Oral History to Vibrant Reality
DAY 15: Keeping the Story Alive
Flat World Story
My family arrived in America from Eastern Europe during anti-Jewish Pogroms at the end of the 19th century. My grand-parents on both sides of the family were born here, but their parents, and any family members older than they, were immigrants.
Growing up I was fascinated to know where our family came from, but when I asked my grand-parents to talk about it the story always began and ended with the passage of their parents through Ellis Island. No matter how much I'd insist, my grand-parents were equally insistent on not telling me the family history from before about 1900 (give or take a few years, because they wouldn't even tell me the date our family arrived). This went on for years in a good-natured way. If I were to paraphrase the most informative response I ever got – and I got it a lot – it would go like this (imagine the voice of any one of my grand-parents saying), "It's none of your business, why do you want to know about this stuff? They (our family) escaped the Pogroms and came here. End of story."
I could never tell how much of their refusing to share more about our family past was intentional and how much of it was that they themselves didn't know. With the passage of time I've come to believe they knew less about our family history than I assumed. It rings true that my grand-parents weren't told much more about it than I was. It must have been painful for my great-grandparents to think about the family they'd left behind to face the persecution and violent destruction of their way of life (click here to learn the etymology of "Pogrom"). They came from poor folk. It was common that even with extended family pitching in, no more than one or two young adults could be sent to America.
How can my great-grandparents not have felt guilty about their good fortune?
Records show that 29 people with my family name passed through Ellis Island between 1894 and 1922, and that one was detained (no further record, but I presume he wasn't my great-grandfather). The legions of immigrants of that era who came to these shores lived in a harsh America. The common immigrant experience was to be exploited, discriminated against, enjoy little or no social protections, live in unsanitary slums were it was difficult to stay warm during the winter, suffer injury or illness, experience frequent sudden death (from untreated injuries or illness) and work hard most of their life for little money. There are no stories about my great-grandparents complaining. I imagine they saw it as the price of freedom, and a way to honor the sacrifice that had been made for them. From the values my grand-parents and parents transmitted to me I know that when my great-grandparents started their new family here it was to build a better life for us and the expectation that we build a more just, less fearful future for people like them.
But for all I know my great-grandparents materialized out of thin air into the crowded streets of the Lower East Side of Manhattan as fully formed adults, got down to business and changed the destiny of their progeny. And, as I think if it, I guess that is exactly what they did.
Still, I think it is a loss that I can't convey more of our family history to my children. My great-grand parents made incredibly courageous and selfless choices. And to all evidence they did it with grace, as did their family before them. They carried the huge burden and heavy responsibility of keeping family and tradition alive, while inspiring the optimism their descendants would make the world better. They could not have done this were it not for the family they left behind. Thanks to people whose names we will never know from the old world, my children dreams are of a promising bright future in the new one.
The world has changed so much in many wonderful ways since my great-grandparents were put on a ship to safety by their family. In other terrible ways the world has changed little or not at all. There is no excuse for why the lot of most immigrants in this country is still so unjustifiably hard. My assimilated children don't easily appreciate how privileged nor how fortunate they are. I wish I could share the details of our family story – not only the history of the immigrant experience – and put names to the unfairly treated, unprivileged people to whom we owe so much. Not only would that help my children understand that not all people are as privileged and fortunate as we, but become idetermined by the story of their great-great-grandparents experience to make tomorrow's America more just, fair and free than is today's.Visit 30 Days of Love, Day 15, on Standing on the Side of Love to learn more about the importance of sharing our stories.