Małgorzata Szejnert
Key Island

“The only justification for historical reportage,” Małgorzata Szejnert once said, “is if it also has a contemporary life.” So it is with Key Island (2009), her fascinating history of Ellis Island. Szejnert was inspired by the letters of Polish immigrants, relating their experiences to their families back home. She also drew on memoirs and correspondence from those who processed the immigrants–commissioners, interpreters, doctors, and nurses—all of whom know they were taking part in a tremendous historical phenomenon.

Szejnert follows these individuals through their experience of the Island, from its origins in pre-Columbian America to its second life today as a museum. We learn of Samuel Ellis, the 18th century landlord—and strong opponent of American independence—for whom the island is named. We meet Annie Moore, the Irishwoman who was the first immigrant processed at the island. We read from the diaries of Fiorello La Guardia, who worked as an interpreter on the island before going on to become one of New York’s greatest mayors.

Far from the open-door policy of myth, we see how immigrants suspected of being sick, morally suspect, workshy, or undercutting American workers were excluded from the country. Deportations were often based on pseudo-scientific ideas about race, gender, and disability. Occasionally families were even broken up, with younger people being accepted in and their parents or grandparents returned home. Whenever possible, Szejnert lets the people working at or passing through Ellis Island speak for themselves, through diaries, memoirs, letters and other first-person materials. She also follows through on their lives after the island, in their new, adoptive country.

Key Island is a unique, deeply personal look at an essential part of American history. Szejnert uncovers stories that are now largely forgotten, but which underpin today’s diverse American society and which echo through debates on immigration and cultural integration around the world today. It is an urgent, compelling book about events which have lost none of their force today.

The author: For forty years, Małgorzata Szejnert (born 1936) has been one of Poland’s most important non-fiction writers and editors, shaping a generation of Polish literary reportage. She began writing about challenging social issues in the 1970s, and was an active member of the opposition during the Solidarity period. After the call of Communism, she co-founded Poland’s leading daily newspaper and led its reportage division for 25 years. Since retiring, she has devoted herself to writing full-time. Her subject matter ranges from Poland to America to Zanzibar, always with a warm, personal focus, allowing marginalized people speak for themselves through her work.


After entering a large vestibule on the ground floor of the station’s main building, the immigrants climb up one floor, under the watchful eye of doctors who, as we already know, wear military-looking uniforms. People arriving from the subjugated nations of Europe fear nothing and no one more than men in uniforms, who embody oppression in their cities and villages, so they do everything to stay out of sight—hiding behind someone taller, disappearing into their coats, or covering themselves with their bundles. These naïve methods have been quickly discovered, catalogued, and laid out in instructions, and the doctors know exactly whom to pull out of the crowd for further investigation.

A medical inspector giving the immigrants a quick visual once-over must pay attention to six elements: the skin of the head, the face, the neck, the arms, the gait, and their general condition—physical and mental.

If any of the above is invisible to the naked eye, the doctor will stop the immigrant to make sure there is nothing suspicious going on.

A high collar. This must be unbuttoned to check if a goiter or an ulcer lurks underneath.

A hat. This often covers ringworm or mycosis.

A thick head of curls. As above.

A cap pulled low over the eyes. This could conceal conjunctivitis or trachoma.

A hand hidden under a coat, a scarf, or a bag. This may turn out to be deformed, paralyzed, missing fingers, or afflicted with tinea.

Luggage. This can conceal deficient posture. The immigrant must lay their bags on the ground and walk about ten feet without them.

Children above the age of two clinging to their mothers. The mother must proceed as above.

It is calculated that on days with larger intake, when Ellis Island accepts four to five thousand people, each doctor has more or less six seconds to visually scan a single person . . .


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November 15, 2016