The Long Way Home

Jump to:  Twelve Who Served  |  Excerpt I  |  Excerpt II  |  Reading Group Guide

About the Book

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants—never more so than in 1917 when the nation entered the First World War. Of the 2.5 million soldiers who fought with U.S. armed forces in the trenches of France and Belgium, some half a million—nearly one out of every five men—were immigrants. In The Long Way Home, David Laskin, author of the prize-winning history The Children’s Blizzard, tells the stories of twelve of these immigrant heroes. Starting with their childhoods in Europe, Laskin unfolds the saga of their journeys to Ellis Island, their struggles to start over in the land of opportunity, and the ordeal of their return to Europe in uniform to fight—and win—a war that had already killed tens of millions.

Three of these soldiers died on the battlefield; two won the Congressional Medal of Honor; all were transformed forever by their experiences in combat. It is a transformation that continues to be felt in the pride and pain and cherished memories of immigrant families that have long since assimilated.

In tracing the lives of these twelve men, Laskin tells the story of an immigrant generation—a generation that streamed into this country in unprecedented numbers around the turn of the last century, that sweated to support their families through back-breaking physical labor, and that fought loyally for their adopted country on the battlefields of Belleau Wood, Soissons, St. Mihiel and the Argonne forest.

Based on stories, letters, and diaries passed on by descendants—as well as Laskin’s personal interviews with two foreign-born Doughboys who were still alive at the time he was researching the book, The Long Way Home is a reverent work of history and a deeply moving evocation of the dreams and sacrifice at the heart of the American experience.

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Twelve Who Served

Epifanio Affatato Epifanio Affatato. Born Scala Coeli, Italy, January 3, 1895; emigrated with his brother 1911; joined his father and worked as laborer Brooklyn, NY and briefly on railroads in Des Moines, Iowa; entered the army April 1, 1918; served as private first class with Company C, 107th Infantry, 27th Division.
Joseph Chmielewski Joseph Chmielewski. Born Russian Partition of Poland, 1896; emigrated 1912; joined his brother and worked as coal miner, South Fork, Pennsylvania; entered the army June 17, 1917; served as private with Company A, 16th Machine Gun Battalion, Sixth Division.
Andrew Christofferson Andrew Christofferson. Born Haugesund, Norway, April 14, 1890; emigrated with his sister-in-law and her children 1911; worked as farm laborer in Larimore, North Dakota, and homesteaded Chinook, Montana; entered the army June 25, 1918; served as private first class Company M, 321st Infantry, 81st Wildcat Division.
Maximilian Cieminski Maximilian Cieminski. Born Polonia, Wisconsin, October 11, 1891 to immigrants from Kaszubia (Prussian Partition of Poland); worked as miner and night-watchman in his brother-in-law’s brewery, Bessemer, Michigan; entered the army November 19, 1917; served as private with Company C, 102nd Infantry, 26th “Yankee” Division.
Samuel Dreben Samuel Dreben. Born Poltava, Ukraine, June 1, 1878; emigrated 1899; enlisted U.S. Infantry 1899 and fought in the Philippines, where he was dubbed “the Fighting Jew”; fought as soldier of fortune in Central America; served in the War as sergeant with Company A, 141st Infantry, 36th Division.
Meyer Epstein Meyer Epstein. Born Uzda, Russian Pale of Settlement, 1892; emigrated on the Lusitania 1913; worked as hauler and plumber, New York City; entered the army April 27, 1918; served as private with Company H, 58th Infantry, 4th “Ivy” Division.
Samuel Goldberg Samuel Goldberg. Born Lodz, Russian Pale of Settlement, March 19, 1900; emigrated with his mother and siblings 1907; lived in Newark, New Jersey and later worked in automobile dealership, Atlanta, Georgia; entered the U.S. Cavalry May 6, 1918; served with Company M Troop, 12th Cavalry Regiment.
Matej Kocak Matej Kocak. Born December 30, 1882 in Gbely, Slovak section of Austria-Hungary; emigrated 1907; enlisted United States Marine Corps, October 15, 1907 and reenlisted twice; served in the War as sergeant with 66th (C) Company, 5th Marine Regiment, Second Division.
Tommaso Ottaviano Tommaso Ottaviano. Born Ciorlano, Italy May, 1896; emigrated with his mother and siblings 1913; worked as machine operator, Lymansville, Rhode Island; entered army April 27, 1918; served as private with Company I, 310th Infantry, 78th Division.
Antonio Pierro Antonio Pierro. Born Forenza, Italy, February 15, 1896; emigrated with a cousin 1913; worked as laborer in Swampscott, Massachusetts; entered the army October 4, 1917; served as private with Battery E, 320th Field Artillery 82nd “All American” Division.
Peter Thompson Peter Thompson. Born Country Antrim, Ireland, September 4, 1895; emigrated 1914; worked in copper mines Butte, Montana; entered the army summer, 1917; served as private first class (later promoted to sergeant) with Company E, 362nd Infantry, 91st “Wild West” Division.
Michael Valente Michael Valente. Born Sant’ Apollinare, Italy, February 5, 1895; emigrated 1913; worked as orderly in a mental hospital, Ogdensburg, New York; enlisted in New York National Guard, 1916; served in the War as private with Company D, 107th Infantry, 27 Division.

