, whose latest production, Young Frankenstein, is currently on Broadway, said his father Max Kaminsky was three years old when he left Austria and arrived at Ellis Island in 1896. Max grew up on the Lower East Side and went into his father Abraham’s business, Kaminsky Brothers Herring Company.
"My grandfather Abraham sold herring, and learned Swedish and Norwegian before he learned English," Mel said. "For me it could have been show business or the herring business. I could have gone either way."
Mel, who grew up in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, told his story at the seventh annual Ellis Island Family Heritage Awards on Ellis Island. He was one of four honorees who received a copy of the ship’s passenger manifest which documents their ancestors’ arrival at the gateway to the land of freedom and opportunity.
Each made significant contributions to the American experience. Mel, 82, and his three brothers served in World War II. His only surviving brother, Bernie, 86, lives in Las Vegas and couldn’t attend the ceremony.
Mel is going to Vienna on June 30 for the opening of his spectacularly successful musical, The Producers.
"I don’t know how they feel about Jews," he said, "so I’m taking my helmet and rifle with me."
Lee Iacocca, the founding chairman of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis island Foundation, who presented the awards, also honored suspense novelist Mary Higgins Clark, whose father came from Ireland; University of Miami president Donna Shalala, whose grandparents came from Lebanon and Syria; and the late B.C. "Bertie" Forbes who came from Scotland and founded a magazine named Doers and Doings, which he later changed to Forbes.
"All four of my grandparents came through Ellis Island," Shalala said. "One was turned away due to an eye disease. So she went all the way around and snuck across the Mexican border."
Shalala has served as president of Hunter College in New York from 1980 to 1987. In 1993 President Bill Clinton appointed her Secretary of Health and Human Services.
"I have shamrocks on my DNA," Higgins said. "The Irish, by nature, storytellers."
Higgins started writing poems at age 6. She got her first story published after 40 rejections. Today she reigns as the queen of suspense. Her latest thriller is Where Are You Now?
Stephen Briganti, president of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, said when the funding is complete, he will announce a new project, the Peopling of America Center. "This will expand on the story of Ellis Island by including those who came before Ellis Island and after."