I was one of 90 people honored by the Ellis Island Honors Society with an Ellis Island Medal of Honor. This has been an annual event since 1986, with medals presented “annually to American citizens who have distinguished themselves within their own ethnic groups while exemplifying the values of the American way of life.” My peer group included Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM; Ajaypal Banga, CEO of Mastercard; Sanjay Gupta, chief medical correspondent of CNN; and my wife Claudia, head of We Are All Human Foundation.
Now for a little family history. Two of my grandparents (paternal) passed through Castle Clinton (the New York City immigration center until 1892) in the mid-1880s. My grandfather was identified as Selig Edelmanova, age 3, travelling with his mother and three older siblings, from Minsk, Russia. His father had emigrated three years before, working as a rabbi in Brooklyn, saving money to bring his family over. My grandmother was Selma Pfeiffer, age 5, travelling with her entire family from Kalisch, Poland. Both families traveled third-class steerage across the Atlantic, having passed through Hamburg on the way to the New World. I know this courtesy of the Hamburg Emigration Museum.
My mother’s father, William Rozumoffsky, came with his family from Sebastopol, Russia, in the mid-1890s. He passed through Ellis Island on his way to Wisconsin, where his family settled in the rising industrial town of Racine. My grandmother, Sonia Gasulivitch, came to the U.S. in a very different way. She came at age 16 in 1916, in the midst of World War I, riding the Trans-Siberian railroad from her hometown of Riga (then Russia, now Latvia) to Vladivostok, then by ship to Japan and on to San Francisco. She took the train with her parents, brother and sister to Chicago, then on to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where relatives had established a dry-goods store.
From a standing start (speaking no English on arrival), three of my four grandparents went to college. Both of my grandfathers went to law school. My paternal grandmother Selma was awarded a scholarship to study piano in Berlin. My maternal grandmother Sonia was a selfless working woman, who started out sorting linens in her uncle’s dry-goods store, then collected rents from tenants. All of five-feet-two-inches tall, she would kindly ask them to pay or leave the property.
What I loved most about the evening was the stories of immigrants striving to make it in the U.S. Rometty’s great-grandmother was a maid, her grandmother a worker in a lampshade factory, her mother a single parent with four children whose father left home “and we had no money, no house and no food. My mom went back to school to earn a college degree and put us through school.” Gupta’s parents had to flee Lahore, Pakistan, after the partition of India, then moved later to the U.S., where they worked tirelessly to afford a college education for their son.
As I stood on the stage in the Great Hall, bowing my head to receive the medal, I thought about my grandparents, especially my grandfather, who would have passed through the Registry Room at Ellis Island with its vaulted ceilings in herringbone style, large picture windows with a view of the Statue of Liberty and giant desks where clerks determined your future based on vision, intelligence and health. In its years of operation from 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island admitted 12 million people, as many as 5,000 per day.
Although I am a third-generation American, I have tried to keep the immigrant hunger as a core part of my being. I have also attempted to pass it along to my three daughters. The rules of the game are work harder than the other person, take nothing for granted, play fairly, treat people rich or poor with respect, give money to charity, and love your country. As I put my hand over my heart to sing the Star-Spangled Banner, I had tears in my eyes, in thanks for the sacrifices of my parents and my forebearers, confident that the dream of America is still very much alive.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.