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Excerpt I

Introduction

Antonio Pierro—a dapper, dark-eyed, young private in the field artillery—spent the morning of October 17, 1918, feeding shells packed with phosgene gas to the big guns in the Argonne forest in France. Tony’s unit—the All American Division’s 320th Field Artillery—opened fire on the tiny village of Champigneulle at 6:10 A.M., and they kept it up until they had laid down twenty-six hundred rounds of phosgene. When that cloud of poison proved ineffective against the German occupiers, the All Americans fired off an additional 1,200 phosgene rounds just before noon. The second barrage did the trick—or seemed to. The Germans left Champigneulle and streamed into the nearby scrap of woods, the Bois des Loges, where they proceeded to slaughter the faltering, inexperienced American infantry.

Before the battle, Tony had transported artillery shells to the front with a horse and cart. Now that same cart was piled with the bodies of men who died on October 17 trying—and failing—to seize that bit of woods. Hundreds of American soldiers would perish in the Bois des Loges in the final weeks of October, 1918, but Tony was one of the lucky ones. I know to the last decimal just how lucky because eight-eight years later I sat down with him in the sunny back garden of his house in the seaside town of Swampscott, Massachusetts and prodded him to ruminate on his life and times. It was July 8, 2006, and Tony Pierro was halfway through his 111th year. One hundred and ten years old. To me it seemed inconceivable to be face to face with someone who had gone to war when Woodrow Wilson was the commander in chief.

But service and survival were not the only extraordinary things about Tony Pierro. The very fact that he was living out his days in this lovely, prosperous, quintessentially American setting was in itself a remarkable feat, the final chapter in a humble epic that had begun in an impoverished hill town in the south of Italy. For Tony was not only a soldier, but an immigrant. Though he fought in France with the All Americans, at the time of his service he was not technically an American at all. Born in the far south region of Basilicata in 1896, Tony had emigrated to Massachusetts in 1913 at the age of seventeen. Like millions of other immigrants in the first decades of the 20th century, he passed through Ellis Island, moved in with relatives who had come before him, and went to work at the first job he could find. Four years later, when the army mailed him a letter ordering him to report for duty, Tony went to war. Even though he was still a citizen of Italy, Tony fought for the United States. Some half a million other immigrants from forty-six different nations did the same. At the height of the nation’s involvement in the Great War, fully 18 percent—nearly one in five—of the 4.7 million Americans in uniform had been born overseas.

