Baltimoreans remember Ellis Island's 'Golden Door'

September 10, 1990|By Nora Frenkiel

The photograph that appeared yesterday in The Sun with an article about Ellis Island was credited incorrectly. Sun photographer Jed Kirschbaum took the photo.

The Sun regrets the error.

Like the anisette biscuits she bakes, the stories Reparata DeAntoniis tells at her kitchen table in East Baltimore are both bitter and sweet.

There is still the flavor, these six decades later, of the suffering of that journey she undertook on June 3, 1928, leaving her home in Abruzzi, Italy, for a new country and the man she had married, who lived in Baltimore's Little Italy.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

They had corresponded and exchanged photos for several years before Guillermo, a clothing presser 14 years her senior, went back to the old country and took this girl, not yet 20, as his bride.

"I was a young girl," she says. "What did I know?" Her parents warned her about America. But off she went. Five months pregnant when she made that journey, she was so sick aboard the ship, so nauseated, she could barely nourish herself or her unborn child.

When the ship docked that hot summer day, and she stepped out at Ellis Island, she was jolted by everything. So many people in one place. So much noise. And not a word did she understand. Her husband left her for a while in the hall with the two heavy cedar chests that held her precious belongings -- linens and hand-woven pieces from Italy. Shestood alone and cried.

"I could do nothing else," she says, shaking her head, the words still coming more readily in her native tongue than in English.

She was one of the 17 million people who passed through Ellis Island's immigration center -- known as "The Golden Door" -- between the years 1892 and 1954. Almost two-thirds of those immigrants came before 1924, when immigration laws became more restrictive.

The doors to the new Ellis Island Museum of Immigration in New York Harbor open to the public today, and there are people like Mrs. DeAntoniis still alive to bear witness to the history of that place through which 40percent of Americans can trace their ancestors.

When the museum opens, it will shed light on some previously unexamined segments of America's social history, says Martin Ford, executive director of Maryland's Ethnic Heritage Commission.

"So much of American history is devoted to great men and great events, mostly wars," says Mr. Ford, the grandson of four Irish immigrants who passed through Ellis Island. "These people who came through Ellis Island have made a great contribution to this country and have been overlooked in a lot of ways."

Refurbished at a cost of $156 million -- all with private donations -- the museum boasts a new world of its own.

There are exhibitions off the cavernous main registry hall that offer experiences from the history of immigration in this country, using stories and artifacts from families.

There is also an American Immigration Wall of Honor with the names of more than 200,000 immigrants placed there by descendants who contributed $100 or more. Eventually, there will be a system to help visitors trace their ancestors by computer.

Yet some of those stories are now little more than fragments. Many who came through Ellis Island are now elderly, and their memories are not always vivid or happy ones.

Mrs. DeAntoniis was one of the lucky ones because marriage to a naturalized U.S. citizen ensured her a relatively easy passage through thecenter. Many others were scrutinized, interrogated and eventually sent back, some after failing physical examinations.

For some immigrants, Ellis Island was a memory they wanted to forget. "Ellis Island put such a fear in people's hearts back in the old country," says Nathan Kramer, who emigrated to the United States from a Polish village in 1922, when he was 13.

The story of the Kramer family has much in common with that of other immigrant families. His father -- "out to make a living" -- came more than three years ahead of his wife and children to live with anaunt who had settled in Baltimore. He worked as a plasterer and saved enough money to buy a house for his family on Luzerne Avenue.

When the boat docked, and they went into the Ellis Island Registry room, Mr. Kramer recalls, "It was terrible for many people but not for me. I could read and write and answer questions."

Mr. Kramer worked for years at Monroe Upholstery, took on the burden of caring for his sick mother and helped send his two brothers to college. He never married.

Ida Greenberg, who is a neighbor of Mr. Kramer's at the Concord Apartments for senior citizens, saysshe would like to see Ellis Island again, "but there's no one to take me."

As one pieces together her story, it is about the obstacles she faced coming to America to join her father in Baltimore who had left her in the care of an aunt in a Polish village. Her mother had died when she was 1 year old.

Her father eventually sent money, and she arrived alone on a winter's day in 1927, when she was 22.

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