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Book review: Ellis Island, by Loretto Dennis Szucs

The first chapters of the book describe the history of Ellis Island, and its role in American history. After reading the first two sentences of the book, we have already learned that Ellis Island is a "treshold of liberty" and "the symbolic shrine to freedom and opportunity". The first half of the book is filled with similar platitudes.

The author seems to be more interested in reinforcing romantic prejudices than in factual correctness. An example is name changes at Ellis Island. "Names were often a problem", writes Ms. Szucs. "Not all immigrants could spell their names, and baffled officials jotted down names as they sounded." Those officials handled thousands of immigrants, and it would take more than a foreign-sounding name to "baffle" them. Dick Eastman discussed the improbability of name changes at Ellis Island in his article Name Changes at Ellis Island: Fact or Fiction? (May 2001). His main arguments were the translators and interpreters employed by Ellis Island, the documents immigrants had to hand over, and the ships' passenger lists that would list their names. Ms. Szucs should have known better.

Another myth that the author reinforces but should have debunked is the "ocean journey that could last several months". The era of Ellis Island was also the era of steam ships. It took the ships of the Holland America Line ten days to get from Rotterdam to Ellis Island. Maybe the ocean journey "could last several months", in practice less than a couple of weeks was more likely. (Actually, it took the Mayflower two months and five days to get from Plymouth to Cape Cod in 1620, 272 years before Ellis Island opened.)

Later chapters are more down to earth, giving practical, useful (albeit terse) information on tracing immigrant ancestors (not limited to Ellis Island).

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