EXPERIENCING ELLIS ISLAND
BY BARBARA HALLER BUTCHER
Due to conditions in his homeland of Austria (now Czech Republic), my maternal grandfather, Bohumil Frank Sidlo, left his parents and two sisters to come to the United States at the young age of sixteen. His port of departure on July 27, 1912 was Bremen, Germany, where he boarded the George Washington Liner. After sailing for several days, the Liner arrived at the Port of New York on August 6, 1912.
My grandfather remembered first seeing the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island in the New York harbor. In his words, “It was a morning of clear sky at 9:30 a.m. from far off some one hour before we landed at Ellis Island, and I humbly bowed my head in seeing this statue of freedom.”
As I was growing up, I never gave much thought to my grandfather’s beginning in this country. I never questioned how at age sixteen he could leave his parents, siblings, and all things familiar and come to a country where he would live with his father’s brother whom he had never met. I might also add that he never returned to Czechoslovakia to see his family again.
With the advent of the Ellis Island website www.ellisisland.org, I decided to check it out and see what they might have about my grandfather. It was so exciting to find a copy of the Manifest for the George Washington Liner with all the information on my grandfather! In one line across two pages, it told me that Bohumil Sidlo was 17 years (he would have been 16 years and 6 months) and his calling a laborer. His last permanent residence was Trebic and his nearest relative their father: Sidlo Faclav. His final destination was Red Cloud, Nebr. It indicated that he had a ticket to his final destination and that his passage was paid by his uncle. The column listing how much money he had looked like $30. He was coming to join uncle: Josef Sidlo at Red Cloud, Nebraska.
It also indicated that he could read and write, that his height was 5’ 5”, complexion fair, hair bld., eyes blue, and born in Trebic, Moravia.
My husband, John, and I vacationed out east in 1984. One place we wanted to take time to visit was Liberty Island and the Statue of Liberty. However, in 1984, they were refurbishing the Statue of Liberty, so we really did not get to see much, as they had scaffolding all the way around the Statue, plus you could not go inside. That was a huge disappointment to us.
When we were planning our trip to Africa this past September, we decided to stay over in New York so we could spend a day at Ellis Island and Liberty Island. We particularly wanted to see The American Immigrant Wall of Honor at Ellis Island. We had made a donation some years ago to have my grandfather’s name placed on this wall.
The wall, which stretches on and on, is currently inscribed with over 700,000 names. It was indeed a thrill to locate and photograph the name of my grandfather Bohumil Frank Sidlo!
It was also very thrilling for me to actually be in the processing center where my grandfather would have been when he arrived at Ellis Island. In 1984 a major restoration project was undertaken by the National Parks Service and the Ellis Island Foundation. It was not until late 1990 that the main building was re-opened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum.
As we walked through the building and the museum this past September, I was in awe of the fact that almost one hundred years later, I was actually walking in the same building that my grandfather had been processed in when he first came to this country in 1912. In the renovation work, some of the original benches were saved that the immigrants sat on while waiting to be processed. I sat on one of them just imagining that it could have been the same one my grandfather sat on in 1912. I did not want to leave the place ~ I felt such a connection to my grandfather there.
The whole experience gave me a much deeper respect for him and the humble beginning and challenges he forged his way through to become a citizen of this great country of ours. I wonder if he ever thought that one day his granddaughter would re-live his experience; and in so doing, whisper a prayer of thanks for the life he was instrumental in making possible for his descendants.