Over 600,000 names are inscribed on a seemingly never-ending wall erected in the grounds of New York’s Ellis Island.
The names etched on the Ellis Island American Immigrant Wall of Honor pay tribute to people from diverse countries who struggled to free themselves from religious persecution and political strife, rampant unemployment and near starvation by boarding ships and rickety boats bound for America and a better future.
The wall honors those who entered the United States through Ellis Island, having survived the harshest of conditions on their sea journey to freedom in what many Jewish would-be-Americans termed the “Golden Medina”.
In the 1830s large numbers of immigrants began to arrive in the U.S. from Ireland, Great Britain and Germany. Some were processed in a small fort-like building in Battery Park known as Castle Garden that nowadays goes under the name of Clinton Castle. The small circular castle and Battery Park stand on the southern tip of the New York City borough of Manhattan facing New York harbor. In present times part of it is used as a ticket office for the Hudson River tour ferries and water taxis. Just outside the walls with its back to the Hudson and the Statue of Liberty, stand an impressive and overwhelmingly powerful statue commemorating Jewish immigrants who made it to those shores, either through Ellis Island or earlier on by way of Castle Garden.
The bronze statue depicts an elderly kneeling gentleman wearing a skullcap – his right arm resting on a bundle of worldly goods. His left hand is stretched out toward the ground, head bowed in thanks for a safe arrival. Behind him, small boxes and battered suitcases around their feet, stands a group of younger immigrants – one with an infant fast asleep on his shoulder. The faces of the new arrivals are turned toward the sky and new beginnings.
During the 1880s over five million immigrants arrived in the United States. Prior to 1892, immigrants sailing into New York passed through Battery Park. Amongst arrivals were new, dazed but full of hope European Jewish immigrants whose contribution to literature, medicine, business and the development of industry, the sciences and particularly entertainment were to have a huge impact not only on the country but on the world.
Amongst the Jewish hopefuls who stepped ashore and were initially processed in the original fort, the pre-Ellis Island facility, was Budapest-born master escaper, Harry Houdini (1874 – 1926) who entered America as Erich Weiscz; popular singer and comedian Sophie Tucker (1884-1966) and fellow landsman Joseph Pulitzer (1847 – 1911) after whom the coveted Pulitzer Prize is named.
The son of a Hungarian grain dealer Joseph Pulitzer’s arrival is registered in the year 1864. He made his way to St. Louis and in 1872, having worked at tending mules and restaurant tables, Pulitzer bought his first newspaper, the St. Louis Post, followed by the St. Louis Dispatch and in 1883 the New York World.
No doubt some of those who were to eventually receive a Pulitzer Prize in the name of the Budapest born publisher accredited with introducing an upbeat style of investigative reporting and focus on human-interest stories, were immigrants or the American born and educated children of Pulitzer’s immigrant contemporaries.
Oscar Hammerstein (1847-1919) arrived alone at Castle Garden as a bewildered teenager in 1864. He ended up building his first theater, the Harlem Opera House, in 1889 and was the grandfather of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein ll.
The German born founder of Universal studios, Carl Laemmle (1867-1939) came from Laupheim, Wurttemberg to the United States, entering through Castle Garden. Even though he put down successful new roots in America, Laemmle remained connected to his origins giving financial support to the Jewish community. He also sponsored scores of German Jews from Wurttemberg area seeking to migrate to America, paying not only their passage but also the emigration fee to the German authorities.
Best selling novelist Harold Robbins who had at some point been employed at Universal Studios based the main character of “The Dream Merchants” on Carl Laemmle.
Another Hungarian immigrant William Fox (1879-1952) founded the Fox Corporation in 1915, and another late great film mogul from the same country was Adolph Zukor (1873-1976), the founder of Paramount, who lived to be 103.
A real colorful character to pass through Castle Gardens was Emma Goldman (1869 –1940). The Kovno, Russia born author and political activist Goldman was actually deported from the United States was well. Following her ousting from America, the anarchist who became the darling of feminists but who fell foul of the American authorities, spent time in London where she became the English language representative of a Spanish anarchist movement during the Spanish Civil War. She eventually settled and died in Toronto, Canada.
Droves of tourists from all over the world stand in long lines together with Americans coming to visit one of the most popular of sights and sites in the United States, the Statue of Liberty situated a short boat ride across the Hudson from Clinton Castle and the weary but relieved immigrants permanently hewn in bronze history on the waterfront by the ticket office.
The present day main buildings of Ellis Island were erected and opened in December 1900, the original wooden immigration station having been destroyed by fire in 1897.
The figures on the placards in the spacious reception hall cum museum are awesome. In the first ten years the newly built Ellis Island processed an astonishing six million of the nearly nine million immigrants who entered the United States during that decade, 860,000 having arrived in the year 1907 alone.
During the years 1939-45, World War 2, Japanese, German and Italian aliens were interned on Ellis Island and at the end of November 1954 the facility was permanently closed. Over a long period of neglect the buildings became dilapidated until a decision was taken to restore Ellis Island as a museum, research and documentation center to enable those who wished to retrace the steps of the multitudes who chose a future in America, succeeded in enduring the harrowing journey and were found healthy enough to enter.
The American Immigrant Wall of Honor at Ellis Island with over 600,000 names registered by 3rd and 4th generation American born family members is already the largest wall of names in the world and represents virtually every nationality. Many of names are decidedly Jewish and not a small number are now world famous.