Ellis Island

John Danahy

Anna’s body pulsated with the motion of the cramped bus filled with warm, stale air, and her head throbbed in time with the whining of the wheels. Perspiration poured down her back, and the pungent smell of sweat turned her face pale and her lips and mouth dry. She felt as if she were sealed in a coffin hurtling toward a past she couldn’t forget.

Helen saw the tightness around Anna’s eyes and mouth. She watched the small beads of sweat travel down her temple, onto her cheek and neck, and disappear into the top of her sweater. Being so close to Anna’s discomfort made her apprehensive, as if she were eavesdropping and fearful of being caught. Helen tried to disregard her friend’s anguish, but her eyes kept returning to the slowly flowing beads of sweat.

Around them on the chartered bus were others from the Senior Citizens’ Club, on an outing to the historic site at Ellis Island. After months of trying, Helen had finally convinced Anna to join the group on one of their outings. A few people were chatting about their grandchildren, and Helen wanted to join them to escape her uneasiness.

Unable to ignore Anna’s discomfort any longer, Helen asked, “What’s bothering you?”

Anna looked at the pattern and counted the rows of knitting in the sweater she was working on. She began to purl a row and replied without looking up.

“It’s Ellis Island,” Anna said. “I remember it as a young girl. All these years I’ve been afraid to go back.”


At the cemetery for her weekly visit with her husband, Bob, Helen Johnson hung a new plant and spread fresh flowers on his grave. She thought she saw her neighbor a few rows of graves away, behind the mountain laurel bush that never seemed to get enough water to fully bloom.

Anna Freiberg had moved next door to Helen the year after Bob died, but kept almost completely to herself. Helen had often looked next door for a glimpse of her new neighbor, but rarely saw her. The mailman said he’d heard that no one had spoken to Mrs. Freiberg since she moved in.

“She’s a loner,” he told Helen, “and some folks say that’s the way she wants it.”

Helen had called on her a few times, and Anna eventually acquiesced to Helen’s attempts to talk, although only superficially and for short visits.

After Helen finished arranging the flowers and watering the plant, she put her things in the trunk of her car and walked among the gravestones toward the mountain laurel. Anna knelt at a grave arranging flowers in a simple stone vase. As Helen got closer, she heard a voice. She smiled, realizing Anna was talking to the grave. Helen hesitated, not wanting to intrude on her neighbor’s private moment. Anna tried several different arrangements for the flowers until one seemed to please her. She got up slowly on one leg, then the other. She smoothed her dress and straightened her hat before turning toward Helen. She winced, as if surprised by the intrusion, but said nothing.

Helen, reading the name on the stone, said, “My husband is buried not far from here. Was Jerald Freiberg your husband?”

“Yes. He died twenty years ago.”

“My Bob has been dead for eight years now. I know how lonely it gets.”

She waited for a reply, but Anna remained tight-lipped and silent. Helen wondered why it was so difficult to draw her out.

“I try to visit him every week,” Helen said. “Do you come here often?”

Anna nodded her head, a puzzled, almost annoyed look on her face.

“I talk to Bob at his grave. I used to think I was being a foolish old woman, but I talked to him every day for fifty-three years, so why should I stop now? Besides, talking to him helps me with the loneliness.”

Anna looked at her, but said nothing. Helen smiled and continued.

“I couldn’t help overhearing. Do you talk to your husband, too?

“Yes,” Anna said after a pause. “It does help with the loneliness.”

More questions swirled through Helen’s mind, but she thought Anna might withdraw if she was too pushy.

“I’m fussy about Bob’s grave,” Helen said. “I simply won’t allow anything but fresh flowers or live plants. Your husband’s grave looks well cared for.”

Helen walked the few remaining steps towards Anna’s husband’s grave, then looked at the stone next to it. “My god, is this your daughter buried next to your husband?”

“Susan,” Anna whispered, then turned away.

“Mother of God—not even four years old! I am so sorry.” Helen thought of her children and grandchildren and how lost she’d be without them now that Bob was gone.

“She was so young,” Anna said, her back still to Helen. “She never had a chance at life.”

Helen’s heart ached for her neighbor, but she didn’t know what to say. “Do you have other family?” she asked after a moment.

Anna knelt on her right knee at her husband’s grave and turned the flowers slightly. With a visible effort, she stood up.

“No. They’re all dead,” Anna said. Her lips parted slightly. She looked over Helen’s shoulder to the road and then at her watch.

“I have to go,” Anna continued. “Come for tea. We’ll talk.” She turned and walked past the laurel, between the rows of graves and toward her car.


