A Trip Back in Time Reveals Much Has Changed at Ellis Island
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A Trip Back in Time Reveals Much Has Changed at Ellis Island

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As she looked around the baggage room on the ground floor of Ellis Island’s building, Etta Silverstein didn’t recognize very much. Granted, it had been 79 years since she had arrived with her four sisters and parents from Bialystok, but her memory is still sharp.

“It’s too sanitized, too modern” she said. “It doesn’t look like it did when I came through.”

Newly reopened as a museum, Ellis Island’s hall is clad in marble, glass and polished brass, with gold leaf adorning some of the architectural details and escalators to take visitors from the second to the third floors.

The renovations make it difficult to imagine the gigantic room crowded with families from dozens of countries, clinging to their baggage after weeks of travel over rough seas, desperately hoping to pass inspection and be allowed into America.

But for a 12-year-old child named Etta Trainofsky (or Trainkofsy, she and her children weren’t sure), Ellis Island was a powerful symbol of hope.

Etta’s family had intended to continue through New York on to Australia. But at Ellis Island, a doctor decided that she had some unspecified eye disease, and denied her entry to the United States. Her whole family turned around and went to Amsterdam, where they stayed for several months.


There they met a young woman on her way to Bialystok, and paid her a fee to take Etta back with her. Etta’s family returned to America to wait for her, moving to New York’s Lower East Side, where they decided to settle permanently.

Etta stayed with her grandparents in Bialystok and had her eyes, which she asserts were perfectly healthy, cared for by a Doctor Pinis. After about a year, she set out again for America. This time, they let her in.

None of her family members met her at Ellis Island, she recalls, so she found her way to their apartment, at East Broadway and Henry Streets.

Just a year later, she met her future husband at the home of Sholom Secunda, the Yiddish composer and musician.

By the time she was 17, they were married, and went on to have four children, six grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

One of her children, Larry Silverstein, grew up to be general chair of New York’s 1991 UJA-Federation of Jewish Philanthropies campaign.

Etta and Larry Silverstein were two of nearly 700 people who took a commemorative journey back to Ellis Island as part of the kickoff of UJA-Federation’s 1991 campaign on Sept. 16.

The occasion marked the “chai,” or the 18th drive since UJA and Federation combined their fund-raising efforts, and also ushered in the Jewish New Year.

Just six days after Ellis Island’s celebratory opening, this was the first private group to visit the restored national monument. And it was 336 years ago this week that Governor Peter Stuyvesant gave the first 23 Jews in America permission to land in New Amsterdam if “the poor among them shall be supported by their own.”

Today that group has grown to nearly 2 million people, and according to UJA-Federation of New York, it has become the largest local philanthropic organization in the world.

The Be’er Hagolah Children’s Choir welcomed the UJA-Federation guests onto Ellis Island, singing Hebrew and Russian songs. Then actor Michael Burstyn appeared as “The Immigrant from Odessa,” playing a part based on his own mother’s story.

Before guests dispersed to wander around the building and look at the exhibits, Burstyn led everyone in a round of “God Bless America.”

Another guest who was coming to Ellis Island for the second time was Miriam Hadary, who first came here in 1921, from Aleppo, Syria, with her parents and three siblings.

That trip took them three months by boat.

Inspectors kept Miriam, now known as Mary, in the Ellis Island infirmary for two weeks, because she had pneumonia. Her family went on to Manhattan, but her brother came to visit every day. Once she was allowed to leave Ellis Island, she joined her family at their apartment on Delancey Street.

Mary was in New York just four days when she had a relapse of the pneumonia, and had to enter the hospital for surgery to remove the fluid from her lungs.

She soon started her new life in this country, and went on to marry a fellow Syrian who had also immigrated from Aleppo.

Her reaction at seeing the building from which she first gazed upon the skyline of lower Manhattan those many years ago? “They made it too modern,” she said. “They didn’t have escalators last time I was here.”

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