“When we finally reached New York Harbor, everyone came out on deck. I stood at the railing as we sailed past the Statue of Liberty. Behind me, I could hear the word ‘liberty’ spoken in every European language and dialect. When we arrived at Ellis Island, and I set foot on American soil for the first time, all I could think was ‘I am here.'”
—Peter Michaeloff, who came to America at the age of 12
More than 25 years ago, while researching a story on the restoration of Ellis Island for Country Living magazine, I had an opportunity to interview a man named Peter Michaeloff, who in 1916, at the age of 12, had left his war-torn home, his family, and everything that was beloved and familiar to him in hopes of starting a better life in America. He quietly told me of how he escaped Macedonia on foot, shredding his jacket on barbed-wire fencing while crossing the border and narrowly evading border patrols that shot to kill. He was one of the lucky ones, he said. Not everyone made it out alive. He made his way across the Mediterranean to Italy, carrying the few belongings he had been able to stuff in a duffle before leaving home. In Naples, he secured a spot in the overcrowded, noisy, and vile-smelling steerage compartment of a steamship bound for New York. Fresh air would have to wait until the crossing was complete: German U-boats were patrolling the seas, and the crew didn’t want to draw any extra attention to the ship.
I think of Mr. Michaeloff and all he endured on that journey and after—the pain of separation from his dear older brother, the impossibility of ever seeing his mother again, the permanent ambivalence to spaghetti, which was all that was served in steerage class on this particular steamer—whenever I hear stories of immigrant children at our borders. No one would make that trip without a very good reason.
“What gave you the courage to leave home and travel across the Atlantic at that age, all by yourself?” I asked Mr. Michaeloff.
“For us,” the longtime Indiana resident responded, “the United States was the land of freedom and opportunity. It was as simple as that.”