The bus slowed abruptly and the driver blew the loud horn. Helen looked out the window as the bus sped up, but couldn’t see the cause. She was shocked by her friend’s revelation about returning to Ellis Island, and turned to face her.

“My God, Anna. I didn’t know you immigrated to this country. Were you with your family? When was this? How old were you?” Helen blurted all at once.

Anna seemed to ignore the burst of questions and continued her knitting. She alternated two rows of knit and two of purl until the square she was working on was done.

“Jerry was the only one who knew,” Anna said. “No one else ever asked. It was a long time ago, when I was a little girl. The memories are not so good.”

Helen looked at her, but didn’t know what to say. Anna continued, her head still down.

“I was five years old when the Allies won the war. We lived in a small village in Austria—my mother, my father, my older sister, Maria, and I. Papa and Mama decided that when the war ended we would go to America, no matter what. Mama said it was to make a better life for us children.

“When Papa got out of the German prison, he was ill and very weak. But Mama said everything would be fine when we got to America, so we went on the trains to France and boarded a boat for America.”

Helen sat frozen, offering neither comfort nor encouragement, trying to absorb the impact of Anna’s words.

“The boat trip was horrible—crowded into a small space, with hot, rancid air smothering us. Maria and I were always hungry and our lips were cracked and dried. The smell of vomit was all around us. And rats. Always the rats.

“Two weeks out, Mama learned that influenza was spreading. People began dying. Papa got weaker every day, and then Maria fell sick. She died four days before we saw land in America. They wrapped her in an oily canvas, like a fish at Saperstein’s Market, and threw her into the ocean.”

Helen’s jaw hung open and she held her hand in front of her mouth, struggling not to make a sound. Anna took a deep breath before going on.

“When we got to Ellis Island, we stood in line for hours, until Papa couldn’t stand any longer. Mama and I struggled to hold him up, but we couldn’t. I stayed in line while Mama and Papa went to the doctors. When she came back, she was alone. I asked for Papa. I was crying, and she told me to hush. She said they sent Papa back to Austria and he would join us in America as soon as he was well. I never saw him again.

“Three months after we left Ellis Island, Mama died of influenza, and I was sent to a foster home.”

She was quiet, paler than before, and sweat dripped from her brow. She looked straight ahead without blinking.

Helen moved her eyes to the window, as if searching the passing landscape for something to say.

How horrible for you,” Helen said. “I had no idea.”

“It was many years ago, and I’ve forgotten the pain. Now I think only of Susan and Jerry.” Anna looked down again and resumed her knitting.


Later that day, Helen looked over Anna’s shoulder as she stood transfixed in front of the computer in the Genealogy Exhibit at Ellis Island. A smile, the first Helen had seen, spread over Anna’s face, and tears appeared at the corners of her eyes. Large white capital letters, flashing on and off, moved steadily left to right across the bright blue screen.

“…H A N S   G R O E B E R    J U N E   4, 1 9 2 0…”

“…C O N T R I B U T E D   B Y   H I S   D A U G H T E R…”

“Papa,” Anna said softly. She was afraid to look away, afraid that it was a cruel dream that would abruptly end and leave her alone again. Another line of letters riveted her attention as it flashed across the screen.

“M R S.   A N N A   B E L G H E T T I    R O A N O K E,   V A.”

But I’m his daughter, she thought. Her heart raced and her breathing quickened. Her mind darted back 70 years as the smell of vomit entered her nostrils from somewhere in the crowd that pressed all around her. In a few moments, the nausea passed and her breathing and heart rate slowed. Her hands trembled as she remembered the last glimpse of her father being taken away. She dropped the pencil and paper she had taken out of her purse. Helen picked them up and handed them to her. Anna, hands still trembling, scrawled the information from the screen.

She thought it had to be a mistake. How could he have returned to America and not found her? Anger rose in her throat. How could he do this to her? Who is this woman the computer claims is his daughter?

Hours later on the bus, Helen watched Anna as she sat without moving or speaking. Anna’s face looked more flush and healthy than Helen had ever seen it. The aftermath of the smile she’d seen earlier lingered around Anna’s mouth and eyes. Then her face hardened and her eyes became dilated with anger. Helen wanted to ask about her father and her family, but decided to wait.

After more than an hour’s silence, Anna folded her hands in her lap and turned to Helen. “The computer says I have a sister,” Anna said. “It says his daughter made a donation to the restoration fund to have his story included. Her name is Anna, too—Mrs. Anna Belghetti. It says my father came back to Ellis Island and later lived in Virginia. Helen, can any of this be true?”

Helen closed her book and put it in her purse. She wasn’t sure if her friend wanted an answer, or what her answer should be.

