July 1, 2019

ARTHUR CHENKOFF: As one of those Ellis Island families, dear Alexandria…

My great-grandfather had waked down the ship’s plank at Ellis Island sometime around 1908, seeking a fresh start after apparently having squandered his inheritance in his home town of Stanislawow in what was then the Austrian Galicia but what used to be eastern Poland and what is now western Ukraine. The surname Chrenkoff is in fact the kind contribution by the US immigration authorities to my family history, so much so that we don’t unfortunately know anymore what the original Polish-Ukrainian spelling might have been (Hrynkow? if you have any ideas let me know and you’ll win Internet for a day). The great-grandfather then ended up in Chicago, as so many other Poles around that time did, met and married my great-grandmother, fathered my grandfather and managed to die in shady circumstance (as many others in Chicago around that time did – and still, unfortunately, do), all in a space of four or so years. My great-grandmother either felt scared or lonely or homesick or all of the above and returned with my 2-year old grandfather back to Poland (which still wasn’t Poland yet until a few years later, in 1918). That’s how I came to be eventually born in Poland with an American-spelled surname, which continues to provide the endless amusement to everyone trying to spell and/or pronounce it. But then again so would have the original name, so no hard feeling the 1900s-era ICE.

The point about it all, however, is this: everyone, including my great-grandfather and my great-grandmother, who had ever arrived at Ellis Island did so legally. They all followed the immigration laws of the land and presented themselves to American immigration authorities for screening. The millions who did so over the decades have come for a variety of reasons – some might have indeed been “escaping some horror”, but an overwhelming majority were coming to the United States simply to find work, opportunities and a better life. In a sense the horror many of them were escaping, if it can be called that, was the deep rural and urban poverty of Ireland, southern Italy, the Austro-Hungary and the Russian empire with their backward economies and lack of social mobility (often accompanied by a dose of religious, ethnic or political persecution). Coincidentally, none of them “snuck onto a boat”; they all saved and paid or had relatives and friends (often already in America) pay for their ticket. Of the 12 million people who passed through Ellis Island, about 20 per cent were temporarily detained, mostly for health or legal reasons, but in the end only 2 per cent were denied entry and packed on ships back to Europe. From the selection point of view, the immigration policy might have been more liberal then – the economy, after all, needed plenty of able bodies – but it was all conducted in accordance with the laws of the day.

Read the whole thing.

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