With just one small suitcase, $10 and a large brass tea urn, 9-year-old Isabel Belarsky and her parents traveled from Leningrad, Russia, to New York's Ellis Island.
"In 1929 the journey took many weeks by train and boat, but I remember everything like it was yesterday," says Belarsky, 90, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Belarsky's account of her childhood in Stalin-era Russia and her family's migration to the United States is one of more than 1,700 Ellis Island oral histories recently posted on Ancestry.com. In the 1970s, the National Park Service began taping immigrants' memories of the ocean crossing, their reasons for immigration and tales of everyday life in their country of origin. From 1892 until the 1954 closing of the federal government's immigration station in New York harbor, more than 12 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island. Many arrived in the early 1900s, with the largest representation of oral histories from Italian and Russian immigrants.
Ancestry.com is offering free, permanent access to the oral histories as part of its fee-based immigration collection of ship passenger lists, passport applications, and citizenship and naturalization records. "Even if your own ancestor isn't included in the collection, these firsthand accounts make the paper records come alive," says Todd Godfrey, the website's senior director of U.S. content. "It's powerful to listen to a peer describe day-to-day life so long ago."
Isabel Belarsky describes the anti-Semitic attitudes of her childhood and the hardships of sharing a one-bathroom apartment with five families in Leningrad, as well as happy summer visits to the countryside. "It was almost impossible to leave Russia then," she says, but her father, an opera singer, was able to obtain a six-month visa to teach in America.
The family traveled by train through Warsaw, Berlin and Paris before boarding a New York-bound ship in Cherbourg, France. In Warsaw, customs officials forced her father to pay $10—nearly all their money—to crate the heavy tea urn. "We carried that samovar wherever we went," Belarsky says. "Today it sits in my living room in Brighton Beach."