Recently an article popped in to my Facebook newsfeed taking me back to a visit I had made to Ellis Island, the United States’ early 20th century massive immigration processing center. Photography restoration artists from Dynamichrome have unlocked the colorful secrets beneath the black and white photographs taken between 1906 and 1914 at Ellis Island.
I am a family historian and have been obsessed with Ellis Island since I can remember. All eight of my great-grandparents entered the United States through its hallowed halls. I have no pictures from this monumental time in their lives and know very little about their actual experiences of the voyage across the Atlantic, seeing the Statue of Liberty for the first time, the processing lines, or registration. Such details are lost except for what I can glean from the digitized immigration record books. I’ve found all of my immigrant ancestors in Ellis Island’s database, playing detective and code-cracker at times as names were misspelled and villages have changed hands and been renamed over the last 100 years. From the few scrawled lines of text for each new immigrant, I learned that two of my great-grandmothers, whose unborn grandchildren (my parents) were destined to marry decades later, left from the same port one month apart and were both headed for Western Pennsylvania. I learned the address of the boarding house my great-grandparents ran for Slovak immigrants in Johnstown, PA. I learned that my great-great-grandmother came to the United States with her children for a wedding in Carnegie, PA.
Still, a photo is worth a thousand words. As when I first saw these portraits in black and white at the Ellis Island museum, I could not tear myself away from their beauty and nuance. Now in color, they infuse a gush of imagination into my writerly daydreams.
Of all the Dynamichrome restored photo subjects, I’m most captivated by the Ruthenian woman. My grandmother’s parents hailed from this oppressed, little known pocket of Eastern Europe which is rich in tradition and folklore. In both black and white and color, the Ruthenian woman’s eyes shine with light, hopefulness, and wisdom. The color image embellishes the natural beauty of her traditional dress and make me wonder. In the spirit of Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with Pearl Earring, my imagination runs. Did she stitch those folk motifs with threads that she dyed with boiled beet and onion skins? Were there children at her feet as she sat and posed for this picture? Where did her jewelry come from? Was she joining a husband or meeting her betrothed for the first time in a Western Pennsylvania coal patch? Who are her descendants and do they know that this is her? Is this how my great-grandmother, a fellow Ruthenian immigrant to America named Honorata Haraus, appeared when she arrived in 1910?
What other forgotten or untold stories are just beneath the surface of these photos and hand-written records? The possibilities are endless…