Tony Pierro didn’t say much about how fighting with the All American Division had changed his life or his relationship with his adopted country. He didn’t have to. The facts spoke for themselves. Nearly nine decades later he still had his discharge papers; he was still proud that he had chosen to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces instead of returning to Italy (our ally in that war) to serve in the Italian army; he still remembered his joyous disbelief when the Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918; he still loved his country, by which he meant the country in whose military he had served.

Tony did not choose to fight in the Great War. It was not a conflict he had a stake in or really understood. He had no great love for the discipline or privations of army life. Nonetheless, he fought bravely and loyally. In fighting for America, he and thousands of immigrants like him became Americans.

God knows military service was the last thing most of these men had in mind when they and their families came to this country. Many, in fact, had emigrated expressly to avoid mandatory military service. America before the war had no draft, its army was tiny compared to the behemoths massing in Europe, its military culture quiescent. Had Tony Pierro remained in Italy, Meyer Epstein in the Russian Pale, Andrew Christofferson in Norway, Joe Chmielewski in the Russian section of Poland, all of them would have faced compulsory military service. They came to America for freedom, and freedom from the army was a big part of it. They came to America not to fight but to work—and America obliged, however grudgingly, with dirty, back-breaking unskilled jobs. Tony dug a rich man’s garden; Meyer hauled radiators through the streets of New York; Andrew reaped wheat on the prairie; Joe mined coal in the hills of western Pennsylvania. Americans gave them work—but as more and more of them poured in, Americans began to doubt the wisdom of keeping the golden door open. They worried about what all these foreigners would do to the strength and purity and complexion of the population. By the early 20th century, some 14 percent of the country was foreign-born—and every year hundreds of thousands of fresh ones were arriving from the ghettoes of Eastern Europe and the blasted villages of southern Italy. The likes of Tony Pierro and Meyer Epstein and Epifanio Affatato and Peter Thompson were fine to build and dig and haul—but what if they were called on to fight? Would they? Could they?

The questions took on a new edge when Europe went to war in August of 1914. Most of the immigrants came from the belligerent nations. How would they react? Would Slavs, Italians, Poles and Germans return “home” to fight for their native lands? or would they import the conflict into the streets of New York, Chicago, Buffalo, Boston? Anti-immigrant sentiment, which had been intensifying as the numbers of aliens rose, exploded. Politicians insisted that hyphenated Americans must choose—100 percent American or not American at all. After the Russian Revolution broke out in 1917, fear of foreigners fused with the fear of Bolsheviks. Wild rumors circulated of an alien fifth column poised to poison reservoirs, blow up munitions supplies, undermine the government. It was Europe’s war, but Europe’s wretched refuse was smuggling the horror into the cities and towns of America.

Everything changed, as it always does, when the nation declared war on April 6, 1917. The United States needed an army—a sizeable army—in a hurry, and immigrants overnight went from being a dangerous threat to a valuable resource. Valuable, but unstable. The fundamental issue was Would they fight?, but the more pressing question was Would they understand orders? When Tony arrived at Camp Gordon for training in the fall of 1917, three-quarters of his fellow recruits did not speak English. The enlistees from New York pouring into Camp Upton on Long Island spoke forty-three different languages. To speak of cannon fodder was distasteful in time of war, but these swarthy, brutal, jabbering aliens did not even know what a cannon was. If they weren’t cowards, they would be traitors. Or spies. How would they fight when they couldn’t even drill?

Everything changed, as it always does, when the men went into battle together. Tony Pierro had never wanted to be a soldier. Neither did Meyer Epstein, Tommaso Ottaviano, or Max Cieminski. But all of them shipped out to France in the spring and summer of 1918. All of them got crammed in box cars, transported east to the front line, marched down roads deep in mud and strewn with corpses, handed rifles. And when they were told to go over the top, they did it—and so did the overwhelming majority of other foreign-born soldiers. Most of them didn’t give a damn about making the world safe for democracy. God and country were the last things on their minds. They fought not for an idea but because the sergeant ordered them to fight, because their buddy was fighting, because they were part of a platoon. But in the end, they also fought because they were Americans. Maybe in the grand scheme of things they were cannon fodder, another 150 pounds in the avalanche of flesh that the generals were piling on the enemy—but to the amazement of their officers, and sometimes themselves, they fought like American soldiers.

