Monday, October 11, 2010

Six degrees of history

Once in a while, I get a ‘six degrees’ experience when I volunteer. It’s happened a lot over the past several weeks. Someone comes up to the information desk at Ellis Island, or chats me up in Edison’s library, and tells me their dad or grandmother was there when the place was in operation… or maybe even they, themselves were there.

Everyone knows Ellis Island as the portal for the great immigration that took place in the first few decades of the 20th century, but fewer people know it was used as a detention facility before and just after the Second World War. Not only did the government hold resident enemy aliens there, but the army also held some prisoners of war at Ellis. That’s why I wasn’t totally surprised when a pleasant young German man approached me to ask if he could see the building where his grandfather might have been held. Unlike many other German POWs, he’d never returned to the US following the war, but he told his grandson he’d been treated well during his stay on the island. That was good to hear.

About a week later, a woman in her 60s came up to ask about the dormitory building. When she and her family emigrated from Scandinavia in 1949 by airplane, her father was diagnosed with tuberculosis and brought to the Ellis Island Hospital for treatment. Thus, she, her mom and sister were held in the island’s massive Baggage and Dormitory building until dad was cured. Having been only three years old at the time, the visitor couldn’t remember much of any of it, but she still wanted to check everything out. After my tour, I saw her wandering all around the main building, seemingly trying to place herself through a toddler’s eyes.

Then there was an older woman who told me her father had been one of the Public Health Service physicians stationed at Ellis Island. Their role, besides caring for the sick, was to examine every immigrant for signs of disease that could cause contagion, or disability that would prevent them from supporting themselves through gainful employment. The woman herself was born after her dad had been stationed on the island, and she took a look at the few staff pictures we have, in hopes of finding her father in one. She came along on my tour, and I noticed the hint of a smile on her lips when I told the group about the PHS doctors’ care and concern for their immigrant patients.

While none of the Ellis Island visitors had much information of their own to share, I was tickled to talk with a gentleman at Edison National Historical Park who wanted to speak at length about his father’s experiences working with the great inventor. He had quite detailed recollections of his dad’s stories, both in working on research, and in managing aspects of Edison’s radio business. (Incidentally, TAE never went whole-hog into radio, and the business was short-lived, never having much success.)

Talking with these folks always reminds me how much I don’t know, and how many facets history ultimately has. As children, we tend to take what we learn as fact, when it’s often just one person’s perspective on what happened a long time ago. Talking with someone who might actually have lived it gives me the chance to learn more, and hopefully get confirmation on some of my standard tour dialogue. Yeah, I live a little in fear of having gotten it totally wrong, but after a while you just have to let that go.

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