In the main hall of Ellis Island was an organ — the kind powered by a bellows pumped by the organist’s feet. How it came to be there is not recorded. It was, we’re told by the caption on the photograph in which it appears, played and enjoyed by many of the thousands of immigrants who waited in the main hall every day to be processed before entering the United States.
Visit Ellis Island today and you’ll see a rich and evocative account of the immigrant experience. Of individual personal histories that help break through the impossible task of trying to envision the millions of immigrants who entered this country as more than “teeming masses” — as individual human beings, each with a story worth knowing if only it were possible to know them all.
It’s hard to reconcile the images. In the back of my mind is one: Throngs of sad-eyed, shambling faces, fearful of being turned away, fearful of dealing with the authorities, and worried about their future in a strange country.
I get another from the Marx Brothers of all places: In A Night at the Opera we get a different sense — one of joy, exuberance and hope aboard one of the many ships that transported immigrants in steerage across the Atlantic.
Then there’s the version I get from simple logic: The kind of courage … or in some cases desperation … these forebears of so many of us possessed that let them abandon everything familiar to sail into the complete unknown.
Visit Ellis Island today. It attempts to achieve the impossible, helping visitors understand the mind-numbing quantities of humanity that poured through its gates while also helping us understand the humanity in those mind-numbing numbers.
There’s something vital missing from Ellis Island today. The ghosts of the immigrants who passed through its halls are there, but the ghosts of the people who processed them are not. They’re left invisible, in an exhibit that works hard to preserve the individuality of the people they shepherded through immigration procedures that lasted at least hours and often days. It leaves the experience at Ellis Island hollow.
What were they like? We don’t know, because the exhibit tells us little, and it’s a shame. It’s the people who do the work of an organization that define its soul, whether that organization is the Ellis Island immigration authority or your own IT department. It’s easy to understand why executives today might not want to think very hard about employees as individuals. They become Scrooge in self-defense … not the cartoon Scrooge we see on television, but Dickens’ powerful image of an employer hardened to everything about his employee other than the work and the cost. It’s easy to understand how it happens.
It’s easy to understand, but it isn’t something to accept. It’s the people who give a place its character, and if the people are fungible and unimportant, so is the place itself. Not a place to show up and work hard. No wonder so many employees of large corporations are RIP — retired in place.
Were the staff at Ellis Island like that, bored and uninterested, depersonalizing the immigrants who passed through?
You get hints of the task that faced them, with no information technology to help beyond their typewriters, forms and carbon paper. They checked for disease, verified identities, and acted as gods, deciding the fates of millions of individual human beings. But what were they like? How did they think about their work and the responsibility of making these decisions that decided the futures of so many people?
All you get of those who worked at Ellis Island during its six decades of service are hints and impressions, and the hints and impressions suggest hard-eyed bureaucrats processing people in a factory-like way, one after the other, bland, impersonal and uncaring.
How could they be anything else? Faced with a job like that, how could anyone remain compassionate and empathetic? It’s difficult to imagine.
In the main hall of Ellis Island was an organ — the kind powered by a bellows pumped by the organist’s feet. How it came to be there is not recorded. But someone put it there, and someone decided it should remain there.
This holiday season, it’s worth your time to ask yourself this question.