White Coat Underground

My immigrant family

My friend Isis wrote today about her immigrant past, and it reminded me a bit about mine, although a generation removed. Last year I wrote a little piece about rediscovering family, and today I’d like tell you a little more detail about their immigration.

My grandfather Phil came from a town called Ostrow-Mazowiecka in Poland (my grandmother has a similar story, but from another town called Skitel, in Belarus), and while he was not wealthy, his cousins owned some of the prosperous businesses in town, including the lumber mill, the brewery, and the electric station.

i-0c04ad5f8777b5a055995128acb0cd94-ostrowtejt1.jpg
My cousins in front of their sawmill in Ostrow (from Gerald Cook)

My grandfather felt that life in the U.S. had to be better than in Europe, and he came in just before WWI (and promptly joined the army). He and his cousin did well together in their new country, and managed to bring more family over—but not enough of them. The Johnson Immigration Act of 1924 put strict limitations on admitting “inferiors” such as Eastern Europeans (many of whom were Jews). Many of my relatives who did make it here were poor, had minimal skills, and their status was not always precisely legal. Still, they prospered and contributed to the building of our nation.

Then Hitler took power in Germany. From his safer perch in America, my grandfather could see danger approaching. His relatives in Europe were used to frequent pogroms, and many of them were living well enough and weren’t terribly motivated to leave. Those who were found themselves unwelcome. So my grandfather packed up his wife, his sister, and my dad and my aunt, and took them to Europe. Our relatives there would have seen their fine clothes and their healthy bodies, and heard first hand accounts of how with hard work, even a Polish peasant (or Polish businessman) could make it in America. Still, most chose to stay.

This is what is left of them:

i-885bac7dc38c0012d3cb6f201d5a2cfd-treblinkastone.jpgMemorial stone at site of Treblinka death camp

The death camp of Treblinka was not the first killing field for my cousins. On November 11, 1939 (three years after my father’s visit), many of the remaining Jews in town were rounded up at my cousin’s brewery, forced to dig large pits, and shot, their bodies tumbling into the freshly dug earth.

For many immigrants, there is no choice. Of course, countries must guard their borders, but blaming immigrants for coming here is obscene. Many immigrants are simply trying to save their own children from being bombed, starving to death, or dying of cholera. They are not trying to ruin the lives of Americans who were fortunate enough to have been born here. We cannot let everyone in, but to treat them as criminals is itself a crime.

Comments

  1. #1 Isis the Scientist
    April 1, 2009

    This is heartbreaking, Pal. But thank you for also highlighting how so many of those who flee do so because they have no choice…not just because they want to come live off another country’s system.

  2. #2 Dianne
    April 1, 2009

    I volunteer to do physicals on refugees applying for asylum based on ill treatment in their home countries. I’m always impressed with the people I see: not only have I not yet seen anyone who wasn’t obviously telling the truth, but they’re almost inevitably the people one would want for the US-or any democracy: smart, hard working, willing to question authority and think for themselves, but also willing to work with others for a common goal.

    I also work in a hospital that treats quite a large number of immigrants. People move to this area from all over the world. Not all of them had to move, but the vast majority are hard working and are coming here for the opportunity to work–not the opportunity to freeload. What makes them less “worthy” than our ancestors who did the same years or centuries or millenia ago?

    Some immigrants leave their home countries because they have no choice. Some because they want something more than what their country can offer. But very few, in my experience at least, seem to come to live off of the system. There’ll always be some and there’ll always be criminals running to another country to escape the consequences of their actions and occasionally there are even terrorists seeking immortality through atrocity. But they are a small minority of the total immigrant population and judging all immigrants based on these few is unjust and hurts not just the immigrants but the country as well.

  3. #3 perceval
    April 1, 2009

    Oh no – oh no.

    Genocides keep happening – we need to remember this.

  4. #4 antipodean
    April 1, 2009

    The best argument for immigration is usually the second generation. People like PAL, my boss, a few of my former housemates- good quality hard working types without an overbred sense of self entitlement.

    Hey, fuck, hang on! I’m an immigrant.

  5. #5 The Perky Skeptic
    April 1, 2009

    Wow. The sight of that stone absolutely stunned me.

    I’ve long been a hobbyist Holocaust researcher, but oddly enough I’ve never really known anyone who suffered such a tragic loss within their own family.

    Glad you’re here, that’s all I can say!

  6. #6 bsci
    April 1, 2009

    antipodean,

    I’m not sure this is limited to second generation immigrants. It’s related to families making sure each generation knows their history. I read “Never Forget” to be as much a message to remember how the living got where they are as to remember those who were murdered.

    My maternal family tree has many teenagers who became refugees and never saw their parents and dozens of close cousins and relatives again. Legal or not, it was harder for other nations to turn away boats full of children rather than boats full of families. From a pre-Holocaust generation, my wife’s last name is the one that was on a “purchased” passport & visa. Our families made sure we knew this and I will make sure my children know this.

  7. #7 khan
    April 2, 2009

    My grandmother would not have made it past Ellis Island if they had known she was a typhoid carrier (she didn’t know either at the time).

  8. #8 antipodean
    April 2, 2009

    bsci

    I certainly didn’t mean to imply that this effect is limited to the second generation. It’s just that the second generation seems to be the most obvious advertisement for immigrants since they are the most directly influenced by their parents who are the ones being unfairly pejoratively labelled.

  9. #9 bsci
    April 2, 2009

    I know you weren’t talking about limiting it to the 2nd generation, but I wanted to highlight the point that this isn’t a passive process even for that generation. A 2nd generation immigrant whose parents never talk about their history is less of an advocate than a 5th generation immigrant whose history was passed down.

  10. #10 DLC
    April 6, 2009

    Remembering where you came from is important.
    Thanks for sharing your story.

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