Forgotten Ellis Island

Mon, 02/02/2009 - 10:00pm
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Children who were patients in the Ellis Island Hospital, 1915. The children were afflicted with favus, a contagious disease of the scalp that caused baldness. Nurses would wrap the children's heads with bandages soaked with anti-fungal medicine.

U.S. National Archives

For more than five decades, the 22 brick buildings that once housed Ellis Island Hospital were abandoned, left to ruin. A tree had sprouted through the linoleum floor outside one of the hospital’s four operating rooms. Vines of ivy grew through cracks in the windows lining the 500-foot-long hallway that connected the many hospital wards, autopsy amphitheatre, and kitchens. Lost were the stories of the immigrant patients who lay in beds with a view of the Statue of Liberty, remembered only by the generation that had lived them. Forgotten Ellis Island, airing Monday, February 2 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV 21 (cable 11) and WXXI-HD (cable 1011 and DT 21.1), brings the lost history of Ellis Island Hospital to life — and reminds viewers how America became the diverse nation it is today. Actor Elliott Gould narrates.

Forgotten Ellis Island is the first film about the abandoned immigrant hospital. During the great wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century, 22 medical buildings sprawled across two islands adjacent to Ellis Island, the largest port of entry into the United States. Massive and modern, the hospital was America’s first line of defense against contagious, often virulent, disease. In the era before antibiotics, tens of thousands of immigrant patients were separated from family, detained in the hospital, and healed from illness before becoming citizens. There were 350 babies born in the hospital, many named after the doctors and nurses who helped deliver them. Ten times that number of immigrants died on Ellis Island: 3,500 were buried in paupers’ graves around New York City.

For two years, the National Park Service gave Forgotten Ellis Island producer Lorie Conway exclusive access to film the Ellis Island hospital buildings before restoration efforts began, as well as permission to interview former patients at the location. Original research was conducted over five years in the archives at Ellis Island, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and other institutions. Many never-before-published photographs are featured in the film and companion book, published by Harper Collins, along with excerpts of oral histories from medical staff, ward matrons, and patients.

Narrator Gould attended the film’s premiere in October 2007 on Ellis Island, where an abbreviated version of Forgotten Ellis Island is being shown daily in the Great Hall Museum. Gould is an Academy Award-nominated actor who has starred in numerous Hollywood films. He was born Elliott Goldstein on August 29, 1938, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He appears in public service spots promoting the efforts of Save Ellis Island, the nonprofit that has partnered with the National Park Service to restore the former hospital buildings for re-use as the Ellis Island Institute, which will be open to scholars and the public for the study of immigration and its effect on nations, economies, and culture.

As the nation once again wrestles with the issue of immigration, Forgotten Ellis Island is a powerful reminder of the best and worst of America’s dealings with its new citizens-to-be.

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