The day Isaac Bashevis Singer returned to Ellis Island was “a beautiful, cold day,” said the photographer Robert A. Cumins.
Singer, who was born in Poland, had first set foot there in 1935 as a refugee fleeing antisemitism. Nearly half a century later, in 1979, he returned with a delegation of international Jewish leaders brought together by the UJA-Federation of New York. Quiet and mild-mannered, he spoke to a rapt audience of his experience arriving in those same hall. And Cumins was there to document it all.
Now, 42 years later — and just in time for Singer’s 30th yahrtzeit, on July 24 — the photographs are being published for the first time, here in the Forward, where Singer was once a staff writer.
Cumins, who is perhaps most famous for his image of the plane flying into the second tower on 9/11, said he never developed the negatives from that Ellis Island visit. Over time, they were lost in his archive. But he searched for them for decades, first when Singer died in 1991, and again just after 9/11, when he recalled that one of the images framed Singer against the World Trade Center in the background.
Then, like magic, one day a month ago he stumbled on the negatives — “clean and polished as the day they were taken.”
Since developing the photographs, Cumins has been touched by the “soft and gentle” spirit of their subject. He’s returned with particular frequency to that shot of Singer against the twin towers, a symbol of the city in which the author composed much of the staggering body of work that in 1978, a year before the Ellis Island trip, netted him the Nobel Prize.
“It’s very meaningful to me, as I look at that picture,” Cumins said in a phone interview, speaking through tears. “It’s part of history. It’s part of our history.”
Isaac Bashevis Singers’ return to Ellis Island