In the early part of the twentieth century, America invited – no, implored – people from all over the world to populate the fledgling nation. Between 1892 and 1954 over 14 million people came to America through the immigration station at Ellis Island in New York.
The first thing those immigrants saw, as they entered the harbor at New York, was the Statue of Liberty.
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
The new arrivals came from all over Europe, escaping oppression, persecution, destitution, and violence. It wasn’t easy passage.
Often there were no baths on the ship, barely enough drinking water. Most were crowded below decks, in steerage, with hundreds of other refugees, surviving on one meal a day.
By the time the ships docked, the stench was sometimes so bad, that millionaires living in the Lower West Side complained to the shipping companies.
Yet arguably, it was how successfully the fledgling nation integrated those ‘huddled masses’ that made American great. Almost half of the United States population would not exist today were it not for the immigrants who once passed through this tiny island.
Many of America’s most famous and celebrated figures owe their success to ragtag ancestors who arrived with a cardboard suitcase and little else.
One of the first was a man called Levi Strauss, who came to America in 1847 and greatly enriched the country’s jean pool. His ‘heavy duty work pants’ changed the course of fashion.
Irving Berlin, who wrote “White Christmas” and “God Bless America” was a Russian Jewish Immigrant who passed through Ellis Island as a child on September 14, 1893, under the name Israel Beilin. He went on to compose 1,500 songs, nineteen Broadway Shows and eighteen Hollywood movies.
Then there was an accidental tourist called Albert Einstein. He was a professor at the Berlin Academy of Sciences and happened to be visiting the US when Hitler took power in Germany. He wisely decided not to go back and applied for US citizenship.
A man called Sergey Brin More is a more recent Jewish refugee. If you don’t know who he is, Google him. Let me give you a clue; if it wasn’t for Sergey, there wouldn’t be a Google to Google him on.
Other refugees didn’t achieve fame themselves, but their offspring did. Bruce Springsteen may have been Born in the USA, but his grandparents were Born to Run. His grandfather, Anthony Zerilli, came though Ellis Island at the turn of the 20th century unable to read or write, let alone play guitar.
Jerry Seinfeld, created the quintessential New York comedy series in the late nineties. His paternal grandfather was a 15-year-old tailor who arrived alone and penniless in 1903 from Stanislau, and his maternal grandfather, Selim Hosni, came from Syria in 1909.
That’s gold, Jerry.
And then there’s the President himself, whose great grandfather Freidrich came to the US from Germany in 1885.
My own Sura Levine arrived from Tallin in 1913. Her story of struggle and heartache and success in Loving Liberty Levine is typical of the immigrant story in the United States. Her journey from being a refugee to being an American was repeated fourteen million times in the last century – hers just one part of the story of how a nation was built.
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