Woman finds roots at Ellis Island

July 07, 1997


Staff Writer, Chambersburg

MERCERSBURG, Pa. - Rachel Nichols thought she had heard all of the stories, passed down through generations, about her family's immigration to the United States from Palestine in 1912.

But a recent trip to Ellis Island in New York turned up some unexpected information and surprises that have shed some new light on her family.

"The whole experience was very emotional for me - just the enormity of the whole thing," Nichols said. "I'm amazed at what they (immigrants) went through."


In 1985, Nichols' grandmother, Toba M. Wilensky, remembered fondly by the family as "Bubby," was interviewed as part of an oral history project connected with the restoration of Ellis Island.

Wilensky died in 1989 at the age of 81 without her family knowing whether her story, the photos and an old Turkish towel her mother packed for the trip to America were ever used for the project.

Details of her family's journey to America were shady until Nichols, with her 10-year-old son, David, made the trip to Ellis Island in April, 85 years after her family arrived there.

"I could hardly wait to leap off the ferry and inquire as to the location of Bubby's interview tape, or if any of her family items were actually on display," Nichols said.

In an exhibit in the second room of the tour, Nichols found her grandmother's name listed among the immigrants whose stories had been recorded. Nichols and her son listened to it three times.

"It was very emotional just to hear her voice again," Nichols said.

On the tape, Toba recounted her experiences traveling to America and the events after her arrival at Ellis Island. Details Nichols had never heard were revealed in the recording, including her grandmother's middle name, "Hilda," and the fact that the family decided to leave Palestine due to the growing threat of war hanging over Europe.

"I saw her as a young girl. I saw her as someone very different from the lady I knew growing up," Nichols said.

The rest of the exhibit remained somewhat blurred, Nichols said, until she came to the exhibit called "Treasures from Home."

Displayed among hundreds of photos of immigrants from all over the world, Nichols found two original photos of her grandmother and her family.

In another case displaying household goods, Nichols discovered what she describes as a rather plain white towel with a crescent moon and star jacquard pattern - her grandmother's Turkish towel.

"I know my grandmother would've been pleased to know that her story was told and her items are on display," Nichols said. "She always talked about not making a difference in this world. But here was the material proof of the difference she made."

In 1912, Toba, 8, her parents, and 10-year-old sister, Annie, were among the more than 12 million immigrants who passed through the gates of Ellis Island immigration center during a 40-year period.

Nichols recalls the family tales about the departure from Palestine, sharing the ride on the camels with crates and live chickens, and then enduring the weeks-long ocean voyage in steerage, the poorest accomodations on the ship.

Upon arrival at Ellis Island, the family of four was questioned and given a cursory health examination.

A doctor determined that the youngest, Toba, had trachoma, a highly contagious eye disease. She was taken to the isolation wards of the island's hospital and the rest of the family was sent on their way to relatives in Baltimore.

The family tale suggests money changed hands and an uncle in Baltimore contacted some politicians, speeding the release of Toba from the hospital and her reunification with her family.

Toba learned English and became a nurse. She later married Milton D. Wilensky, who was born in America, and had a daughter.

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