Tag Archives: Ellis Island

More Than Enough Refugee Blues to Go Around

Refugee Blues was published by writer and poet W.H. Auden in 1939, at the start of World War II.

It’s safe to say not much has changed and, perhaps, it never will if war and hatred continue to be our modus operandi. The million dollar question is this: Are we doomed as humans to this destructive cycle of scapegoatism and righteous indignation? Or is there truly a possibility – a probability – for something else?

Say this city has ten million souls,
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.

In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,
Every spring it blossoms anew:
Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.

The consul banged the table and said,
“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Went to a committee; they offered me a chair;
Asked me politely to return next year:
But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?

Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said;
“If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”:
He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.

Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky;
It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”:
O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay,
Saw the fish swimming as if they were free:
Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.

Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors:
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

Stood on a great plain in the falling snow;
Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:
Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.

Continue reading More Than Enough Refugee Blues to Go Around

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Ellis Island: JR and the Art of Immigration

The United States, like Canada, is a country of immigrants. Between 1892 and 1954, twelve million citizens of other nations landed at Ellis Island seeking asylum in their new homeland. Close to 40% of Americans can trace their genealogy through these early immigrants.1

There are two kinds of Ellis Island tours available. The first is a free audio tour of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum and is included in the general $18 ferry ticket. (Note: most of the museum’s artifacts have been removed due to water damage incurred during  Hurricane Sandy.) The ferry also makes stops at the Statue of Liberty, but does not include admission to the top of the statue.

The second, a 90-minute docent-led tour, permits access for a limited number of guests to the unrestored hospital and some of the other buildings that are not open to the general public. Within these buildings, French artist JR has installed photographs of some of the immigrants who passed through the hospital, breathing new life into the space.

I was really at Ellis Island to access the JR tour. Not only do I like exploring abandoned buildings, the subject matter is particularly relevant to my field of interest: the relationship of people to their homes and communities. And while I wholly subscribe to the idea of Ask and you shall receive, on occasion – and much to my chagrin –  I don’t always get what I want.

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Me: Hi. I’m in from out of town and I really want to see the J.R. art tour of Ellis Island.

Her: Do you have a ticket?

Me: No. I called this morning but no one called me back.

Her: You must buy tickets in advance.

Me: I tried, but I thought I’d just come down and see if there’s a “no show.” There are always no-shows, especially on an awful day like today. I’m happy to pay.

Her: You can’t do that.

Me: Why not if there’s room?

Her: Those are the rules.

Me: Ummm, is it a security thing?

Her: Those are the the rules.

Me: But there’s always a way around things.

Her: (Laughs) There’s no way around this. I’m the person you have to talk to. You have to call Statue Cruises. And all the tours are sold out through next month.

Me: So I guess I have to be a local or on a foreign tour that books months in advance? So much for accessibility.

Her: (stares)

A few minutes later, Buddy In a Dark Suit is standing next to me while I photograph the Great Hall.

Over the years, millions of people have passed through the old hospital at Ellis Island on their way to freedom in America. Clearly, I wasn’t going to be one of them.

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Here’s a peek at the JR tour:

And a photo tour of the Ellis Island Immigration Museum:

Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island
The more things change…
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
All immigrants climbed these stairs. Doctors, placed along their lengths, were quickly able to identify disabilities and other health problems. They would be chalked accordingly.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
The Great Hall which, at first, contained livestock-like pens, then later, long wooden benches. The typical immigrant spent 3 to 5 hours here prior to release.
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Detainee bunks
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
Graffiti-covered walls
Ellis Island Immigration Museum
The Window of Freedom

Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Additional Reading:

The Library of Congress: Topics in Chronicling America – Ellis Island

Scholastic.com: Interactive Tour of Ellis Island

History Channel: This Day in History – Ellis Island

New York Public Library: Why Your Family Name Was Not Changed on Ellis Island

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  1. http://www.history.com/topics/ellis-island