After 66 Years, an Immigrant Learns Son’s Fate


For most of the 12-million immigrants who came through Ellis Island, it was an exciting adventure through the gateway to a promised land, the portal to their dreams. For Martha Strahm, the experience was fraught with grief and a mystery that would haunt her for more than 66 years.

On Dec. 20, 1920, Fritz and Martha Strahm, a young Swiss couple from Bern, arrived at Ellis Island. With their two children, Martha and Walter, they disembarked from the La Savoie, a ship of the Compagnie Generale Trans-atlantique, which had sailed from Le Havre, France. Their journey from Switzerland to New York had taken more than a month. Martha Strahm, pregnant with their third child, had suffered from the mumps during the trip, and shortly after their arrival at Ellis Island, 2-year-old Walter became sick and was admitted to the hospital there.

“We were confined on Ellis Island for six weeks,” Martha Strahm said. “Our days on Ellis Island were very long days and only one of us could go visit our sick boy for five minutes, once a week. We had to put on a gown and we were not allowed close to him; we could see him only from a distance through a glass door, but I could hear him cry, ‘Mama, Mama.’ He had measles, scarlet fever and pneumonia.


“We were given our meals and lodging, and we walked around a lot. Every night there was a show or entertainment from 6 to 8, and every night we slept in a different place. We were treated OK while we were on the island, and we could buy fresh fruit, cookies and other things between meals.

Trip to the Hospital

“On Feb. 9, 1921, we were at the show and very soon after 6 o’clock we were called out and a person told us we were to go to the hospital. The hospital was a long walk and over a bridge. Both of us were told to go so we had to leave our little 3-year-old daughter with a German woman whom I had seen only twice. The German lady had two children in the hospital.

“Our son died at 10 minutes after 11 that night. They took him down the hospital hall wrapped in a sheet. It was a picture that would stay in my mind through the years. No one told me what would happen to our boy’s body. They never told me whether he was buried or cremated, but they did ask for money for flowers. We had to stay at the hospital that night and the next morning we went back to another building and got our daughter. We left Ellis Island on Feb. 11 and arrived in Fisher, Ill., on Lincoln’s Birthday,” she said.

The Strahms had a daughter, Alice, born that August, and they moved on to Birch Run, Mich., in the winter of 1921. There they reared their family, and it was there their other children--Helen, Charles and Thelma--were born.

“When I was growing up we never talked much about Walter and the events surrounding his death on Ellis Island,” their daughter, Helen Strahm Pennington of Port Hueneme, Calif., said, “but after I was grown I was curious about what happened to him.

“My mother always wondered if he had actually died--you see, there was so many stories about children being kidnaped from Ellis Island, and he was a handsome child,” Pennington said.


“My mother had no bitterness about what happened on Ellis Island, though my brother’s death was a great emotional shock to her, coming when it did in a new country and the language barrier, etc.,” Pennington said. “She became a U.S. citizen. My dad chopped and sold a cord of wood to come up with the $5 she needed to file.”

When Pennington read about Ellis Island’s “Treasures From Home Project” in The Times in August, 1987, she wrote to its registrar seeking information on how to obtain her brother’s death certificate. “It is my greatest wish,” she wrote, “to be able to tell my 94-year-old mother before she closes her eyes, ‘Yes, Mom, he really did die.’ ”

Her letter so moved the staff at MetaForm/Rathe/D&P; that they made inquiries for her.

Through the Department of Health’s Bureau of Vital Statistics in New York, Pennington was able to obtain a copy of Walter’s death certificate. Although there was erroneous information on it--the father’s first name was incorrect, the mother’s maiden name was listed as her married name, and their birthplace was given as Poland, instead of Switzerland, the child’s name matched as did the cause and time of death: 11:10 p.m., Feb. 9, 1921.

“When I read that death certificate my heart ached so I could hardly breathe,” Pennington said.

She made the journey from her home in Port Hueneme to Michigan to show her widowed mother the death certificate and to tape the story of their immigration though Ellis Island.

In her oral history, now part of the Ellis Island collection, Martha Strahm says, “I lost a boy in February of 1921 and a daughter was born Aug. 6, 1921. I am now 95 years old and no one told me on Ellis Island what happened to our boy’s body, but now we have a death certificate and know he is buried in New York. My story is now complete.”