A Moment at Ellis Island

I’m not totally sure what I’m trying to accomplish here. Maybe I just want to share a moment with you.

I was on the 2nd floor of the main building and museum at Ellis Island, and had paused to look at the open diary of a woman who had worked on the island. The diary entry for that day detailed being summoned to escort a teenaged girl into Ellis Island for deportation proceedings. All individual women had to be escorted by female employees (and single women were not allowed to proceed off the island without escort by a male relative). The teenager had an unspecified mental illness and had become violent in the mid-Western town where she’d settled.

As I bent over the pages, puzzling out the carefully looping, neat script, a young man with fair skin and hair, who looked to probably be in college, came to stand a little beside and behind me. I shifted over in case he wanted to see. Instead, he asked in a light accent of strong consonants, “Can you read it?”

“Yeah,” I answered, straightening to face him. “It’s not easy, but I can.”

“Would you tell me what it says?”

I began to explain, pointing to how far I’d gotten, only about halfway down the first page of the spread.

I read on, and the young man stood still, waiting. After another couple of paragraphs, I told him that the judge and other male officials overseeing her hearing asked the employee writing the journal if she was afraid. She wasn’t. She told them she would just lay down on the girl if she became violent so she wouldn’t be able to hurt anyone or herself.

My fellow Ellis Island visitor grinned at this and looked back at the page. A couple friends came up to him, paused as I kept reading, then moved out of the room. I expected him to go, too, but he didn’t. He wanted to know all those pages shared. And he waited—patient, pleasant, non-threatening, interested—for me to learn myself so I could impart it to him.

When I reached the first description of the girl, I caught him up and read out the traits: brunette, fair skin, seventeen, German.

“German?” he asked, beaming. “I’m German!”

“That’s amazing,” I told him. It wasn’t, in a strict sense. No more than me being born in the US is amazing. But I recognized that his connection to this woman, nameless at least on these two pages, was profound even before he learned of her country of origin. Now, it was amazing.

I read the rest aloud, no longer worried about bungling a word at first or misreading an unfamiliar phrase. He stepped forward, almost beside me, looking at my finger on the clear case as I traced my way to the end of the page.

“She was German,” he said again, when I’d finished. His face almost glowed from delight and awe. “I can’t believe it.”

A little circle of other museum patrons had formed behind us, listening to me read, and were now side-stepping and breaking apart.

“Yeah,” I said. “I wish we knew her name.”

“Yeah,” he answered, looking at the pages again. Then, “Thank you for reading it to me.”

“You’re so welcome! I’m glad I could share it with someone.”

I left the room first, he lingering by the case. I wondered all sorts of things about him, but despite that feeling of connection we’d shared, I didn’t feel close enough to ask a lot of questions of him. “Why are you here, at Ellis Island? Where in Germany are you from? What did your friends say to you when they left you here, waiting for me to read more of the journal and interpret it to you? Where are you going now? What are you hoping for in life?” So I kept going, and even though I tend to take museums at a near glacial pace, I didn’t see him in any of the subsequent rooms. But I keep thinking about him, his rich, full life, and the five minutes we bent over a long-dead woman’s journal and read her words detailing a ten-minute span of a single day in her rich, full life.

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