When Emma Larzarus wrote her poem The New Colossus in 1883, which was inscribed on a plaque on the Statue of Liberty in 1903, contrary to what the Trump administration would have you believe, she was not thinking of “people coming from Europe” who had the means to support themselves. She was writing it for people like my grandmother, pictured above in Lithuania just before she came to America. In case some people have forgotten, the sonnet reads as follows (emphasis mine):
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
While Lazarus was a well-off fifth generation American of Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) Jewish descent, she took on the plight of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants fleeing the pogroms and anti-Semitism of Russia. That would be my grandparents. In an interview on NPR, Annie Pollard, executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, which is leading an initiative called the Emma Lazarus Project, said,
“She herself was helping East European Jewish immigrants. But she wrote this poem about all immigrants… she referred to America as a mother of exiles. She didn’t say a mother of European exiles. She didn’t say a mother of Catholic exiles. She said a mother of exiles. And what she was striving for was an expansive and inclusive idea of immigrants and the way in which America itself would define itself by providing that safety and that opportunity for immigrants.”
I guess I should feel lucky that Ken Cuccinelli, the Trump administration’s acting immigration chief, wasn’t in charge of things back when my grandparents came here with no money, little education, and few skills. While there were no social safety net programs back then like food stamps and Medicaid, my grandparents arrived with nothing obvious to contribute. Mr. Cuccinelli explained the Trump administration’s public charge rule barring legal immigrants who are poor from accessing government benefits by doing a cruel rewrite of the Lazarus poem, “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet, and who will not become a public charge.”
Well Mr. Cuccinelli, immigrants like my grandparents, who came from the shtetels (small villages) of Lithuania, had to depend on relatives and friends when they first arrived. Much like today’s asylum seekers and immigrants from Mexico and Central America, they came to escape oppression, violence, and abject poverty.
My paternal grandmother, Chaya Beerzh, was orphaned in Ponedel, Lithuania, after her mother died. Her older siblings, Abe, Fanny, and Minnie, had already come to America where they took the name Rosenberg. This happened because the first family member to arrive didn’t know how to spell the family name and gave the same name as the man ahead of him in line at Ellis Island. Thus, when she came here at age fifteen with an unrelated family that claimed her as a daughter so she could care for their children, she gave up her identity and became Ida Rosenberg. She went to Boston to live with her sister Fanny, who also used her for childcare. Ida learned English in night school and taught herself to read and write, but had no skills that would have made her an economic asset.
In 1919, Ida met my paternal grandfather, Philip Levine, in Michigan when she was sent there for a vacation because she had relatives in Bay City and Detroit. They were married a year later and struggled for most of their lives to make a living to support their family of four children. Philip, the youngest of ten children from two marriages, arrived in 1913 in Philadelphia via the ship Carpethia. He had little memory of his older siblings, as he was 60 years younger than the oldest brother from his father’s first marriage. His sisters sent him to New York, where he also learned English at night school, and they tried to apprentice him to learn to be a house painter. He didn’t do well, so the family sent him to relatives in Nebraska to cure his lung problem brought on by too much smoking. Eventually, he ended up with family in Detroit, still without a trade. He became a driver delivering dry cleaning and he and Ida bought a candy store, which she managed while also raising their children.
My maternal grandfather, Philip Krut, was born in Novo-Alexandrovsk (also part of Lithuania back then) came to America as a skilled tailor. He was the second of four children from his father’s first marriage. After his mother died and his father remarried, he was sent to Riga alone at age ten to apprentice as a tailor. He came to America in 1912 through Ellis Island under the name “Filip Kreute” to escape being drafted into the Russian army, a twenty-year commitment and often a death sentence for Jews, and settled in Cleveland where he had relatives. In Cleveland, he met and married my maternal grandmother, Alice Klavir.
Alice, the second of five sisters from her father’s second marriage, came from a very poor family in Dushat, Lithuania. She also had three half-sisters who were from her father’s first marriage. Her youngest sibling, a brother, chronicled their struggle to survive, especially after their mother was widowed in 1909. Alice was sent to America alone at age sixteen to join her older married sister, Taibel. While most of her family settled in Bridgeport, Connecticut, her sister took her to Port Huron, Michigan where they hoped to succeed as seamstresses. Eventually, Alice tired of living in her sister’s shadow and decided to try her luck in Cleveland where she had a cousin. After meeting and marrying Philip, she convinced him to move to Detroit where my grandfather started a tailoring business while they raised their three children.
My grandparents were able to “stand on their own two feet” and survive thanks to a network of family and fellow immigrants from the “Old Country.” They paid their taxes, raised their children to be good Americans, and generations of productive citizens followed. As one of my grandfathers used to say, “Look what came from two little people who crossed the ocean on a boat.”
My family’s story is by no means unique. As Lin-Manuel Miranda famously sang in Hamilton, “Immigrants, we get the job done.” Immigrants are people willing to leave everything and everyone they know behind and embark on a dangerous journey to get here. They may come with few skills and no money or formal education, but their burning desire to create a better life for themselves and their descendants drives them to work hard and to become assets to our country.