A traveler coming by ship into the great harbor of New York City cannot help but be awe-struck by the imposing sight of the Statue of Liberty. Standing proudly atop a pedestal some 306 feet tall, with broken chains of vanquished tyranny and oppression beneath her feet, majestically arrayed with a diadem and thrusting a massive torch out to the open sea, this powerful and moving symbol has inspired travelers and voyagers for more than one hundred and twenty years.
“Lady Liberty” in particular has beckoned the outcasts of the Old World -- the immigrants. One can only imagine the excitement and the thrill of these newcomers, who were described so poignantly by Emma Lazarus in her memorable poem, the “New Colossus,” as “the tired,” “the poor,” “the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” as they caught their first glimpse of the mighty Statue.
The journey of the immigrants to America was truly a difficult one. The crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was a three-to-four week voyage made in steerage. The ships in which they made their long voyage were often overcrowded and unsanitary. Death at sea was not an uncommon occurrence.
Upon arrival, the immigrants were ferried along the New Jersey side of New York Harbor to their first destination in America: the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service processing center on Ellis Island. In the great hall of the main building, these nervous foreigners with their strange dress and language stood in long queues waiting to undergo processing by stern faced immigration officials.
The immigrants’ thrill of arrival in the New World soon changed to anxiety and trepidation as their processing began. The newcomers were poked, prodded and probed as part of a medical examination, a procedure which was frequently new to them; they were peppered with questions concerning their medical history, their contacts in America and many other matters by makeshift interpreters speaking a garbled, fractured mix of their native tongue and other languages. On occasion, the immigrants even received new last names as officials, unsympathetic or simply impatient with their strange sounding names, hurried to complete the processing.
Having survived the hurdles of the health inspection and the questioning of the immigration officials, the immigrants’ papers received a stamp of approval. The newcomers were then led from the registration area to the foreign currency exchange on the first floor of the main building. With their new “American” money, the new arrivals purchased tickets for ferries which transported them to New York City or the New Jersey train terminal for connections to friends, relatives or prospective employers and their new life in a new country.
In the three decades prior to the First World War, these “huddled masses,” numbering more than twelve million strong from all over eastern and southern Europe, passed through the waiting rooms of Ellis Island to new hope and new opportunities in a new land. One of the many groups making the arduous journey to America was a little-known people from a mountainous land in the heart of Europe. They had no country to call their own. As a consequence, they became people known by a variety of different names: Slavs, Ruthenians, Carpatho-Rusyns, Rusnaks or simply Hunkies. They are our ancestors. And this is their story.
It is a story of hardship and struggle; it is a story of turmoil and tragedy; it is a story of striking achievement and success.
But most of all, it is a journey of faith; a faith which supported a decision to leave family and village to venture to an unknown and faraway land; a faith which sustained their fierce determination to preserve and hold fast to the traditions of their Eastern Catholic heritage.