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.
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.
Memorial 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.