This week I saw Forgotten Ellis Island, a fascinating documentary by filmmaker Lorie Conway airing on PBS. Conway’s documentary focuses on a sad, lost chapter in immigrant history — the Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital.
It was in this hospital that thousands of immigrants found enforced incarceration rather than streets of gold. Many went on to recover from the illnesses that confined them there but thousands died and many thousands more were sent home to their countries of origin.
During the 1920′s, the U.S. government began to change immigration policy. The “open door” was no longer open. Immigrants from Eastern Europe as well as from Southern Italy and other countries were deemed unwelcome and denied entry to the United States. At Ellis Island’s hospital, doctors and nurses were given arbitrary statistics on “feeblemindedness” and other forms of “mental defectivity” and told to send these “undesirables” home. For the most part, the people returned on this basis were simply from the wrong ethnic or national origin.
Forgotten Ellis Island was filmed largely on Ellis Island in the ruins of the old hospital. It tells the hospital’s multifaceted story including the compassion and care that many of the staff gave to sick immigrants: restoring them to health and sending them on their way to become citizens. But the haunting tale of the ones who were sent back or who died while undergoing treatment in the hospital wards is the most memorable part of the film for me.
It brings to mind sadder possibilities about our mystery girl.
Perhaps she, too, was sent back to the country she sailed away from in 1905. Or perhaps she spent time in a simliar hospital at the end of her long voyage from Antwerp.
The story of immigrants from the old world to the new through the Red Star Line and other shipping lines is not just one story with a happy ending. There are thousands of tales replete with every kind of human drama you can image. The tragic tales told in Forgotten Ellis Island are an important part of this drama — a chapter that was put away to be forgotten but has been brought to light again in this important film.
Find out more about the film at www.pbs.org.