Lady Liberty, the Statue That Welcomed Millions of Immigrants to America, Turns 135 

Lady Liberty, the Statue That Welcomed Millions of Immigrants to America, Turns 135 

Since its dedication on October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty has stood at the gateway to the United States as an icon of freedom and hope for people all over the world. With her torch soaring 305 feet over New York Harbor, this impressive statue was often the first glimpse of the United States spotted by immigrants arriving by sea. Many of these immigrants were fleeing oppression, poverty, and despair, and the Statue of Liberty was their first welcome to the new life they were about to begin in the Land of Opportunity.

The Statue of Liberty was a gift to the United States from France. It was designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, and its metal framework was built by Gustave Eiffel (who also built the iconic tower in Paris that bears his name). The statue depicts Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty, with a torch held high in her right hand and a tablet with the date of the U.S. Declaration of Independence inscribed in Roman numerals in her left. Her right foot is raised, stepping forward out of a broken shackle and chain — a nod to the abolition of slavery in the United States, which occurred not long before the statue was built. The exterior of the statue is made of pure copper and was originally a shiny reddish-brown; by 1906, it had turned its characteristic green color due to oxidation. The official name of the statue is Liberty Enlightening the World (or La Liberté éclairant la monde in French).

Bartholdi began building the statue in 1877, and the first completed portion of it — the head — went on display at the 1878 Paris World’s Fair to help raise funds to finish the project. The statue was completed in 1884, and then disassembled and shipped to New York. There, it was reconstructed on a pedestal built for it on what was then known as Bedloe’s Island — now called Liberty Island — where it stands to this day.

German Fleet leaving N.Y. June 1912, repaired, enhanced, and colorized on MyHeritage

German Fleet leaving N.Y. June 1912, repaired, enhanced, and colorized on MyHeritage

A Glimpse of Lady Liberty en Route from Holland, 1955

In honor of the Statue of Liberty’s 135th anniversary, our Research team discovered an amazing photo of the statue from 1955 that had been uploaded to MyHeritage by Erik Riswick. We contacted Erik and he kindly shared the story behind the photo and the man it features with us.

Erik immigrated to North America with his family as a child in April 1955. This photo was snapped by Erik’s mother, Sophia, as their boat sailed through New York Harbor. The man in the foreground is Erik’s father, John Riswick, a Dutch World War II veteran who chose to leave a comfortable life and career in Malaysia to keep his family together.

“My dad was an 18-year-old Dutchman when the Germans occupied Holland and dragged him off to forced labor, working at a Fokker aircraft assembly plant,” says Erik. “He worked there a while before the Allies bombed the plant and he suffered severe burns in the incident. Because of his injuries, he was allowed to go visit an aunt who happened to live in Germany, with the stipulation that of course, he would come back. He never did.”

John managed to make his way back to Holland, and served underground to fight the Germans for the duration of the war. When it was over, he met Erik’s mother, Sophia, who is Scottish. After they married, he received an attractive job offer in Malaysia, and the couple picked up and moved there. Erik and his younger brother Alistair were born there in 1951 and 1952 respectively.

John knew that in Malaysia at that time, Europeans had to send their children to Australia or all the way back to Europe for school. “Having been separated from his family for basically 4.5 years during WWII, and never being able to see them, he didn’t want his kids to go through what he did,” says Erik.

So although their life in Malaysia was better financially than it had been back home in Holland, Erik’s parents decided to give it up and move back. However, as soon as they were back in Holland, Sophia developed asthma. The doctors determined that the Dutch weather was the cause of her worsening condition. Realizing that staying in Holland would jeopardize her health, they understood that they would have to move somewhere else.

“My dad needed to go somewhere in the world where he would be welcome, and where he felt he’d have a good chance of getting a job,” says Erik. “He spoke excellent English and had training as an accountant, and so he was able to persuade the Canadian consulate to let us into the country even though he didn’t have a job yet.”

“So we came through New York as a family of 3 Dutch people — my father, my brother, and myself — and a British subject, my mother,” Erik goes on. “We arrived in New York en route to Toronto, without a job or any guarantee of success.”

Memories from the boat to America

Erik has a few memories from being on the boat to America. “I remember that we stopped in Southampton, England, because my mother’s mother had come down from Scotland and I said goodbye. And I remember that it was a very tearful occasion because many Europeans, even as late as the 50s, would think that if you’re going to North America, they’re never going to see you again.” Fortunately, air travel became common soon afterwards and Erik did see his grandmother many times again.

“My mother took the picture,” Erik recalls. “It had to be a coincidence — just pure luck that my mother would manage to take a picture and not cut anybody’s head off,” he laughs.

According to family lore, when Erik saw all the tall buildings of New York, he asked his dad which of the tall buildings was going to be their house!

After disembarking in New York, the family spent a few days there, then took a bus to Buffalo, and from there to Toronto. Sophia’s great-aunt, with whom she had corresponded but had never met, was waiting for them at the bus station. They stayed with this relative for a month while the family got settled. John found a job in Toronto and stayed there for the rest of his life. He and Sophia went on to have three more children there. Sophia still lives there today at 93.

When Erik grew up, he found himself working a lot in the United States, and ended up moving there in 1996 with his wife and son.

“I’ve lived in the States for 25 years now, so I feel like I’m an immigrant twice,” he says. “I immigrated once in April 1955 and then again in June 1996.”

Erik, Alistair, and their father John at their home in 1955, Dell Park Ave, TorontoOctober 3, 2021 would have been John’s 100th birthday. In honor of the occasion, Erik posted the colorized version of the Statue of Liberty photo on Instagram with the caption, “Happy 100th Birthday Dad. Thanks for bringing us to North America.”

Did any of your ancestors pass through New York on their way to live in America? Search our Ellis Island records to learn more about their journey.