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Ellis Island

Written by Louis P. Coopmans
submitted by Bev Gossen-Clemente

               "This Wednesday night was another miserably hot one, and it made Thursday morning slow coming. At breakfast a steward had nodded at the Coopmans and several times they caught his words, "today go," as he motioned thumb over shoulder like to go away. Their English vocabulary now consisted of "yes," "no," "all right," and "today go."
               They were encouraged by this and hurried down to their cabin to set their bundles ready to go. Soon thereafter they were shown to leave their cabins and go on deck. There the gang plank was in place leading to a landing platform and long stairway to the deck below. They were tagged upon departure from the ship and wondered whereto now.
               A walk of a quarter mile took them to a large ferry boat which they boarded. Several hundred were on it. It churned the water of the river for about thirty minutes. There was a nice breeze -- all seemed to enjoy the relief from the heat.
               Louis thought that the Hudson River had to be crossed to get back on solid land where huge brick massive buildings stood. As they neared, they noted heavy iron fencing along the shore. The ferry boat docked, and as they disembarked, they could read the overhead arched sign, "Ellis Island."
               This place was impressive; it looked like a giant complex. The grounds in front of it covered a large area. Why would we have to come to such a fancy place? It looked like a large railroad terminal; it was massive. Yet it couldn't be because it was on an island, too far from land to be connected by a bridge.
               Through heavy gates they were herded by the hundreds in the large open grounds. Husky uniformed guards with clubs in hand kept the immigrants in long lines, two abreast. Slowly they were marched past a food station where gray-aproned men handed to each a cheese sandwich and a paper cup. All were hungry -- the sandwiches vanished. On we marched past a multi-faucet trough where water could be taken in the cup. The guards would shout and wave clubs to move their human charges.
               They were allowed to be at ease for most of the afternoon, sitting on the ground and resting. Later on they were herded into the large doors of the huge building. This building which looked so fancy from the outside, was a giant cattle barn with wrought iron tall fencing and railings running parallel about three feet apart accommodating the masses snaking around the ends, each time moving three feet closer to the clerk-manned admission desks.
               The male clerks were black uniformed and wore patent leather beaked caps like the railroad conductors. These clerks checked each person from the list of arrivals they had and put a tag around the necks of the immigrants. They talked to each person as they were registered, but their English was like so much gobbledygook to these folks who spoke no English.
               These long wrought-iron fences were gateways leading to separate areas which were enclosed by more iron fencing. The people were directed differently according to the tags they wore and the destination labels on the personal bundles. They were put in different corrals housing perhaps a hundred or more. A blanket was handed to each as they passed by. They were assigned double-deck sleeping bunks made out of steel. No mattresses, no pads, just steel straps two inches wide, tightly interwoven. They could use their blankets for cover or to lay on."

"The Coopmans used some of their personal cloth bundles for pillows. Louis was wondering if this was really America as he observed a couple of big roughians take the blankets away from smaller helpless people who were intimidated by the threatening fists of these rowdys.
               Louis wondered how long they would be kept in this steel fenced jail-like place. How could there be a place like this right close to the Statue of Liberty? He felt captured instead of liberated.
               Lights were dim but here and there he would see bearded men with black hats bowed in prayer, reading their bibles, and little old women kneeling and making the sign of the cross before crawling onto their bunks. Sleeping was often interrupted by shouts or cries of fear of what could happen in this place.
               They were awakened by a loud noise in the morning. The corral enclosed by wrought-iron fencing with vertical rods about eight inches apart was used for an alarm. A guard walking at a lively pace with club in hand rubbing the fence was a real waker-upper. It scared most people.
               Each day a certain number were processed and put on their way. The others fed out of large baskets could wash over troughs and then stay near their bunks. Skylights made it clear during the day. The Coopmans went through this mess Thursday and Friday nights. Saturday, July 16, they were escorted to physical last inspection stations where all had to strip to the waist again. We really didn't mind taking the smelly clothes we had been wearing nor for two weeks in the summer heat.
               The medic examiners were lined up in pairs about fifteen feet apart. They wore long white coats. In each pair one would examine; the other would make records on a large note pad."

"There were five inspection stations. One doctor would examine your throat -- the next would look at the chest, tap and listen -- another the stomach and reproductive organ -- the fourth made you turn around to look at your back. Arnold had been just ahead of Louis at each station, and his Dad's smile appeared to indicate all was well and the line was moving fast.               
The fifth and last inspector checked arms and legs. While Arnold went through, Louis worried about his own crippled right hand. In all confidence, he stepped in front of the doctor. This man looked at the feet, then as he looked over the head of Louis he put his two hands on the shoulders, slid his hands down the arms to the wrist, raised the two hands, dropped the left good hand while he held the crippled hand up and talked to the other doctor. They examined these two fingers and a thumb.               
Louis could feel his heart pound and the tears come to his eyes as he was taken out of the line and put aside. In just these few seconds, he thought he would be rejected and not allowed entry. All his dreams were crumbling. "God, help me," he prayed. "Please, God, help me." Arnold was brought back to his side while three doctors conferred briefly. Then God seemed to open the gates of heaven as he noticed nods of approval and he was motioned to go on. A short time later the four of them were united as a family.             
  After two more trips to the soup and sandwich line that day, they were back in their corral quarters wondering what tomorrow would bring. There were fewer in the bunks that night, and they were awakened early the next morning by the same banging club on the iron fencing.
               They were rounded up and escorted to the big hall area along with about a hundred others near a large door labeled "EXIT." They knew what "EXIT" meant by now. Soon they were marching outside in the direction of a large ferry boat. Whereto now, Louis wondered, as the boat got in motion. There was seating room for all of them. Sandwiches and cups of milk were distributed.             
  The sun was shining brightly and it was so exciting to watch the tremendous river traffic as the ferry boat steamed southward toward the shore. As they approached land, Louis saw "JERSEY CITY" on the landing dock. Jersey City it was as they marveled at the precision with which their vessel was moved into its landing slot.         
      Their destination tags were checked and from the sign language they received went into a long walk which led them to a large railroad station. They noticed "New York Central" here and there as they were escorted to a railroad ticket desk. A clerk said "ticket please," while he smilingly looked at them. "Ticket please," again he said. Arnold nor Louis knew anything about a ticket. The only tickets they had, had been taken as they were checked in at Ellis Island. The railroad clerk hailed a nearby railroad officer who could speak French. He told them that they were supposed to have on-half of a ticket showing that they were paid through to Atkinson, IL.     
           Now what to do? All pockets were searched -- no tickets were found. The helpful interpreter accompanied Arnold and helped in sending a telegram to Uncle Vic advising him of our arrival. While Arnold was gone those few minutes, Louis remembered that before leaving Belgium, and after the tickets from Uncle Vic had arrived, he had copied the initial and the entire serial number on a small card and put it in his billfold. C191739 Third Class Cunard Line. This billfold had never had any money in it yet, but now he believed it contained something real important.
               The clerk took a good look at it and reached for a telephone as he smiled. He made contact with the Cunard Line office, learned that their passage had been paid to them in full - Antwerp, Belgium to Atkinson, IL. He proceeded to make out tickets for them, and in a few minutes, they were on the New York Central Train."

I would like to thank Bev Gossen-Clemente who posted this story on BELGIUM-roots and was kind enough to allow me to put it on this site for all to enjoy. She says that the original is double spaced and is hand signed by Louis.

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