THRU THESE GATES
I went back to my diary for some information about my experience at Ellis Island. Here's what I wrote.
August 29, 1948: I must again write in my diary, great news, I received my visa today. I will be leaving in December. I am afraid that something will happen to keep me from going; I waited two years for this.
I would like to explain why it took me two years to get this visa. The war bride law in effect at that time did not apply to me, as I was not married in Belgium. The girls who married American soldiers were transported on military ships and their passage was paid for, I had to pay my own way, therefore, I had to travel on a visitor visa and had three months to get married or return to Belgium.
I left from the port of Antwerp in Belgium on December 10, 1948. I sailed on the SS Westerdam, a Holland- America Line Ship. It was a small ship, one class only.
I would like to tell you about the SS Westerdam. In doing genealogy research over the years, I spend a lot of time at the Mormon Family Library in Champaign, Il. One day, one of the volunteers was helping me find information about my Belgian ancestors, I noticed his accent and asked him where he was from, he said “Holland” he then asked me when I came to the US, I said December 1948, he replied, so did I, what ship did you come over on, I told him, he replied so did I. We traveled on the same ship. It is a small world.
He also told me a little history about the Westerdam. It was a freighter before the war, the Germans sunk it into one of the waterways in Holland to block the English and American invasion. After the German occupation, it was salvaged and rebuild into a first class liner.
This man, then a young man, worked on the ship to restore it and later was a passenger traveling to the US in 1948.
My family took me to Antwerp to see me off and say goodbye. It was not until much later, when I had children of my own that I realized how hard it was for my mother to see her only child leave the country.
I watched my family leave from the deck of the ship, my cousins and aunt were comforting my mother. I was 18 years old, I was going to cross an ocean to a strange land, to a man that I had not seen in two years and that I really did not know, but, at 18, one is resilient, I don’t remember shedding a tear.
The ship crossing was rough, we left in the early evening, after passing the white cliffs of Dover, the sea became very wild and I became very sick. I was sick for four days and I don’t wish this on my worst enemy.
I shared a cabin with another young girl. She had hired on as a governess with a wealthy family. She was also seasick. The more the ship rolled, the sicker we were. We tried to go to the dining room to eat, the table covers were dampened and small railings were attached around the table to keep the dishes from sliding off.
I was OK until they brought the food and looking up thru the windows, I could see the bow of the ship way up there and next, all I could see was water, I quickly ran out of there and stayed in my cabin, falling in and out of bed as the ship rolled.
After four days of this, the employer of the girl sharing my cabin came in and said I am going to cure you girls! She was tired of having to take care of her children herself.
She brought a bottle of cognac and literally poured it into us. It did cure my seasickness.
I later went up on the bridge and saw that it was roped off; as the water was washing over the railing, the sea was very rough. I soon became acquainted with other young people aboard and enjoyed the rest of the voyage.
It took eleven days to cross the Atlantic and arrive in New York. For me as for so many others before me, the sight of the Statue of Liberty was an emotional experience.
We were all on deck, the one thing that I remember is the silence, every one was thinking about their reasons for being there and wondering what was ahead of us.
We had a party on board the night we docked, we said goodbye to the new friends we made in that eleven days.
The immigration and custom people came aboard in the morning and trouble started. I thought that after waiting two years for my papers, every thing would be in order, not so.
I passed the medical inspection first, after looking at my papers, the next immigration inspector asked me “where is your $200 bond?” This was the first time that I heard about this, the law had again been changed and it was now required that a $200 bond was posted by an American citizen to pay for my trip back to Belgium if I decided to return. I had the cash and offered to pay it, but this was not allowed, it had to be done by the local family.
It took two days for the authorities to contact the family of my future husband and for them to post the bond; in the meantime, I was taken along with several others from the ship to Ellis Island.
Since 1943, the island was used primarily as an alien detention center. I understand, that at that time, it was also used as a maritime prison.
What an experience for an eighteen-year-old girl!