“You should be happy,” Helen said. “After all these years, you have a sister to share your life. Do you know where to find her?”

“How could he leave me in those foster homes?” Anna asked, ignoring Helen’s question. “How could he marry again? How can her name be Anna?”

Helen had no answers. She felt helpless and inadequate, and angry that she couldn’t offer her friend solace or, at least, advice. They sat inches apart, a wall of anguish and despair between them.

Helen and Anna were among the first off the bus as it arrived at the Senior Citizens’ Center.

“Are you okay?” Helen asked, breaking a long silence, not knowing what else to say.

“I’ve spent my whole life longing for him and Mama and Maria,” Anna said. “How could he do this?”

“I know it must hurt,” Helen said, “but you have family now, and you have to reach out to them. Anna, you don’t have to be alone anymore.”

“I’ve been alone for seventy years,” Anna said, holding her friend’s eyes. She put her hand gently on Helen’s shoulder. “Go home to your family. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

On the drive home, Helen worried about Anna. Then she remembered that her grandchildren would be awake, waiting for Gram to read them a story. Later, after tucking them in, she poured a glass of wine, and sat in her rocker thinking of Anna.

Anna drove home, put her things away, fixed a cup of tea, and sat at her table. She picked up the paper on which she’d written the address, unfolded it halfway, refolded it, and replaced it on the counter. She sat at her table until dawn, then got up and went to bed.

Anna woke around three in the afternoon, got dressed, and went directly to the telephone. The long distance information operator gave her the number. As she dialed the phone, thoughts of Maria and the boat flooded her mind.

“Hello,” a voice answered. “This is Anna.”

“I can’t do this,” Anna thought, and started to put the receiver down.

“Hello. Is anyone there?”

The voice had a mostly southern accent, but with a vaguely familiar tone.

“This is the Belghetti residence. Who’s there?”

My God! She sounds like Maria, Anna thought. 

“My name is Anna, too,” she said aloud. “Why, why didn’t he find me?”

“Who is this?” Mrs. Belghetti said. “Anna who? Who didn’t find you?”

“Papa. My Papa. He left us at Ellis Island.”

“Mother of God! Do you mean Hans Groeber?”

“He’s my father.”

“Is this, can you be Anna Groeber?”

“Why would he give away my name?” 

Anna could feel the cold ocean spray on her face and see the filthy canvas disappear beneath the gray swells as Mrs. Belghetti said her father had named her Anna after his beloved baby daughter. 

“He talked of you often,” Mrs. Belghetti said. “After returning to America, he spent years searching for you. His heart was broken when he had to give you up for dead.”

Anna struggled to catch her breath as each answer revealed more of her father. She felt the soft curls of her mother’s hair touch her face and smelled the strudel that clung to her apron as Mama tucked her into bed.

“I can barely remember my mother’s face,” Anna told her. “What was your mother like?”

“She had long blonde hair and was very beautiful. Her Mom died when she was very young, and she was raised in Georgia by her Daddy.”

“Can I be your sister?” Anna asked, her soft, cracking voice barely audible. 

“Please, oh yes, please” was all she heard, as the other Anna’s voice was drowned out in her mind by the sounds of her mother’s delirious, fevered ranting. Anna’s hands trembled as she hung up the phone.


Helen kept herself busy around the house, waiting for the call from Anna that never came. The next day she decided to visit Anna to see if she wanted company. Anna welcomed her without a word, made a pot of tea, and sat at the kitchen table looking out the window. Helen looked into her eyes, searching for happiness or pain or anger, but saw what she thought was resolve. Anna broke the silence.

“The first word of English that Maria and I learned on the boat was ‘piss.’ We had to go so badly we couldn’t wait one minute longer. One of the adults told us at last how to ask the boatswain. Papa was so embarrassed when we said that word, but we just giggled.”

Anna smiled deeply, warmed by the first pleasant memory of her childhood that she’d had in a very long time.

“I’m leaving tomorrow for Roanoke, Virginia,” Anna said, “to meet my father’s daughter. My sister. It feels strange and wonderful to say ‘my sister’ after all these years. Maybe my heart can’t stand to lose anyone else, but I’m old, and perhaps I won’t have to find out.”

John Danahy's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Aim Magazine, The Alembic, Amarillo Bay, Art Times, Desert Voices, Forge, Good Works Review, The Griffin, Haight Ashbury Literary Journal, Literary Nest, The MacGuffin, North Atlantic Review, The Penmen Review, riverSedge, Salt River Review, Sanskrit, and Valparaiso Fiction Review.

Return to Contents