Hi all. I just found this file on my PC. It’s a column my dad wrote for the Bee back in 1991. I think it’s pretty self-explanatory. It’s probably my favorite piece of prose and whenever someone tries to impose their version of “patriotism” on someone else (which happens a lot these days), I always think that my version of patriotism was defined in large part by this column.
THIS IS the story of a boy – he was not quite 10 at the time – who arrived in America 50 years ago tomorrow.
He was born a German Jew, and his story was fairly conventional for those years. He had fled with his mother, by train and foot, from Nazi-occupied Belgium by way of France and Spain. There was a narrow escape crossing into France, where they were taken off one train at the border; a railway engineer who, for a cabbage of francs, briefly stopped another train in the yards outside Amiens to let them off just before it reached the Gestapo checkpoint inside the station; a walk in the half moonlight across the demarcation line between the part of France that was then occupied by the Germans and the part that was then still controlled by Vichy.
At the demarcation line, where there was a fence, they had heard the police dogs and the voices of the patrol, but they never saw them. (Later, when he read in his history classes about escaped Southern slaves who were pursued by men with dogs, he remembered what his dogs sounded like in the night and thought he knew how those slaves felt.) After they arrived in Marseilles, they went from consulate to consulate and waited in the anxious lines to get the visa for Spain, the visa for Portugal, the transit visa for America. (In Lisbon, they met his father, who had escaped from a French internment camp. He remembered him saying he hoped the papers would be in order so that the Americans would not yank them off at Ellis Island and deport them.) There was nothing in those lines but the hope of America.
BUT THAT’S only the background. The real story begins with the boy’s struggle, after the victory of their arrival in New York in June 1941, to make himself an American – first by make-believe, by trying to disguise himself as anything but German, and then, under the disguise, making himself into what at first he only pretended to be. Because nothing, not even the escape, was harder or more important to him than becoming American, he would never understand how others could take their citizenship lightly or treat their freedom so casually.
The coming of Pearl Harbor was a great blessing for him, for it made Adolf Hitler, who was his enemy, America’s enemy. He had seen and heard the Stukas and Messerschmitts in action in France and Belgium before Americans even knew the names, could talk about them with some familiarity and thus, at the age of 11 or 12, could make himself part of the war effort, and thus the nation, by proxy.
It was all work and, with it, a lot of pain: the funny clothes he wore, the mistakes he made in English; the sports, customs and idioms he didn’t know; the taunting from other kids and sometimes from teachers. He knew that to become something one had to give up being something else, but that didn’t lessen the desire to be accepted.
Because Hitler stripped all Jews of their citizenship, he had arrived as a “stateless person.” After the war – after Israel was founded and the Germans were making amends – he had the odd choice of becoming a citizen of any one of three states. Still it would never have occurred to him to choose anything else or hold anything in reserve. He had lived in three countries and gone to school in three languages, and America, even with its stringent demands, offered better terms for being the things he wanted to be than any place he could imagine. Not surprisingly, he would also become extraordinarily angry when his adopted country betrayed its promises, as it would sometimes do. It would always be a very personal thing.
Later he would come to know that the process of assimilation was far harder for people, many of them born here, who, because of the history of slavery, or simply because of their looks, could not disguise themselves as he had. How important it was, therefore, that judgment should not be based on looks or color of skin. He also came to understand why Hispanics or blacks wanted to preserve pieces of their own culture – as did Italians, Irishmen and Greeks. But it would always be incomprehensible how some could, at the same time, be so indifferent to the common political institutions and cultural traditions, most of them inherited from Great Britain, without which that pluralism would never be tolerated.
THE BOY, of course, is now a man. He understands that 50 years ago he rejected things that he didn’t need to give up. There was the picture of his late grandfather Ludwig, looking like the Kaiser himself in his spiked World War I helmet: How could he have accepted such a thing then? There had even been uncertainty about Schiller and Goethe and Beethoven. But he also understands, as some still don’t, that preservation of one’s roots has to be as selective as rejection. Does anyone wish to replicate the Mexican police system, Ethiopia’s government, Japan’s racial attitudes or Saudi Arabia’s civil liberties?
In the second or third generation, there is often a search for the old roots and rituals and customs. The children of Abraham and Naomi, named Shelley and Marshall, name their children Rebecca and Jacob; there are trips to the old country; the picture of the grandfather in the spiked helmet becomes history rather than embarrassment.
But usually the search is firmly grounded in the new roots, as it has to. The word American that comes after the hyphen is more fundamental than whatever word comes before it. People have tried to go back, but like the boy who arrived 50 years ago, not many really want to live where they, or their parents or grandparents, began. Those who go back to Italy or Germany or West Africa discover how American they are. And to search for a third choice is to search for what never was or can be. It is the pursuit of a shadow.