Oral Histories

Anchor Steamship Passengers, circa 1912.(Gjenvick-Gjonvik Archives)
Anchor Steamship passengers, circa 1912.

Gjenvick-Gjonvik Archives. Used by permission.

12 million immigrants, 12 million stories

Every immigration experience is unique. Since 1973, the National Park Service has interviewed more than 1,700 Ellis Island immigrants so that they could tell their own stories. Why did you come here? What was it like after you arrived?

The Ellis Island Oral History Project saved these individual stories for historians to study and for all of us to learn from and enjoy. National Park Service staff and volunteers recorded, then painstakingly transcribed, these interviews.

These are but a few of the most compelling stories within the park's extensive collection. If you wish to listen to the original conversation, audio files are in .MP3 format. They will take longer to download.

Oral histories are conversations. Like most conversations, they do not follow a strict chronological narrative. Both complete and edited versions of these interviews are offered here. The edited versions were created for classroom use. They are not only shorter, but have been rearranged to follow chronological order. Edited versions also include questions and graphic organizers.

Looking for something shorter? Teachers may prefer to use these excerpts from several oral histories, organized by select subjects.

Nelly Ratner (Myers) on the left, next to her mother and sister, on board the Rex.
Nelly Ratner (Myers) on the left, next to her mother and sister, on board the Rex.

Nelly Ratner (Myers) was both Jewish and deaf, making her and her deaf family especially vulnerable targets when Nazi Germany marched into her hometown of Vienna in 1938. She, her mother and sister were lucky enough to take the last ship allowed to travel from Italy to the U.S, spending Yom Kippur on board. Upon their arrival, they discovered that immigration officials saw a deaf family as a burden. They spent months at Ellis Island. Despite her deafness, Myers could speak.

Vera Clarke (Ifill) at age 17.
Vera Clarke (Ifill) at age 17, after being in the U.S. for about a decade.

Photo courtesy of Vera Clarke Ifill and her family. Used by permission.

Vera Clarke (Ifill) shares her experiences, both good and bad, about immigrant life: getting frostbite in her first encounter with a winter climate; her father's murder and the family's resulting homelessness; encountering racism in both her old and new countries; and, founding a credit union with her husband.

Croatia (Yugoslavia)
In 1946, Paul Frkovich escaped communist Yugoslavia by crawling under a barbed wire fence at night. He entered the U.S. in secret as well, crossing the Rio Grande River at night after a journey that started in Argentina on a bicycle. When he was discovered to be an illegal immigrant he was sent to Ellis Island, largely a detention and deportation station by that time. Read how he managed to elude authorities yet again and finally gain U.S. citizenship.

Gem Hoy "Harry" Lew studying after his atrrival in the U.S.
Gem Hoy "Harry" Lew studying after his atrrival in the U.S.

Photo courtesy of Harry Lew and his daughter Karen Lew. Used by permission.

China/Hong Kong
Unlike most immigrants in our story, Gem Hoy "Harry" Lew flew to the U.S., arriving at Idlewild (now Kennedy) Airport. Immigration officials were waiting for him. He spent the next two months in confinement at Ellis Island trying to prove that he was the son of the family he claimed as his own, at a time when iImmigration by people of Chinese ancestry was limited to a few hundred per year--unless you were the child of a citizen. Immigration officials drilled him to find out: was he who he said he was?

Mary Mullins Gordon around the age of 25.
Mary Mullins Gordon at about the age of 25.

Photo courtesy of the family of Mary Mullins Gordon. Used by permission.

Mary Margaret Mullins (Gordon) was sent by her family to the U.S. A gifted and candid storyteller, her memories of the Irish struggle for independence are poignant, while her experiences in the U.S. are told with humor.

Manny (Emanuel) Steen was also sent by his family to the U.S. shortly after his father's sudden death. His story is a basic American success story, told with heart and humor. (It's also very long.)

Josephine Garzieri (later Calloway), from her certificate of citizenship.
Josephine Garzieri (later Calloway), from her certificate of citizenship

U.S. Office of Citizenship and Immigrant Services

Why was Josephine Garzieri (Calloway) even allowed to board a ship from Italy to Ellis Island? She clearly suffered from trachoma, a contagious eye disease that was easy to spot but hard to cure. When she was about to be deported, her father obtained the money for her medical treatment from the talented doctors in the contagious diseases hospital on Ellis Island's south side. For 11 months she endured painful treatments but, at the end, she was cured and free to come to America.

Doukenie, third from left, in 1918 with friends in her home country.
Doukenie, third from left, in 1918 with friends in her home country.

Photo from Hope Bacos Bazaco, daughter of Doukenie Bacos. Used by permisison.

Doukenie Babayanie Bacos was a citizen of the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey), but of Greek ancestry. She dreamed of helping her family--in her words, being her father's "son"--by becoming a doctor. When she shared her dream with her uncle in the U.S., he surprised her with a one-way ticket to America.


Last updated: July 29, 2021

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