Alexander Weiss, who discovered Angel Island carvings, dies

Alexander Weiss, the former California park ranger who made a landmark discovery of poems carved in the walls of the abandoned former Immigration Station on Angel Island in the early 1970s — thus helping to save the so-called “Ellis Island of the West” from certain destruction — died of heart failure on Oct. 17, 2014 at a Roseville, Calif. care facility. He was 78.

Born in Austria of Jewish descent, he fled Nazi occupation as a 4-year-old child, and would go on to be an active part of social justice movements as a freedom rider during the Civil Rights Movement in the South and as a member of Congress of Racial Equality — where he participated in sit-ins in San Francisco.

Weiss’ interests and occupations were varied, as his career spanned time as a poet, musician, U.S. Navy sailor, zookeeper and as a California State Park ranger at places such as Hearst Castle and San Francisco’s Candlestick Point. Upon retirement from the state parks, he served at the Alameda County Registrar of Voters office for 14 years.

But it was his rediscovery of poems carved in an abandoned building on Angel Island that cemented his legacy in the foundation of the Asian American experience.

Then-California State Parks employee Weiss first saw the carvings etched into the walls of the immigration barracks in 1970. The Parks Administration was planning to demolish the buildings — the former employee cottages had already been burned down for a Hollywood movie. Weiss alerted his professor at San Francisco State University, George Araki, who identified them as poems. Araki gathered his family and good friends such as photographer Mak Takahashi to start documenting the poems and other etchings in the barracks.

Bay Area Asian Americans, sparked by the discovery, then formed a group to study how to best preserve the station for historical interpretation. 

Weiss maintained that he didn’t discover the poems, but they had been there for years and people knew about them. But he had been proud nonetheless of his role in getting the preservation vehicle moving. 

“We needed to save the Immigration Station to remind us of the tough times some immigrants had coming to this country,” he was quoted in the book “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America.” “We don’t have exclusion laws anymore, but we could have them in an instant tomorrow. It could easily happen to some other group of people. That’s why we need memorials like concentration camps and Angel Island, so that we will learn from our past and not repeat the same mistakes.”

Weiss — along with his professor Araki and photographer Takahashi — was recognized for his historical role at the Nikkei Angel Island Pilgrimage, presented by the Nichi Bei Foundation in partnership with the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and National Japanese American Historical Society on Oct. 4, 2014. The event was held less than two weeks before his passing, and his wife Carol Ellison and daughter Jessica Weiss accepted the award on his behalf.

“Mr. Weiss realized the gravity of what he discovered, and he and the others did their best to set the wheels in motion to document and preserve the carvings in the walls, to help insure that these immigrants had their voices heard, and to help reclaim our history,” said Kenji G. Taguma, president of the Nichi Bei Foundation. 

“His discovery led to a grass-roots movement to save the poems, the immigration site, and ultimately an important chapter of Asian American and U.S. immigration history,” said Judy Yung, author of “Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America” and professor emerita of American studies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. 

“If he hadn’t told George Araki, his professor at SF State, and if he hadn’t advocated that these buildings had great historic significance, we probably wouldn’t have them around today,” stated Michael McKechnie, executive director of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. “What he did was tremendously important to telling the stories about the trials and triumphs of immigrants from across the Pacific,” added McKechnie.

Weiss is survived by his wife Carol Ellison of Rocklin, Calif.; daughter Jessica Weiss of San Francisco; and son Aram Weiss of Santa Cruz.

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