Lawrence Meinwald’s voice starts shaking when he recalls the first time he saw the Statue of Liberty. It was 1920, and the young Polish boy was on a ship with his family, headed to Ellis Island and a new life in America.
“It was a great sight. I didn’t know what it meant. But we stayed on deck, and everybody was anxious, and everybody was happy, and everybody was sad,” Meinwald said in an interview recorded years later by the National Park Service.
Meinwald has died, but his story lives on for anyone to hear as part of 1,700 oral histories of Ellis Island immigrants that Ancestry.com has put online.
For years, the recordings were available only to visitors at the park service’s Ellis Island Immigration Museum, so putting them online was a logical step, said Diana Pardue, chief of the Museum Services Division for the park service.
“It makes the stories in the oral histories available to people all over the world, not just people who come to the museum,” she said.
One of the subjects who’s still alive, Isabel Belarsky, was a few months short of her 10th birthday when she and her parents arrived at Ellis Island from the Soviet Union in February 1930.
Belarsky, a 90-year-old Brooklyn resident, remembers the trip clearly: the tension her Jewish family felt in the night they spent in Berlin on their way to France to board the ship; seeing a banana for the first time on her trans-Atlantic voyage; her father, an opera singer, telling immigration officials at Ellis Island that no, he didn’t plan to stay past his six-month visa.
“It’s more clear to me than what I did yesterday,” she said Wednesday.
She is thrilled that her story can be heard all over the world, and said it’s important that people understand the past.
“Everything starts with the past,” she said. “Some people think that where they are now, that’s the beginning, but it’s so far away from the beginning.”
Ancestry.com, with about 1.3 million subscribers worldwide, collects material such as Census documents, birth and death records, military files and immigration lists and makes them searchable for genealogy research.
The site is subscription-based, but the collection of Ellis Island oral histories will always be freely available to anyone. Ancestry.com reached out to the National Park Service, which has been conducting the interviews since the 1970s.
Being able to hear someone recount their own history helps listeners get a sense of the past, said Todd Godfrey, senior director of U.S. content for the site.
“When there’s an opportunity to actually hear the story told, the color and the richness that provides our members is invaluable,” he said.
Of course, the oral histories represent only a fraction of the more than 12 million people who came through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. But their stories can help people understand a larger idea, Pardue said.
“It’s more the common human story of migration, of people moving around the world and that’s something that’s been going for centuries,” she said.