“Our minds were becoming warped,” said Italian immigrant Giuseppe (Joe) Nicola Rizzi—Woppy to his buddies—of what happened to him and his comrades in the 35th Division after weeks of bloodshed in the Argonne. “I had become as vicious as the rest. Our nerves were mighty strained. We were crabbing about everything in general—hunger, cold and fatigue. Still, the last puff of a cigarette would be split up; the last bit of chewing tobacco was passed around; the last can of corned willie shared. You see, we were all buddies.” War has its own strange alchemy. Soldiers fear and hate and grouse about every minute of it—and yet nothing else in their lives compares to the intensity, the selflessness, the significance of combat. “Combatants live only for their herd,” writes war correspondent Chris Hedges in his searing book War Is a Force that Gives us Meaning. “Those hapless soldiers who are bound into their unit to ward off death. There is no world outside the unit. It alone endows worth and meaning. Soldiers will die rather than betray this bond. And there is—as many combat veterans will tell you—a kind of love in this.” In the First World War, this bond became especially powerful for the foreign-born. To their fellow soldiers they were Kikes, Wops, Micks, Hunkies—no matter how the War Department tried, they couldn’t stamp out these ethnic slurs. But after the battles fought at Soissons, Blanc Mont, Montfaucon, the Hindenburg Line, and the Bois des Loges, the slurs became terms of camaraderie. “You see, we were all buddies.”

“To go ‘home’ to the USA means more to us as immigrants fighting for our adopted country,” wrote Morris Gutentag, a Jew who had emigrated from Warsaw in 1913 and enlisted in the 77th Division (nicknamed the Ghetto or Melting Pot Division because it drew so heavily on immigrants living in New York). “I was proud that I fought for and we won the war and all my family shared in that. I never regretted it.” Many felt the same way. No man could explain why he was proud of being forced to endure madness, viciousness, filth, hunger, cold, mud, disease, and the unspeakable horror of killing or being killed. But the hell was an essential part of the alchemy of war—an alchemy with the power to strangers, even despised aliens, into comrades.

Not that they had it easy when they were shipped back across the Atlantic after the war. Woppy may have become a term of endearment in the Argonne, but in the Red Scare era that followed hard on the heels of the war, immigrants became the target of vicious attacks and discrimination. It didn’t matter that you’d won a medal for bravery, if your name was Cieminski, Rizzi, Dreben, Kocak or Valente, you were dangerous, subversive, potentially Bolshevik and anti-American. Immigrant soldiers came home from the war to discover that someone else had been hired to do their jobs, that the resurgent Ku Klux Klan openly advocated their deportation, that in the popular press and back-street mutterings they were being lumped together with the “Huns” they had fought in France and Belgium. Pogroms erupted once again in Eastern Europe—but now the Jewish victims had nowhere to flee. In 1921 and 1924, Congress voted overwhelmingly to cut the flow of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe to a trickle. The parades had barely ended when the doors started slamming shut.

But the pride that Morris Gutentag and thousands like him brought back from the war proved to be a most valuable commodity. Immigrants had learned to stand up for themselves in the army, they had picked up American slang and American swagger, they had mingled for the first time with people from outside their groups—and there was no going back to the way life had been. No one was going to convince these men and their families that they weren’t real Americans, that their pride and patriotism didn’t count.

The same holds true today. Currently about five percent of the troops on active duty in America’s armed forces were born overseas. “Their service is steeped in pride, but also in the paradoxes of allegiance inherent in serving under a foreign flag,” reports Patrik Jonsson in The Christian Science Monitor of contemporary immigrant soldiers. Jonsson quotes a senior spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security saying that foreign-born soldiers “identify with the ideals of the United States and they are willing to fight and protect those ideal, even before they’ve secured all the liberties of citizenship.” Two key differences between our current wars and the First World War are worth noting: today all soldiers, foreign and native born alike, serve voluntarily while the majority in both groups who fought in 1917 and 1918 was drafted; second, the largest groups of immigrant soldiers are no longer Italians, Poles and Jews but Filipinos and Mexicans.

