You Can Go Home Again

Our blog series has focused on immigrants who found a new life in a new world after a journey across the Atlantic on the Red Star Line.

There is one class of passengers we haven’t yet talked about – the ones who went back.

Not all the immigrants on the Red Star Line and other immigrant ship lines decided to stay.  Some took the journey and went back home to collect other family members or came to work when work was available and went home in the interim.  These “birds of passage” might cross several times or more before  settling down and taking citizenship in the U.S., Canada or South American destinations.  Others went back for a variety of reasons…and never returned.   Some statistics say a full one third of all immigrants to the United States returned home and stayed there.  This trend began early in the history of immigration. Three of the 100 passengers on the Mayflower eventually went home to England.

A friend of mine has family that crossed the Atlantic, settled in Chicago but ultimately saw several family members decide to go back to the “old country.”  Another ancestor of immigrants I know had family that weathered the loss of several businesses and a farm and decided that the streets were not paved with gold.  They also returned home and never looked back.

Other reasons for the return of the immigrant were even more difficult to deal with.  Some passengers made the crossing and were sent back without their consent because of health or ethnic quotas.

In our own time the UK newspaper, The Observer recently reported a mass exodus of construction workers from Ireland back to their home countries of Romania, Poland and other nations.  The flight back home is being causes, says the report, by lack of jobs, high cost of living and in some cases by a rise of racism.

Families traveling on the Red Star Line might have encountered similar circumstances in the United States and Canada from 1905 when our mystery girl made her crossing, to the 1930’s when the Great Depression turned the “streets of gold” into the less shining prospects.

My own grandfather, who was a skilled cabinet maker began taking odd jobs during the depression—at one point working as a waiter at the Waldorf Astoria.  He once told my mother, “I call everyone I work with “boss” because everyone wants to feel like they are in charge, no matter who they are.”  He finally decided that his dreams of success in America would have to be deferred to his children.

However we choose to look at the “success” or “failure” of our immigrant connections, we can be proud of both the ones who stayed and the ones decided to return.  Perhaps our mystery girl was a bird who sought refuge by flying home?


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The Red Star Line Experience: How the Movies Saw It

The first commercial movie about the immigrant experience was “The Immigrant,” starring Charlie Chaplin’s famous character, “The Tramp.”  Filmed in 1917 , the movie was Hollywood’s first take on the immigrant passenger experience.   In a major scene in the film, Chaplin’s lovable tramp is faced with a stony-faced immigration official at what is meant to be Ellis Island.  Chaplin kicks the officer in typical slapstick fashion.

More than forty years later in the 1950′s J. Edgar Hoover pointed to the scene as an obvious example of the actor’s “un-American” beliefs when the actor was being barred from returning back to the U.S. from a trip to his native Britain.  Chaplin did not return to the U.S. until many years later when he received an “Honorary Oscar” in 1972.

At the time that it was made, “The Immigrant,” would have been seen for less than five cents by former immigrants themselves in theatres around the United States and Canada. 

Our mystery girl would have been a young woman by then, perhaps going to the movies on a Saturday night with her fiancee or young husband.  The film, with its scenes of cramped quarters, seasickness and bad food, would have made her laugh, as it did thousands of immigrant movie-goers who endured the same experience.

The next time the on board immigration experience was made into a Hollywood hit was 80 years later when Leonardo Di Caprio’s Jack Dawson won a ticket to steerage in a polker game in 1997′s “Titanic.”

Use the link below to watch a free, public domain version of “The Immigrant.”

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