As a tribute to the French people in light of the terrorist attack in Paris on November 13th, 2015, we are re-posting the two pieces Bob wrote about our trips to Paris. Click here to read Bob’s second post entitled, Trust in the Power of Prayer.
Pat and I were travelling by boat through the middle of Paris along the River Seine in 1982. As our boat approached a bridge called Pont de Grenelle, a familiar figure came into view. We knew that woman well, even though we had never met her before. She stood on Ile aux Cygnes (Island of Swans), a man made island in mid river adjacent to the bridge. She is a bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty, which stands in New York Harbor. This lady in Paris is much smaller than the American original, given by France to the United States in 1880 to mark the centenary of US independence. She was given to France a few years later by Americans living in Paris in appreciation of France’s larger gift. Who is the lady in both statues? Apparently, she’s something of a mixture. The sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (1834 – 1904), is said to have used the face of his mother and the body of his wife. He clearly was fearful of omitting either mother or wife from his creation. Until 1937, the smaller statue faced east. This avoided her offending the locals by turning her back on the President of France in the Elysee Palace. Yet she should really have been facing west and looking towards the new world. This she has been allowed to do for the past 75 years.
We did not meet the American original until another boat trip, which Pat and I were taking around New York Harbor in the summer of 2011. The lady there is made of copper and is 151 feet tall, if one measures to the top of the torch that she holds aloft in her right hand. She stands on a pedestal on what is now called Liberty Island and the top of that torch is over 300 feet above the waters in the harbor. She dwarfs the little lady that we met in Paris in 1982.
Our ferry circled Liberty Island letting us view the large lady from every angle. The ferry had sailed out of a terminal in Battery Park, which is on the very southern tip of Manhattan Island. It also sailed around a famous adjacent island – Ellis Island. Although we approached these islands from New York, whose pride in these matters extends even to displaying an image of the statue on its auto license plates, these islands are not even located in New York. They are located in the adjoining state of New Jersey, even though New York has sometimes disputed this. However, there’s not much doubt about the issue. The border between the two states runs down the middle of the Hudson River and the islands are clearly closer to the New Jersey shore.
Viewing the American original aroused in us all kinds of emotions that were absent during our peaceful cruise along the Seine nearly thirty years earlier. We gazed towards the solid phalanx of skyscrapers, rising behind the Battery Park terminal on the New York side of the river, as we reflected on how that vista was dramatically changed by the attacks on the twin towers of The World Trade Center on September 11 2001. We remembered the thousands of innocents who died on that day, sometimes sacrificing their own lives in circumstances of great bravery.
We then turned and looked at Ellis Island, once the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station. There’s a fine museum there now. Here began the American odyssey of millions of souls. Encouraged by the great statue on nearby Liberty Island, they entered the bare processing sheds on Ellis Island anxious not to be sent back across the ocean on health grounds or because of some other bureaucratic decision. Most carried their few possessions in one battered suitcase. Many did not speak English. The American dream for so many newcomers began on this tiny island. They went on from here to build the families and the careers that have helped to make the country great.
No immigrant to the United States (such as I) can fail to be moved by the story of Ellis Island, even if it was not one’s own point of entry. During the past year we have traveled widely, but Pat and I have based ourselves for part of that time on the border between Arizona and Mexico. We are therefore very much aware of the recent entry across that border of many millions of illegal Mexican immigrants. We understand the harm to society that arises from illegal entry on such a scale. What follows is in no way an attempt to excuse those who break into someone else’s country. Yet these Mexicans face huge dangers when attempting to cross the deserts and mountains at this point of entry. Many have died in the attempt. Entry through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954 may have been tough. Yet many would surely prefer an opportunity today to enter there, under the benevolent eye of that famous statue, instead of the possibility of death in the desert.