Different names, different faces, but the issues and feelings have altered little. The journey from alien to citizen—something American immigrants and their descendants carry in their DNA—is both hastened and skewed by war. We all bear the scars and the rewards of this journey, though for those who have fought, who are fighting now, the scars are deeper, the rewards more precious. The journeys that unfold in this book are unique, peculiar to the circumstances of the individuals and the pressures of their time and place. But the outcome is familiar. All of us have come this way; many more are coming still.

Change is one of the great imponderables in the life of an individual, a culture, or a nation. We crave change, or think we do, but rarely do we control or comprehend the forces that bring it about. Great fortune or misfortune, love and loss, inspiration, revelation, a truly new idea, natural or human-induced disaster, friendship, war, relocation: these are among the prime movers of personal change and, in the aggregate, social change. The immigrant soldiers who fought in the Great War experienced two of these fundamental changes almost simultaneously. In many cases just a few years or even months separated their arrival at Ellis Island from their induction in the American Expeditionary Forces. The coincidence profoundly altered the course of their lives. Some were decorated for heroism, passing cherished medals on to their sons and daughters. Some came home broken men, maimed by artillery shells or machine-gun bullets, permanently disabled by poison gas, shell-shocked, alcoholic, unreachably depressed. Some marched with chests thrust out in Memorial Day parades but awoke night after night screaming from combat nightmares. Some—too many—never came home or returned in coffins that had been carefully exhumed from battlefields or foreign cemeteries and shipped back under military escort. Every story is different. Even the ones with happy endings bring tears to the eyes. Every story concerns a life—and often the life of a family—that took a sharply different course because of the changes wrought together by immigration and war.

Tony Pierro was born in Italy in 1896, emigrated to America the year before Europe went to war, and entered the American Army six months after Congress voted to declare war on Germany. It was a classic trajectory for young immigrant men of Tony’s generation—still numerically the greatest generation of American immigration. Half a million other foreign-born soldiers shared the same fate. In the pages that follow I recount the stories of twelve of them—twelve men who epitomize what this generation of immigrants endured and how they changed in the course of their journeys from immigrant to soldier to citizen. For each of the twelve, I begin in Europe, going as far back as memory and family lore penetrate. I describe the journeys, almost always unforgettably traumatic, from village to port, and from port to Ellis Island in the reeking steerage of the immigrant ship. As the young men and their families spread out—to Boston; Brooklyn; Butte, Montana; Polonia, Wisconsin; South Fork, Pennsylvania; El Paso, Texas—their first priority was inevitably to make a living. But when the world went to war, that priority was rocked by more pressing concerns—concerns for the fate of the countries they had left behind, for family now living and fighting in the war zone. The nearly three and a half years that passed between the outbreak of war and America’s entry was a period of intense strain and conflicting loyalties for these men—and that strain only increased after April 1917 when their adopted country became one of the belligerent powers. Of the dozen men I follow—three Jews, four Italians, two Poles, one Irishman, a Norwegian and a Slovak—six were drafted, four enlisted, two were career soldiers who had spent almost their entire American lives in uniform. Three of these men died in France—two on the battlefield, one of wounds sustained in battle. Two won the Congressional Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military award for valor. Together the twelve fought in every major engagement that the AEF pursued in Europe—Belleau Wood; the Aisne-Marne Offensive; St. Mihiel, the first battle planned and executed solely by the Americans; the breaking of the Hindenburg Line at the end of September, 1918; and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive that won the war. The combat experiences of these dozen men—the hours in which they tossed grenades, shuddered under the pounding of artillery shells, crouched in shell holes while the air sizzled with machine gun fire, died of raging fevers from infected wounds—do not add up to a comprehensive military history of the war. But their actions under fire do frame some of the most critical and proud moments of the war. Moments that changed both the outcome of the fighting and the outcome of the lives I have been privileged to follow. Moments that have proven to be impossible to forget.

