Newall: Ghosts of immigrants past tell of America's promise and stain

Susan McAninley has spent five years piecing together the stories of immigrants who passed through the Washington Avenue Immigrant Station and Pier.

Even on cold days, Susan McAninley enjoys standing in the hard wind of the Washington Avenue Pier to conjure up ghosts – ghosts of a million immigrants.

In her imagination, she pictures the pier more than a century ago when it was home to the Washington Avenue Immigration Station, Philly’s Ellis Island. The stories she has unearthed through her research come alive.

Here, on the quiet, winding pier, the ghosts gather. 

It is 1906, and 8-year-old Teme Spigel arrives at the pier, having escaped the Russian pogroms with her parents and siblings – a bandage on her hand covering a gunshot wound from a cossack's rifle. A few months later, 7-year-old Herschel Lubarsky, son of a bookbinder for a synagogue, arrives with his family, fleeing the same ethnic cleansing.  

It is 1901 and Winzenty Bijunajtis is at the pier awaiting the arrival of his wife and daughters from Lithuania; he had saved money for their passage in a bank in the Jewish Quarter near South Street.

It is an August day in 1919, and Paul Tirantoff, a 13-year-old Russian orphan rescued from the destruction of World War I by American doughboys, arrives aboard a passenger ship with the returning soldiers.

Not far away are the unlucky ones. It is 1899, and 30 Austro-Hungarians suspected to be anarchists – with little evidence, it seems, other than their origin – are locked up in the International Hotel on Washington Avenue, a makeshift jail for immigrants deemed “undesirable.”

It is 1902, and Teresa Sokoria, a young Romanian immigrant, despairs in the same squalid hotel. Five weeks earlier her daughter was found to have scarlet fever and sent to a hospital. Teresa was detained in a room with six other women. Despondent, Teresa held a match to her dress and perished in the flames. 

“They all stood here,” McAninley says. “If only people could remember.”

For the last five years, McAninley has made that her mission.

Then, the pier was in tatters. The casino folks wanted to turn it into a dock for yachts. A lonely historical marker noted the pier’s past.   

Between 1873 and 1915, more than a million immigrants – most from southern and Eastern Europe – arrived at the Washington Avenue Pier to start their new lives in America. Some stayed here. Others boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad, right outside on Delaware Avenue, and headed west. For a time, the Washington Avenue station – also known as Pier 53 – was the third busiest immigrant port in the United States.

She wanted to know her own family’s history. So she dug through passenger lists from Ancestry.com and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.  She found that both her grandfathers – her Irish one (Bernard McAninley, a bar owner who settled in Port Richmond) and German one (John Popp, a wood carver who took his family to North Philadelphia) – came through Pier 53.

She began pairing names she found from passenger lists with marriage licenses, death certificates and census records. She mined information from the records of a board of inquiry that grilled immigrants they deemed dangerous or suspicious, or otherwise, “cut-rate,” as the Inquirer reported in 1899.

She began tracking down their descendants.

She started asking her neighbors, friends, even strangers at parties: “Incidentally, did any of your family members come through Pier 53?”

“I collected stories,” she says.

And she began writing it all down, creating cards telling the passengers’ stories: where they came from, where they went, the lives they made. She has nearly 100 now.

Both the Delaware Riverfront Corp., which developed the pier into a park with a photos of the immigration past, and the Independence Seaport Museum say they are looking to help McAninley expand and systemize her research. To help her tell her stories.

 “The more stories that are found that are collected, the stronger the bonds become with the immigrant experience,” she says. “They tell of the richness of the American experience – of how complicated it was.”

Yes, they do. And they need to be told now more than ever.

They tell of American promise as a place of refuge and opportunity – a place of welcome. And they tell of the stains of America’s past – of certain immigrants locked up to be shipped away. Give us your tired and your poor – unless they're ones we don't want.

This prejudice and contradiction was OK in 1902, along Washington Avenue. We cannot let them be OK today.

 With her wounded hand, Teme Spigel and her family moved to New York, where her father worked as a truck driver and plumber.

Herschel Lubarsky opened a hardware store in Kensington, where everyone knew him as Harry and a soft touch for credit.

Paul Tirantoff, the orphan saved by the doughboys, was adopted by a family from Wyoming, where he married his high school sweetheart, then headed still farther west, chasing dreams far from Pier 53.

“This," said McAninley, standing where they once stood, "is a holy place.”

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