Ellis Island, nicknamed the “Isle of Hope, Isle of Tears,” was the gateway for over 12 million immigrants to the United States from 1892 through 1954. Three million of those were Jewish immigrants from Europe. This included Lea Michele’s great-grandmother Benuta Veissy. Lea Michele learned how history affected her immigrant ancestor’s experience as American immigration law and a world war collided head on with a love story.
Lea Michele was curious about her father’s Jewish history. This branch of the family was mostly a mystery—her father didn’t even know which country his ancestors had come from. They turned out to be Sephardic Jews from Greece, who had once lived under Ottoman rule. They had been expelled by Spain several hundred years earlier and spoke Ladino, a version of Medieval Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews.
Benuta Veissy immigrated in May of 1918 and was detained at Ellis Island for reasons that today may seem inconceivable: She could not read or write. The Immigration Act of 1917 barred “all immigrants over the age of sixteen who were illiterate.” This made the possibility of Benuta Veissy’s deportation back to Greece very likely.
In December 1917, however, the U.S. had joined WWI. Because of the political unrest in Europe at the time, Benuta was not immediately put on a ship back to Greece.
Gathering information for immigrants using the Ancestry “New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957,” database can provide much information about the immigrant’s place of origin. In this case, it cleared up Benuta Veissy’s birthplace as Greece and provided a specific town where she had been living. Researchers found more information using the often overlooked “U.S. Subject Index to Correspondence and Case Files of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1903-1959,” including the initial details about Benuta’s Ellis Island detainment.
Benuta was transferred to the Philadelphia Immigration Station at Gloucester City, New Jersey, for detainment. She was, effectively, a “prisoner” in her intended new country for almost 6 months. While her experience was not common, many people are unaware of what exactly some of their ancestors went through when they came to America. This is why it’s important to find all the applicable documents when researching immigrants.
On November 16, 1918, Lea Michele’s great-grandmother was temporarily admitted to the U.S. with her fiancé as her sponsor. She signed a document stating that she would surrender herself for deportation at the end of the war. But before that could happen, she married her intended husband, Moishe Veissy.
The marriage sealed her opportunity to remain in the U.S. legally. In this way, with the help of the war, Moishe and Benuta Veissy became permanent U.S. residents. What could have happened had she been deported back to Greece no one can say, but we know her remaining family in Greece was sent to Auschwitz, where most of them perished.
Tips from AncestryProGenealogists:
- Learn as much history as you can when studying the time period of your ancestor’s immigration. On Ancestry you can find books such as The Jew in America, by David Philipson, and A History of Jews in the United States, by Lee J. Levinger. Titles like these can bring the history of a time period to life. You can search for these and other specific titles in the Ancestry Card Catalog under the Search menu.
- Always look for added information on passenger lists. In this case, the family’s confusion about Benuta’s place of origin was cleared up when she listed her place of birth as Greece.
- Not all the information we need is online. In this case, the index to the case files was online, but we had to get the full file directly from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Office in the Department of Homeland Security. The actual file comprised 48 pages, including letters from Benuta and her fiancé. In one of these, her fiancé appealed “to the noble and human heart of the American Government to permit her to reside forever in this great country.”
Learn more about Lea's journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 9|8c on TLC.