“The only justification for historical reportage is that it has a contemporary life too,” according to Małgorzata Szejnert in a recent interview. This “contemporary life” is today’s multinational, multicultural face of America. The country’s presiding spirit originated on Ellis Island, the place where for almost a century decisions were made on who could and who could not become an American citizen. Millions of people passed through the island as the point of entry for immigrants, and about six percent of them had to go back to their place of origin.
Although Szejnert’s inspiration for this book were letters written by Polish immigrants, they are not its main heroes; instead the leading characters are the people who received the new arrivals or, for various reasons, turned them away. Thus Key Island presents the history of successive commissioners of the island, interpreters, doctors, so-called matrons – social workers who took care of the women – and the legendary photographer Augustus Sherman. Most of the people on the staff were aware that they were taking part in events of historical importance, and so they left behind a vast amount of evidence, now collected in the library on Ellis Island. Szejnert has used these documents, among others, as her sources, and quotes from them extensively in her account. But her view of events is an original one. It is she who decides which episodes or props (such as hooks for doing up buttons) to focus on. It is she who selects the secondary and more minor characters, following not just the fates of Annie Moore, the Irish girl who was the first person to be cleared for immigration on the island, but also the history of the mildly handicapped Paula, who was conditionally accepted and then made to account for progress in her development for some years. Paula’s story features as part of the more broadly described issue of how the criteria for acceptance and ways of assessing the capability and suitability of candidate Americans were established. If someone from a large family did not fulfill the criteria, they could be separated from the rest, and thus the selection process sometimes led to enormous tragedies.
In focusing on the theme of acceptance and rejection, Szejnert makes an excellent selection from material that is hard to embrace fully. In this fairly concise book every sentence carries weight, and every element takes on the status of a symbol. However, this refinement does not burden Key Island with the solemnity typical of works on great subjects. The features that determine its high quality are the lightness of Szejnert’s style, her sense of humor and her sensitivity. Małgorzata Szejnert is more than just a reporter, she is a master of the art of reportage.
- Marta Mizuro
Małgorzata Szejnert (born 1936) is a journalist and reporter. Her book, The Black Garden, won the prestigious Cogito Mass Media Award 2008.
The first immigrants to enter the huge building with countless windows, a steeply sloping roof and pointed turrets, looking more like a seaside casino than an inspection point for poor people, feel the same thing underfoot as they have for the past few weeks on the decks of their ships – solid wooden boards. Using timber imported from North Carolina and Georgia, the floor is made of deresinated pine, and the walls are resinous, made of pine and spruce, so all the new arrivals from villages and small towns can smell the familiar scents of the forest and of home. A company called Sheridan & Byrne was meant to cover the inside walls with rustproof metal, but whether they actually did is unknown. In view of the accidents that would soon occur, it seems doubtful.
The building is four hundred feet long and one hundred and fifty feet wide. It has central heating powered by steam, it has electricity and is equipped with modern sanitation. As it says in Harpers Weekly, it can receive ten thousand immigrants a day. Later that will turn out to be an exaggeration. Five thousand a day arriving at Ellis Island is divine retribution. But even so it is probably still the biggest caravanserai in the world. From the moment he was nominated commissioner, Colonel Weber has been carefully assembling the personnel for the island. He started with a visit to Castle Garden. He went there unannounced and mixed in with the crowd. He saw terrified people being pushed around by charlatans and conmen. He made a close study of the immigration service and established contact with a man who inspired his confidence. Soon he had three lists. Good: the honest employees; indifferent: employees of whose moral qualifications not much was known; and bad: employees who should not be entrusted with duties on Ellis Island. …
One of the employees on the good list at Castle Garden is Peter McDonald. For twenty years he has taken care of the luggage. He can tell at first glance which country the people are from. He knows more about their origin than his own.
At the time when a new luggage office is opened, capable of accommodating the bundles, suitcases and trunks of twelve thousand passengers, Peter Mac, as they call him here, is forty-three years old. He knows the date of his birth – 1849, but he doesn’t know where he was born – in Ireland, New York or Fall River, Massachusetts. Nor does he know if the people who brought him up were his actual parents, or friends of theirs who took on the task when his mother died.
Peter Mac the luggage attendant in his round official cap, white shirt and pants held up with suspenders (the job is a good one, and Peter has developed a bit of a belly) controls the traffic of possessions imported from various parts of the world. Some of the things he sees are obvious, and others continue to surprise him. He has grown accustomed, for example, to the fact that each nation ties the string on its bundles in a different way – and he knows which knots and loops were tied in his beloved Ireland, which in Sweden, which in Italy and which in Switzerland.
The luggage of Danes, Swedes and Norwegians is crammed the most full. According to Peter, these people take more with them than any other race: mattresses, beds, feather beds, drawers, kitchen chairs, and even if it has been explained to them that they will pay a fortune to transport it all to their destination, they’d sooner part with their lives. The suitcases of the English and French are in better condition than others and are definitely the most modern. The Greeks and Arabs have bundles as high as mountains – they gather up five hundred or six hundred pounds of all sorts of things, squash them all together and roll them up in carpets or cloths. Sometimes it takes six men to carry one such item.
Peter, who stands guard over the cases and bundles, and claims, despite the theory of probability, that he has never lost a thing, is amazed by the behavior of the Poles. In their travel documents they’re actually recorded as Russians, Austrians or Germans, but after so many years working at Castle Garden Peter Mac can distinguish the sound of various languages. So he knows that the people who talk in Polish do not like to hand in their luggage for safekeeping and lug it after them everywhere they go. They attach the greatest importance to their quilts. They quite often carry them on their heads or shoulders, holding them up with one hand, while using the other to drag along a trunk with children tied to it.
The stream of people and things is also being closely examined by Dr Victor Safford, who has been offered the job of doctor on Ellis Island. He has sailed across for an interview, but he has some extra time, so he’s watching. He is a very careful observer. He finds the scene on Ellis Island so fascinating that he’s ready to accept a far lower salary than he has at present, just to get better acquainted with this unusual place. He predicts that it will provide him with some professional challenges. And he admits to himself that he is very willing to don the outfit of an immigration service doctor, which looks like a naval officer’s uniform. Like Peter Mac, he too is struck by the fact that the immigrants refuse to part with their possessions, and as befits a surgeon, he attends to the dangerous effects of this insistence. The most minor problem occurs when the person is rammed by a wicker basket, because wicker does yield and won’t break the ribs. Worse things happen when large boxes and packages that are evidently full of metal objects chafe the person. He also has to watch out for huge bundles on the shoulders of strong Slavonic girls. These bales
look soft and fluffy, but as well as one or two quilts they probably contain a few gridirons, cast-iron kettles or pots and various other East European Lares and Penates of basic practical significance.
If the girl makes a sudden turn, anyone who has the misfortune to be close by, will feel the energy the cargo has amassed while overturning. Yet in Dr Safford’s opinion, the most malevolent of all are the smart trunks of the English that Peter Mac rates so highly – they’re not just hard, but also have metal fittings on the corners, so they inflict wounds. Victor Safford has literary talent and imagination – he sees the metal hidden in the eiderdowns and envisages the force of a blow from what looks like feathers.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones