Coming to America

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium

I was scared to death … In Europe at the time the reputation of Ellis Island was terrible; that it’s a dungeon and they beat people up. It was a horror even to hear the name.
I remember a woman, a matron, in a white robe with a big bunch of keys at her side coming toward me, and I was trembling … And this matron suddenly said, “Are you hungry?”
I said, “Yes, I am.”
“The cafeteria is closed, but I can get you something.”
I said to myself, “This is Ellis Island? They are so nice.”
“Eat whatever you want.” And I did …

The matron came back and guided me to a room where there were other women sleeping. She lifted up the cover of the bed and she looked at the sheet and said, “That’s not clean.” She changed the sheets and said, “Would you like to have a shower? We have hot water.” She showed me the bathroom. I had a shower. It was unbelievable. Where was this horrible Ellis Island?
» interview with Ellis Island immigrant Catherine Timar Donath Adler

The Ellis Island Oral History Program, begun in 1973, has collected some 2,000 oral histories. The words of immigrants such as Adler—born in Budapest, Hungary, and age 33 when she arrived in 1948 on the ship Normandie—help you understand your ancestors’ experiences. You may even discover a relative participated. Several resources document these accounts:

The Ellis Island Oral Histories, 1892-1976, database at subscription site includes information about the immigrant and lets you listen to the interview.
Books containing transcripts and excerpts of interviews include Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words by Peter M. Coan (Facts on File); Toward a Better Life: America’s New Immigrants in Their Own Words—from Ellis Island to the Present by Peter M. Coan (Prometheus Books); and Island of Hope, Island of Tears: The Story of Those Who Entered the New World through Ellis Island—In Their Own Words by David M. Brownstone, Irene M. Franck and Douglass Brownstone (MetroBooks).

Original recordings and transcripts are available at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum, which is still collecting firsthand memories.
From the May/June 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine