Szejnert revels in quoting juicy gossip ... American prejudice is a recurrent theme in the book. To readers today, its overtness can seem quite shocking, a reminder of how a society’s sensitivities change ... Ellis Island: A People’s History contributes to our knowledge of the island’s history through its Polish (and Polish Jewish) perspective. In Sean Gasper Bye’s skillful translation, and with lots of archival pictures, the book is also a pleasurable read for anyone wanting to know more about those who immigrated to the United States and those who, because of prejudice or sheer bad luck, never made it.
... a vibrant addition to the sizable bibliography in English [on Ellis Island] ... Drawing freely on letters, diaries, photographs and oral histories, most of the book recounts what Ellis Island was like for immigrants and government employees. Some of the most poignant passages draw from hundreds of letters sent back home—when Poland was absorbed into Russia—by Polish immigrants ... Though Szejnert’s book first appeared in 2009, its translation now is a reminder that the United States need not be defined only by a border wall.
Making extensive use of primary documents, including letters written by immigrants to family in the old country, the author captures the mingled hope and fear experienced as people entered the massive main building, equipped with modern accoutrements few had seen in their ancestral villages, and faced numerous bureaucratic barriers. Quotes from John Weber, the first Commissioner of Immigration at the Port of New York, and his successors make palpable the massive logistical effort required to process all these people ... Szejnert reveals countless intriguing historical tidbits ... The author also evokes the island’s ghostly atmosphere after it was abandoned in 1954 and the determined efforts that led to its triumphant 1990 reopening as a museum, visited by 2 million people each year. Warmly human and extremely moving—a welcome addition to the Ellis Island literature.