Ellis Island, 23 December 1913

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Frimousse

1066 readings

96

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They note eye color, and measure height and weight. They examine throats, inspect ears, check the state of teeth. They monitor the working of hearts, make a note of gender, write down ages. They record the country of origin and the destination address.
They are meticulous civil servants, and do not allow themselves to be overwhelmed by the masses. Their gestures are precise, their words infrequent, their time limited. They label, align, classify, categorize, and list. They inscribe the information and their observations in large registers. Page after page. Line after line. Column after column.
They know exactly what they have to do: evaluate the merchandise, estimate its ability to survive in a foreign land, measure its potential added value, calculate its capacity for assimilation. Conscious of the importance of the task, they hunt for illness, the early signs of madness, visible evidence of perversity. They seek out the black sheep, the troublesome past, the deviant opinion. They gauge and they judge.
Then from the teeming horde they extract the peculiar case, the troubling element, the weak mind, the infected organ. That undesirable body will be sent back to the Old Continent, on the same boat, without having got out of the sorting area, this badly defined territory between hell and paradise.
Like docile sheep in a vast flock, animals that are weighed, handled, sniffed, we advance slowly, penned in long queues. Tossed by the sea over endless days, our bodies sway slightly when we walk. Our stares are those of the shipwrecked that a joker God has suddenly thrown onto the shores of an unknown world. And we are already drunk with the liberty that a benevolent statue, out there, is promising us.
In our heads everything is reeling: fear and hope, sorrow and joy, past and future. Around us, everything mixes together: the intonations of languages, the shouts of children, the murmuring of prayers. Everything mingles: traditional costumes, Sunday best, workmen’s shirts, hats, headscarves, turbans. Everything is muddled together: leather suitcases, wicker trunks, canvas bags. Everything becomes blurred: the sun of Italy, the snow of Russia, the mistral of France.
From this tip of land where we wander among tears and laughter, we can see the city in the distance. In the pale light of winter, wreaths of mist drape the prodigious shapes of sleeping giants. The veil is occasionally torn and, just for a moment, our incredulous eyes gaze upon vast trunks, infinite columns, tall, proud heads. But very soon the swirling vapours close over the gap. The city once more becomes a Chinese shadow, a mirage.
I am eighteen years old and have ten dollars in my pocket. Tomorrow I will be on the other side, on that continent dreamed of a hundred times, in that land promised one thousand times.
Tomorrow, I will put down roots at last.

Translated by Wendy Cross

96

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