Two key requirements were necessary to gain entry into the USA.
1. The individual needed to prove to be disease free.
2. Individuals needed to create the impression that they could make a living in their new home.
Some of my family members initially failed on both accounts, but ultimately were able to gain admission.
The first group of doctors to examine the immigrants made quick examinations and noted any suspicions with a chalk mark on the right shoulder of the immigrant’s (usually dark) clothing.
The second group of doctors was the most feared. They looked for contagious diseases. These US Public Health physicians were looking for what was commonly referred to as “Loathsome and Contagious Diseases” that included trachoma, TB (tuberculosis), measles, and favus, a scalp and nail fungus. In 1921 TB, favus, and trachoma, were epidemic among Jews in Poland. Persons medically assessed as having these diseases were designated as L.C.D (Loathsome Contagious Disease) and quickly sent for treatment. Ellis Island had a medical complex of 15 buildings containing a 275-bed hospital and separate contagious disease wards for 450 people. Elka and Leja were to languish there, as we shall soon see.
Persons whom the inspectors deemed unlikely to earn a livelihood in the United States were designated as L.P.C (Likely to be a Public Charge) Dov Berel, Leja, and my father were so branded.
Overall, twenty percent of applicants failed to achieve immediate clearance through customs and nine out of ten older people were detained. They were then subject to detention and given a detention card. Confinement could last for days, weeks and sometimes months. Dov Berel, age 73 and his grandson, Mowsza were detained for 30 days. Elka, age 63 and her daughter Leja were confined for 44 days. Accommodations for detainees were one of the 14 dormitory rooms, each designed for 50 people. The rooms were equipped with canvas or wire mesh “mattresses”.
While in detention the prospective immigrants were the responsibility of the steamship company that had transported them. The company was liable for the cost of the immigrants’ meals and all other expenses while confined on Ellis Island.
“Twenty one days our case was being heard and tried. Everyday we’d go to breakfast, then lunch, then dinner. They count you every time you go and come. We’d sit and everyone would try to tell their own problems. What else could you do? Everyone was waiting to get out.”
This is a recorded quotation of a teenage girl who was detained with her mother. It could have been Leja who with her mother, Elka spent more than twice that amount of time in detention. Surely Leja experienced the same situation and had similar thoughts.
There they all were, mostly women and children, detained for a variety of reason, trapped in this small, unreal world, frozen in time with a clear view of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline awaiting their fate. It must have been a bizarre and frightening experience.
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