The veteran Polish journalist Małgorzata Szejnert uncovers stories with a reporter’s instinct: we learn that Brits were the pushiest newcomers; the “first” arrival – a young Irish girl – was a prejudiced choice (there were 77 Russian Jews on the original ship compared to just eight Irish migrants); and Scandinavians packed the most luggage.
Szejnert’s first thumbnail traces his trajectory: driven to union activism, he became treasury secretary of the United Mine Workers of America, then returned to New York as an immigration clerk at Ellis Island. In 1905, he became commissioner there, overseeing all those who, just as he had, sailed into New York in search of a new life. A philanthropist and outspoken opponent of nativist immigration policies, by his death in 1944, the youth who came to America with $15 had added oil millionaire to his list of achievements. Stories of Ellis Island have been told many times. What sets Szejnert’s book apart is her idiosyncratic style – elegantly translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye – and the success with which she deploys it. Closer in technique to the mode of oral history pioneered by the Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich than to conventional popular history, Ellis Island’s real achievement lies in recreating not just what it was like but what it felt like to be there. It is, in its understated way, quite remarkable.