Deported Granduncle Found in the National Archives
I grew up with a tragic family story about how my mother’s uncle, Wolf Pfeiffer, had been turned back at Ellis Island because of his deformity- and, it would seem, disappeared into the mists of time. What made it even more poignant for me was that I had been named after him and could never find out anything about him: the actual circumstances of his rejection, who he was, who his family was, whether he ever returned to the United States (there were legends about entry through Canada), what he looked like.
Then Mr. William R. Creech and the other amazing folks at the National Archives in Washington, DC turned up the record of his deportation hearing. This was a miracle not only because it was an obscure 100-year-old document, but because so few deportees were sophisticated or courageous enough to request a hearing. I was able to read the whole unfortunate tale. My grandmother testified at the hearing, showed her bankbook, and swore she would support her handicapped brother. Another brother of my grandmother’s- whom I had not previously known about- said he would give Wolf a job. My grandmother’s congressman sent a letter of support. Wolf was nevertheless deemed likely to become a public charge and was sent directly back to Europe. Thanks to the archivists, I will now be able to trace his route back to Europe and, I hope, find out whether the steamship company sent him right back to another U.S. port (which happened a lot).
There is much research still to be done. But the record of the deportation hearing led to many avenues for further investigation: the details of his return to Europe, my grandmother’s previously-unknown brother and several of his children, the names and locations of still other relatives. With all this new information, I may someday be able to track down their children and grandchildren.
And, who knows? With one discovery leading to another, there could be a joyous reunion of the descendants of those who were so harshly separated that day in 1906.
by Wendy Griswold