Ellis Island is more of a tourist drop these days, standing at times in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. The hope that this island port-of-entry offered cannot be overestimated. Despite the many humiliations, ranging from misspelled or just plain wrong names, to intimidation, suspicion, and even de-lousing, crossing its threshold meant that the exhausted wanderer had reached a new home.
Canada never had a point of entry that captured the imagination of immigrants and citizens the world over. But those who landed on its shores, mostly in Halifax after World War II, breathed the same sigh of relief.
I’ve seen many photos of families at Ellis Island. The immigrants of the late 1800’s: startled-looking Ukrainian girls in their village costumes standing in a row while someone takes their picture. Possibly for the first time in their lives. The men stand behind them, scowling in flat dark hats. Pre-World War I, between the wars, and the final huge wave, after WWII.
There weren’t any more costumes in this last immigration. The picture I’m looking at right now was taken in the winter of 1950. The father stands, hands behind his back, in heavy overcoat, fedora and whiskers. He’s a little disgruntled-looking, possibly over the baggage-style tag pinned to his lapel. Possibly just because he’s tired and scared, wondering if he’ll be able to work as a doctor in this new country. He looks about 45.
His wife, a pretty brunette in a good fur coat and 1948 vintage hat, has her hands up her sleeves. It looks cold. Still, she’s smiling –the only one in the picture smiling, as it happens– her Slavic cheeks prominent in the tiny black-and-white picture. There’s a tag pinned to her coat as well.
In front of them stand two dark-haired girls, aged about five and two. The older one is holding a doll with a 1920’s bob, staring at the camera suspiciously. She’s wearing a long coat. The younger one is standing akimbo in a fluffy spotted coat, leaning on a pile of luggage.
Both look a little wary. Maybe even cranky. Their lapels also sport big white baggage tags.
The pile of belongings is modest, when you realize it’s this family’s entire worldly goods. Four leather satchels bursting to the gills, every sidepocket bulging. But how much can you put into a satchel, after all? A towel? a pair of shoes? some favorite books? They couldn’t even have fit a collapsible baby buggy into the large white box standing under the satchels. In front of the box is a leather case with the one possession of value: a bandura.
In the background are dozens of other people in overcoats, with briefcases and valises standing beside them. There are no peasants in this picture, no starving toddlers, no third-world people. These are Europeans fleeing the aftermath of a European war.
There were some very critical differences between this picture and these people, and most of the previous waves of immigrants.
These were mostly already displaced people. They had lost their homes, their possessions, and often their native lands during the war. Many had wandered over hell’s frontiers for three or four years, hungry, brutalized, often in mortal fear. Families were separated over and over again. They never knew until they actually saw each other again through some miracle, months later, if that wasn’t the last good-bye.
A wife might have given birth to her first baby in one place while her husband worked hundreds of miles away, close to enemy lines, as a night watchman in a tobacco plant. While there were enemies on all fronts, there were also friends in unexpected places. Over and over again, against a backdrop of unspeakable inhumanity, people were saved by the individual bonds with individual people that transcend nationality, religion and politics.
When the cannons stopped firing, those who were unlucky found themselves taken by soviet troops. Most of them were sent to Siberia. At least they weren’t shot, like the prisoners of war.
Those who were lucky found themselves in an Allied sector. They were collected into shanty towns called DP camps. They weren’t prisoners, they weren’t refugees. They were simply “displaced persons.”
In these camps, which were organized territorially, people were sometimes reunited with friends and relatives. Others met for the first time and fell in love. They married and had babies. Life slowly got back to normal. Except it wasn’t.
The country they were staying in had been devastated. Most of the cities had been mercilessly shelled by either retreating or advancing troops. Unemployment was massive. This country could not absorb them all.
The DPs were still displaced. Slowly a new migration began. Some went Down Under, some to Britain. Many hundreds of thousands went to Ellis Island, to the land of the free and the home of the brave. Many other hundreds of thousands went to the True North, strong and free.
There was another difference between these immigrants and earlier waves. They were mostly well-educated. Teachers, doctors, engineers. They had skills. Many even had languages. In fact, there was a special name given to them by other groups of immigrants: the intelligentsia.
Some were able to keep working in their professions. Many more ended up as night watchmen and cleaning ladies because they didn’t know the language.
The war took its toll in other ways, too. The man in this picture, for instance, was barely 35. Most of that generation looked 10 years older than they were. But they didn’t mind. They had found freedom.
Three things had kept them going.
Faith that there was a place for them in a war-torn world. Hope that they would make it there somehow. And the charity of the New World in opening its doors so generously to them. •
Originally published in Eastern Economist #460, November 24, 2002