When they passed through Ellis Island early this century, Ann Belkov's ancestors probably marveled at the ornate immigration station, feared the uniformed officers and worried about being turned back.
They probably never dreamed that less than 100 years later, their direct descendant would be running the place.
"It's awesome to work here," says Belkov, the National Park Service superintendent for Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. "This is my Plymouth Rock."
Belkov, 56, retires early next year after a 25-year career that included top posts at Jean Lafitte National Park in Louisiana and Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Park in Tennessee and Georgia.
Ellis Island opened in 1892, and a decade later it was processing about 1 million immigrants a year. By 1924, 16 million people had passed through the small island in New York Harbor--71% of all U.S. immigrants over that period.
They included five of Belkov's ancestors, Jews fleeing persecution from czarist Russia: her great-grandparents, Samuel and Molly Balakleyski, who arrived in 1903 with their son (and Ann's grandfather), Hyman; her grandmother, Anna Dubinsky, who came from Russian Poland around 1905; and the man Anna later married (Ann's maternal grandfather), Max Bobinsky, who immigrated from Kiev.
They arrived at Ellis Island with almost no money and less English. But like millions of others, they made it in America.
They returned in spirit to Ellis Island in 1990, when Belkov took over as superintendent. A few months earlier, the immigration station had reopened as a museum after a long, costly restoration.
Over the last five years, Belkov's workplace has often prompted thoughts of Samuel, Molly, Anna, Max and Hyman. She imagines them stepping onto the dock, or walking through the vast Registry Room, where newcomers stood in long lines, waiting for inspection.
"This was the first place they ever stepped on land in America," she says. "It's quite an honor for me to work here."
Five years after its reopening, Belkov says, Ellis Island is more relevant than ever.
"If you look at some of the cartoons and editorials about immigration now, you're reminded of what they were like a century ago," she says. "Above all, we're trying to teach children tolerance for new immigrants."