During its 2003-2004 season, Peoria Players Theatre is staging two productions that have connections to U.S. immigration-Fiddler on the Roof and Ragtime. Both stories take place in the early 1900s, the peak immigration years. At the end of Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, a Russian Jew, and his family pack up their meager belongings and leave on the long journey to America.
"Where will you live?" Tevye asks a friend.
"Chicago," the friend answers.
Tevye replies, "We will live in New York. We will be neighbors!"
At the beginning of Ragtime, Tateh, a Latvian Jew, enters the Port of New York at Ellis Island. He sings to his daughter, "I promised you America, and little one, we’re there!"
Though both are fictional characters, Tevye and Tateh are emblematic of the courageous pilgrims who immigrated to the U.S. through Ellis Island between the years 1897 and 1938.
By the 1880s, swift steam-powered ships cut the time to make the Atlantic crossing from three months to two weeks. Large shipping lines competed fiercely for immigrants, who were seen as profitable, self-loading cargo. The huge steamships were built so they could accommodate as many as 2,000 passengers in steerage. Long, narrow compartments were divided into separate dormitories that became rank with the heavy odor of spoiled food, seasickness, and unwashed bodies. There was little privacy, and the lack of adequate toilet facilities made it difficult to keep clean.
By the time the steamships glided into New York Harbor, first and second class passengers had already been inspected and cleared to disembark at Castle Garden, an immigration station that was located near present-day Battery Park in lower Manhattan. Steerage passengers, however, disembarked at Castle Garden and were directed onto ferries that shuttled them across New York Harbor to Ellis Island.
The Ellis Island processing station was meant to channel and filter the steady influx of immigrants. The new arrivals formed a line up to the second floor of the station, where the immigrants were met by a team of doctors and inspectors who would decide who would and wouldn’t be admitted. Scanning the moving line for signs of illness, Public Health Service doctors had only a few seconds to examine each immigrant, checking for 60 symptoms, from anemia to mental impairments. One test performed was for trachoma. Doctors would turn the eyelid inside out with their fingers, a hairpin, or a buttonhook to look for inflammations on the inner eyelid-a short but painful experience. The "buttonhook men" were the most dreaded officials on Ellis Island.
Question-and-answer sessions were also conducted. Firing questions at the immigrants, the inspector asked them their age, occupation, marital status, and destination in an attempt to determine their social and economic status, moral fitness, and work prospects. Inspectors needed to be convinced the immigrants were strong, intelligent, and resourceful enough to find work easily, without admitting a relative had a job waiting for them.
After days of inspections and interrogation, immigrants were directed to the Stairway of Separation. At the bottom of the stairs were three doors: the one on the left was the door to quarantine, the door on the right was the door to deportation, and the door straight ahead was the door to America. Immigrants bound for America met their relatives in Battery Park at the "kissing post," where many joyous and tearful reunions occurred.
Many, if not all, of us owe a huge debt to ancestors who immigrated to this country in hopes of finding a better life. Peoria Players Theatre will honor these brave people by staging Fiddler on the Roof and Ragtime. AA!