The narrative also includes the stories of two men who died not in uniform but nonetheless in combat directly related to the war. Their deaths—the result of persecution to the point of torture of German-Americans and German-speaking conscientious objectors—are also a part of the immigrant experience of this war.

Each of the men who appears in this book is remembered, loved and honored to this day—I know this for a fact because their families have come forward to share stories, letters, diaries, grief, and inevitably pride. The descendants of these immigrant soldiers—children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews—cherish photos and medals, display discharge papers framed on their living room walls, preserve uniforms and helmets, pass down memories of how their ancestor came to this country, when and why he fought in the war, and what happened to him. They weren’t all heroes, these immigrant soldiers, but they all fought bravely and they are all remembered with love and with honor. This is a story that continues to unfold in the fabric of American life.

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Excerpt II

Ellis Island 1911: One Journey Ends, Another Begins

In this passage I describe the arrival of Epifanio Affatato and his brother Carmine at Ellis Island in January 1911. In many ways the Affatato brothers were typical of southern Italian immigrants at that time — young, eager, traveling to join family already in America. Their processing on Ellis Island, though ridden with anxiety, was swift and relatively painless — and this was typical as well. I have also included a paragraph about the Ellis Island medical examination of seven-year-old Samuel Goldberg, who emigrated with his mother and siblings in 1907. The Goldbergs were terrified that Sam’s inflammation of the eyes would bar them from entering the Golden Door.

By the time they disembarked at the Ellis Island pier, the Affatato brothers were dazed by exhaustion and hunger. It had been hours since they had had anything to eat or drink. The din of foreign languages was relentless. Somehow as they entered the portal of the gorgeous palace of red brick and white limestone and carved taloned eagles and towers capped with spiked hemispheres, they were made to understand they must surrender all of their bags and stow them in the cavernous baggage room. The only thing they kept on hand were their landing tickets marked with their numbers on the ship’s manifest — Carmine was 8, Epifanio 9. Despite the sea light dazzling at the banks of high windows, it was dark inside the ground floor of the palace of immigrants — dark and unbelievably noisy. Shouts, cries, murmurs, wails, baby screams, barked commands, whined demands — everything but relaxed laughter — bounced off the tile floors and ceilings, collided, re-echoed, merged, amplified, resonated in deafening waves.

After the baggage room they were herded to the back of another line, a long one that continued up steep flights of stairs and disappeared at the top. The doctors standing at the head of the stairs were surveying the flock for culls. Those too lame to mount the steps without help, those whose panting or sweating might be a sign of heart disease, anyone who seemed unduly bewildered or disoriented — all of the sick and halt had letters chalked on their shoulders. Through an interpreter, a doctor told Epifanio to hold still while he examined his face, neck, hands and hair. Nothing wrong with him, nothing with Carmine. They continued.

The stairs were just the prologue — the real medical inspection was still to come. Seven-year-old Samuel Goldberg, his mother Sarah and three siblings were ushered into a kind of corridor delineated by metal pipes and bars. Doctors worked the crowd in teams. Sarah was asked to remove her hat so the doctor could see if scabs or sores lurked at the roots of her long blonde hair. The children had to stop while the doctor examined each of their dirty hands and faces in turn. At the end of the corridor, another doctor performed the dreaded eye exam. Sarah held her breath while the doctor took a long hooked stick — a button-hook of the kind that was once used for lacing up boots — and peeled back Sam’s eyelids. She was frantic at the idea that the boy might be detained — sent to the hospital — sent back to Poland. But no. It was all over in two minutes. The family had gotten through. On to the next stage.

