausted than them, and risking much more, too.
After 1924, President Hoover’s successive laws on immigration changed the order of things little by little. Fewer people to examine, different quotas for each country, and our embassies responsible for the preliminary investigations for each application. Those who boarded a ship were, in principle, sure not to be turned away upon arrival. Our role decreased. We became only the final agents of a vast net intended to stop those who’d managed to escape the controls or bypass the procedures.
I didn’t have direct contact, or rarely, with those who arrived here, worn out, exhausted, having left everything behind, with the only hope of a new life still holding them up. You’d see crowds of workers, interpreters, inspectors, and surveyors, besides health personnel. I was responsible for making sure everything worked, from the dormitories to the kitchens, the infirmary to the money exchange counter, the toilets to the confinement quarters. Because here you sleep, eat, wash yourself, take dumps, cry, wait, talk, hug each other, try to calm the children who whimper and wonder where they are, try not to think too much, sigh, and hope.
For forty-five years — I’ve had time to count them — I saw these men, these women, these children pass, dignified and disoriented in their most presentable clothes, their sweat, their fatigue, their lost gaze, trying to understand a language they didn’t know, with their dreams placed here, among their luggage. Trunks, canteens, baskets, suitcases, bags, rugs, blankets, and inside these all that remained from their earlier life, a life that they’d left behind, and that they had, in order not to forget it, to save in a locked place at the very bottom of their hearts, so as not to give way to the heartbreaks of separations, the pain of remembering the faces they will never see again. They had to move forward, adjust to a new life, another language, other gestures, other habits, other foods, another climate. To learn. To learn quickly and not look back. I don’t know if most of them have achieved their dream, or if they were brutally thrown into an everyday life that was barely better than the one they had fled. Too late to think about it. Their exile is with no return.