We went across on a ferry; the tall buildings of Manhattan were quite a sight for me. I must have looked lost and miserable; a man on the ferry brought me a cup of coffee and a roll, the island is right across from Bedloe Island, now known as Liberty Island, I was looking at the Statue of Liberty thru bars. As I often reacted in emergencies, I did not cry or go to pieces, I became angry. I had enough of living thru four years of German occupation of Belgium. Being treated like a criminal was not in my plans.
I remember walking into the hall; it was really dilapidated; there were many people there just walking around or sitting on benches. I found out that some of these families had been there as long as 18 months waiting for authorization to enter the United States.
I was locked in a room with two other women, I believe that they were Lithuanians; we could not communicate. There were no blankets on the bed; I slept with my clothes on and hanging to my purse. My luggage was somewhere between New York and Chicago. It was more than a week before my suitcases caught up with me in Milford, Il.
That first night, they brought in 53 people from the Ship Queen Mary; they put a young woman with a baby in our room, she was English, at least we could talk. The next morning very early, guards took us to the basement and we lined up for food. I could not eat it; it was all so strange to me and did not taste very good. We were not allowed to have a knife to cut our food.
I survived on chocolate and candy that I had in my purse.
Here I was, four days before Christmas. The Salvation Army came in and had a party for us. We were all herded into the Big Hall, there were well over a hundred people there, all nationalities also, and some of the prison occupants were brought in under police guard. They had a variety type show for us and we lined up to receive a cloth bag containing oranges, toothpaste and brush, stationary, pencil and candy. I still have that bag.
I wrote a letter to my mother and handed it to one of the guards to mail it, he gruffly told me that I could not seal the letter, it had to be censored, that made me angrier yet, I pulled the letter out of his hand and tore it up, I told him that I wrote to many bad things about this place.
I was upset when members of their church greeted a group of Jewish immigrants,
And within the hour, they were permitted to leave. I had read a lot about freedom of religion in the United States so when a lady approached me and asked me what my religion was, I told her, the first one that gets out of here. She was with a Catholic organization and did help. Around five p.m., I was told to get ready to leave on the last ferry going out.
After reaching the mainland and filling out more papers, the authorities put me in a taxi along with four other people and we were dropped off at various railway stations and airport.
I was the last one dropped off at Grand Central Station. I realized later on that the taxi driver took me for a ride, I was the only one, of his passengers who could speak English and maybe I looked a little more affluent than the other passengers.
After I had a chance to look around Grand Central Station, I found the first lady that he dropped off, but he did take me around and pointed out the sights, the Empire State Building and an old church. He also helped me get my ticket to Chicago. I had purchased all my tickets in Belgium and they were now past dated.
The train was late, and I had to wait a long time, all I could see were black people. One black lady sat next to me on a bench in the waiting room, she kept talking to me but she might as well be speaking Chinese, I could not understand a word that she said.
I stood on the platform waiting; I was still wearing the same clothes that I had on when leaving the ship, I don’t remember ever feeling so tired as I did that night.
It was after midnight when the train pulled in the station, I handed a porter some money (I was not familiar with the currency), I know that he just took part of what I handed him and he put me in a sleeper compartment where I collapsed. I was asleep before the train left the station.
When I awoke, I could not remember where I was, I looked out the window, it was early morning and I saw all the wooden houses along the track (I had never seen a house not made out of bricks before). I kept hearing a lady speak with a British accent, I thought that I made the wrong turn somewhere along the way and landed in England, it turned out that she was a British war bride with twin children, she had just returned from a visit home.
Even though the trip was quite an experience for me, I was never afraid until we got near Chicago, then it hit me, it was a new world waiting for me there.
Ellis Island closed two years after I passed thru those gates, after that all the paper work and inspections had to be completed in the country of origin before one could get a visa.
The building was abandoned until 1987 when the restoration began. Today, more than 100 million Americans can trace their family roots back to those who entered the country
Thru Ellis Island.