Trachoma, conjunctivitis, hernia, goiter, venereal disease, leprosy, ringworm, favus, dysentery, tuberculosis, mental retardation and insanity, drunkenness, impudence, surliness, obvious stupidity: any of these was grounds for detaining an immigrant for further examination and possible deportation. Several thousand were treated every year at the Ellis Island Marine Hospital, the largest percentage by far suffering from trachoma. Despite the rumors and horror stories that circulated through steerage, despite the fear and trembling with which new arrivals faced the examiners, deportation on medical grounds was rare. Some 98 percent of those who passed through Ellis Island were ultimately admitted.

The final verdict was delivered upstairs in the celestial vaulted Registry Room. Rust-colored tiles on the floor, tan tiles covering the vaulted ceiling, immense arched windows set high above an encircling balcony — it was like the nave of a church, even more crowded than Easter Sunday, vibrating with a chorus of 5000 voices, practically bursting with the convective energy of prayer. Wooden benches filled the center of the space; dusty semi-circles of light slanted down from the clerestory windows. Inspectors and interpreters stationed in rows at the far end of the room called out names and the chosen would rise and rush to the altar. Immigrants knew that they would be asked to corroborate the information that had already been recorded on the ships’ manifests — their final destination in the US, how much money they had, name and address of the relative they were joining, whether they were anarchists or polygamists — but still the fear of failing to clear this last hurdle knotted their stomachs. In fact, the great rustling ceremony in the Registry Room cathedral was more or less a formality. Unless you were a criminal, a contract laborer, clearly immoral or unable to support yourself and your family, you were in. Ellis Island was a form of purgatory — but for most it was a swift transient purgatory. For all the dread, the average time of processing was just five hours. It had to be swift — in these years an average of 5,000 immigrants arrived at Ellis Island each day, and on busy days it could be twice that. The high water mark was reached on April 17, 1907, when 11,747 newcomers passed through Ellis Island.

The end went fast. Dazed or delirious, stamped papers in hand, the arrivals passed through an arch at the far end of the Registry Room and descended back to ground level on three sets of steep staircases — the Stairs of Separation. At the bottom, the river of bodies divided into three streams. “New York Outsides” turned left and exited through a door marked “Push, To New York” that opened to the landing dock for the ferry to lower Manhattan; the “New York Detaineds” continued straight ahead to a crowded room where they sat killing time until they were met a by husband, father, cousin, friend, or some other kind soul from the Old Country willing to help them get established in New York; those stamped “Railroads” went to the right to a rail ticket office and baggage check area at the rear of the building where agents booked their passage on one of 12 railroads or 3 steamship companies.

There was no time to say goodbye. Nobody told them anything. They turned right or left and disappeared forever into the vastness of America.

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Reading Group Guide

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants, never more so than in 1917 when the nation entered the First World War. Of the 2.5 million soldiers who fought with U.S. armed forces in the trenches of France and Belgium, some half a million—nearly one out of every five men—were immigrants. In The Long Way Home, David Laskin tells the stories of twelve of these immigrant heroes. Starting with their childhoods in Europe, the book unfolds the saga of their journeys to Ellis Island, their struggles to start over in the land of opportunity, and the ordeal of their return to Europe in uniform to fight—and win—a war that had already killed tens of millions.

In tracing the lives of these twelve men, the book captures the complex story of an immigrant generation—one that streamed into this country in unprecedented numbers around the turn of the last century, that sweated to support their families through back-breaking physical labor, and that fought loyally for their adopted country on the battlefields of Belleau Wood, Soissons, St. Mihiel, and the Argonne forest. Laskin also brings to light the tragic story of four German-speaking Americans who were imprisoned and tortured by U.S. military authorities for their refusal to serve on religious grounds.

Based on stories, letters, and diaries passed on by descendants as well as the author’s personal interviews with two foreign-born Doughboys who were still alive at the time he was researching the book, The Long Way Home evokes the dreams and the sacrifice at the heart of the American experience.

