Git­tel’s Jour­ney: An Ellis Island Story

Lesléa New­man; Amy June Bates, illus.

By – October 15, 2018

The evoca­tive, time-sat­u­rat­ed imagery that draws the read­er into this sto­ry begins well before the first page of this book that cel­e­brates immi­gra­tion, Jew­ish resilience, hope, courage and new begin­nings. From the artis­tic end­pa­pers show­ing a steamship approach­ing the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty, to Lady Lib­er­ty regal­ly bear­ing her torch in the book’s fron­tispiece, the read­er sens­es that some­thing spe­cial is about to occur before the sto­ry even unfolds.

Nine-year-old Git­tel and her moth­er are prepar­ing to set sail to New York from Europe, where life is dif­fi­cult and dan­ger­ous for Jews. They can’t bring their loved ones or their dear goat but they can bring Basha, Git­tel’s beloved doll, and the fam­i­ly’s tra­di­tion­al candlesticks.

When they arrive at the port, though, the health inspec­tor takes one look at Mama’s red eye and says she won’t be allowed to board the ship. Gittel’s moth­er tells her she must make the jour­ney alone because as fright­en­ing as it sounds, it’s safer than stay­ing in Europe. The long voy­age all alone is scary but Git­tel is brave and does not lose hope. She clutch­es the paper with the name and address of her mother’s cousin in New York, ter­ri­fied that she might lose it, and holds Basha close for comfort.

When the ship arrives at Ellis Island, the note Git­tel has clutched so tight­ly has smeared to illeg­i­bil­i­ty. Even the Yid­dish trans­la­tor can’t read it and does­n’t know where Git­tel should go in the big, con­fus­ing city. He tries to cheer her up and a pho­tog­ra­ph­er takes an endear­ing pho­to that ends up in the Jew­ish news­pa­per. Mama’s cousin sees the pho­to, rec­og­nizes a fam­i­ly resem­blance and comes to take Git­tel home. Gittel’s moth­er even­tu­al­ly joins them in the New World.

This charm­ing tale is based on author Lesléa New­man’s rel­a­tive’s true sto­ry. The accom­pa­ny­ing illus­tra­tions, woven through­out the prose, are paint­ed in rich but sub­tle shades and show expres­sive faces and poses.

A detailed Author’s Note tells more about the time peri­od and the fam­i­ly mem­bers who inspired the sto­ry. It also pro­vides infor­ma­tion about Ellis Island today. A glos­sary, bib­li­og­ra­phy, and list of web­sites for fur­ther learn­ing about immi­gra­tion and Ellis Island are append­ed, so that read­ers and par­ents can learn more about fam­i­lies like Git­tel’s who made the life-chang­ing trip to the Unit­ed States. The warm and hope­ful sto­ry, along with these edu­ca­tion­al enhance­ments, pro­vide a per­fect start­ing point for a dis­cus­sion of immi­gra­tion and its role in the devel­op­ment of the U.S.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions

Fear, courage, resilience, and hope merge in a mar­velous pic­ture book that is every­thing one should be. This warm, empa­thet­ic, his­tor­i­cal tale focus­es on a still cur­rent issue: immi­gra­tion. Gittel’s home­land is no longer safe. Git­tel and her moth­er flee to a new begin­ning, but her moth­er is denied board­ing the ship due to an eye infec­tion. Nine-year-old Git­tel must sail alone, the name and address of her Amer­i­can cousin held so tight­ly that, at land­ing, her sweaty palm has smeared all the ink. An inter­preter res­cues a sob­bing Git­tel; a pho­tog­ra­ph­er snaps her pic­ture, pub­lish­es it in the local Jew­ish news­pa­per. Her cousin rec­og­nizes Git­tel, and comes to claim her until her moth­er can arrive. The sto­ry springs from the author’s fam­i­ly, dis­count­ing naysay­ers: a child could not do this today. The gen­tle text is fast paced, full of the touch­stones of Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, sprin­kled with Yid­dish at per­fect moments. Soft water­col­or illus­tra­tions in a mut­ed brown palette high­light vignettes of Gittel’s jour­ney, includ­ing details of Ellis Island. They cap­ture the expres­sive, tiny girl against the loom­ing ship, first a threat­en­ing behe­moth, lat­er big and sad despite new friends, final­ly pass­ing the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty. This is a first-rate vol­ume, both with rich, thick paper, wood­cuts on the end pages, and art on book cov­er and paper jack­et. Our coun­try as a bea­con of hope jumps off these pages, grabs our eyes, our hearts, and our minds and makes us proud to remem­ber that we are the place to start over.