Gateway to the Promised Land

September 12, 1990|By Janet Heller | Janet Heller,Janet Heller is a free lance.

IN 1911 MY FATHER left a small village in the Ukraine to seek a new life in America. At 16 he had never been on a train, seen an electric light bulb, or tasted chocolate. His first trip by rail took him across the face of Europe from Odessa to Rotterdam. He marveled at the sights along the way, and if the wooden seats were uncomfortable he scarcely noticed. But in his innocence, nothing had prepared him for the agony of the three-week voyage by ship across the Atlantic. Luxury accommodations and good food were not to be had for a mere $28 -- the cost of his one way passage.

On Ellis Island everything was strange. White bread was not cake, tea was not drunk out of a glass, and oranges were not toys. The place teemed with humanity -- families, children, single men and women. Everyone spoke a different language and looked tired and bewildered. My father was frantic with worry that there would be some kind of glitch and he would be sent back to Europe. Perhaps he wouldn't pass the physical, perhaps his papers were not in order. The immigration officials terrified him, as did anyone who spoke English and chanced to catch his eye. Those were vivid moments in his young life that he never forgot.

On September 10 Ellis Island became the National Museum of Immigration commemorating the 12 million immigrants who arrived in the United States from 1892-1954. Some $156 million ++ was spent on the project. Less than a decade ago, however, the island was deserted and the red brick buildings through which so many had passed were thoroughly dilapidated. In fact many of them are still awaiting restoration, as the funds to restore them have not been found.

In 1982, when he was a venerable 88 years of age, my father and I visited Ellis Island. It was a bleak trip. We traipsed through several buildings and saw crumbling staircases, rotting floors and rooms containing the remains of benches, tables and cupboards. It was hard to imagine that from this tiny bit of land so many lives were launched in the new world.

My father's eyes were full of tears as he tried to explain to me the emotions that he felt so long ago while waiting to gain access to what he considered ''the promised land.'' And over the years the land had lived up to its promises. The bond between father and daughter was never tighter than on that occasion. He died last year on September 10 at the age of 96.

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