  1. Here in the U.S., the First World War is often called the “forgotten war,” overshadowed by the Civil War before it and the Second World War just a generation later. Discuss how The Long Way Home altered and informed your understanding of this chapter of American history. Compare the American experience in the Great War to that of Britain, France and Germany.
  2. Laskin structures his narrative as a series of overlapping stories of twelve men. Did you find this an effective way of capturing the immigrant experience in the war? How successfully do think the book balances the “foreground” stories of the individual men with the historical background of their period? How else might this story have been told?
  3. Teddy Roosevelt decried “hyphenated Americans” and insisted that the only true American was “100 percent American”—yet Laskin shows that thousands of immigrants made brave and loyal soldiers. To what extent do you think that immigrants need to put the heritage and culture of their country of origin behind them in order to serve effectively in our armed forces?
  4. The Ellis Island experience remains a powerful icon of American history—the Atlantic crossing in steerage, the confusing processing in the Registry Hall, the emotional reunion with relatives. Did The Long Way Home teach you anything new or surprising about this experience? Have any Ellis Island stories come down in your own families? Discuss and compare.
  5. In the popular imagination, World War I was an endless quagmire of trenches, mud, poison gas, and shell shock. How does Laskin’s portrayal of the experiences of his twelve men confirm and/or depart from this popular image? What were you most struck by in the war scenes that Laskin recreates? Which battle did you find most gripping, most revealing, most disturbing? Choose one war scene and talk about the details, style, point of view or narrative technique that made it come to life.
  6. Immigration remains a critical and hotly debated subject in our society today. What insights does The Long Way Home shed on our current immigration issues? How do today’s immigrants compare with those who came through Ellis Island in terms of education, aspirations, attitudes toward their adoptive country? What about immigrants fighting in the United States armed forces today—how do you think their experiences compare with those of the men in The Long Way Home?
  7. Laskin argues that the Great War was the watershed experience in the lives of the Ellis Island generation of immigrants—the key milestone in their journey to become Americans. Do you agree with this thesis? If not, what other events, experiences, ideas would you point to that had a greater impact in Americanizing that generation?
  8. The word “melting pot” is used frequently in connection with immigration to the U. S.—yet as The Long Way Home makes clear, the various groups in the melting pot rarely fused or “melted” into a consistent whole. Italians, Jews, Poles, etc. retained their identities—and in many cases their descendants continue to hold onto the culture and pride of their ancestors. Talk about the role of the melting pot in the American popular imagination. What about your own families? Discuss your various ethnic backgrounds and to what extent your heritage remains alive and important to you today.
  9. Of the twelve men in the book, which one was your favorite—and why? Laskin includes two Medal of Honor recipients, three men who died in action, one who was in the military but never shipped out, several who were ordinary soldiers who did nothing remarkable or distinguished. Talk about how Laskin individualizes the members of his cast and what personal details you found particularly striking. Which character would you most like to meet? What would you ask him?
  10. The story of the drafting, trial, imprisonment and torture of the three Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf is one of the most disturbing parts of the book. Talk about how you reacted to this element in the story and whether you think the author presented it fairly and impartially. Do you think these Hutterite men were at fault for clinging so stubbornly to their refusal to do any non-combatant work in the army? Or did you admire them for their willingness to sacrifice everything, even life itself, for their faith? Compare the treatment these men endured at Alcatraz and Leavenworth with the conditions in which political prisoners are held today. Broaden your discussion to examine the whole idea of conscientious objection and how to balance individual morality with the nation’s need for defense.
  11. Discuss the style of The Long Way Home. Do you think the style was well-suited to the subject matter? Find and discuss passages that you found particularly well (or badly) written, or that stood out for other reasons. Compare the book to other recent works of creative non-fiction—The Children’s Blizzard by the same author, Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Point to some of the techniques that these books employ in bringing history alive.
  12. The book ends with an epilogue bringing the stories up to the present. Did you think this was an effective way of ending the book—or do you feel it would have been better if Laskin stopped at the end of the war? Did you read the end notes? If so, how did they contribute to your understanding of the kind of material the author used in putting the story together?

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