Ellis Island, 1938: He’s A Seventeen-Year-Old Man

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When my husband and I visited Ellis Island last November, I found something I wasn’t looking for there.

What I was looking for, was the first time my great-grandparents arrived and settled in the United States from Greece. My grandfather I knew was born in 1921 in the United States Midwest, and I knew he had several siblings who were most likely older than he was, and I made a feeble attempt to go back twenty years. I figured it wouldn’t be that hard – I would simply go back and search the early 1900’s and late 1800’s for their surname. My rational was this: the last name is fairly unique so it couldn’t be that hard to figure out the first names of my great-grandparents.

But there were MANY people listed with the same surname. And as I had no idea what my great-grandparent’s first names were, it made the task even more difficult. Frustrated, I decided simply to search the passenger lists for my grandfather’s name. My thinking was this: If they travelled back and forth and crossed at Ellis Island as a family and my grandfather was listed as a child with them, perhaps I would know my great-grandmother and great-grandfather’s given names based on association.  (From what I recall, my grandfather’s parents were well off.)

I never found this information. But what appeared before me was incredible. At least, it was to me. His name appeared on a list of passengers in June 1938 with his date of birth and the State he was born in. (It’s frustrating that I know so little of my grandfather’s life, in particular, because he lived next door to us for the first ten years of my life.) But I remember clearly his date of birth and that he was born in the Midwest.

My grandfather was a seventeen-year-old boy. As I sat at the computer and blinked at the screen, I mumbled to my husband, “That’s weird, because I know he fought for Greece in WWII.” It hadn’t occurred to me that even though my grandfather was born in the United States, he might have visited Greece now and again.

As I sat there, I had a vision of my grandfather in 1938: He was a young man with hair slicked back, holding a cigarette between his fingers, (my grandfather was a chain smoker) and he might have made some jokes with his brother that was travelling with him as they waited with thousands of other passengers at Ellis Island.

My grandpa’s whole life was before him. What did he think about back then? Did he meet my grandmother yet? Did he know the long shadow of war was descending across Europe?  Hitler had already risen to power in Germany in 1933. Did they already hear the deadly knock of machine guns and cannons going off again in countries that had barely recovered from the First Wold War?

Or was it simply a trip to visit his parents and other siblings that were located in the United States? Had he decided to relocate to Greece again? So, this might be a final hurrah, a last trip to drink with friends and family, go to dances, and meet young ladies and see where things might go from there?

I don’t know anything about this time frame in his life and little to nothing in terms of what he lived through in the war. And now, grandpa’s been gone for almost twenty years, and my father’s been dead for nearly ten. One night in my late twenties, when my father was alive, he tried to describe the details of what my grandfather had told him he’d lived through in the camps when he was captured by the Germans. I shut it down hastily.  I didn’t want to hear it. It was too dark, too sad, to be discussed. (No excuse, I know now, but it was the night before my marriage.)

My brother did a speech once when we were in primary school about my grandfather’s experience in WWII.  I know that my grandfather told me he was captured a few times by the Germans and managed to escape each time. What I didn’t know – that my brother told me a few years ago when he was still alive – was that one of the German soldiers released him.

The only other story that lives in my mind is this one: My grandfather said that when he was a prisoner in one of the camps the German soldiers took them out for exercise and would march them around in a circle. There was a woman in the group and she fell down once, and two soldiers helped her up. Then the same woman got to her feet and started walking again, only to collapse a second time. The soldiers once again, helped her to her feet. Walking again in a circle with the other prisoners, she collapsed a third time. This time the soldiers did not help her up. They shot her.

I wish I would have listened better. I wish I would have asked more questions. What I didn’t realize as a child was the finality of life – that when a person leaves, they take those stories with them. And just like dust, the life, the stories, the experience of that person dies with them, and is scattered in the wind as if it never happened.

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