A book that I am feverishly consuming discloses the nature and complexities of America’s assimilation of millions of immigrants during the first decade of the twentieth century. To my knowledge, all four of my grandparents arrived in the US from Eastern Europe during that time.
Because the last of those family members left this world in 1968, I have no access to their stories. But I owe a great deal to this book for enabling me to recover some of my history that was previously unavailable.
Many of the amenities that are commonplace to us were phenomena for these new Americans. The Victrola was introduced by the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1906. It was so popular that the newcomers would complain that no matter where they went, they were assaulted by music. Imagine what they would be saying now about music in every venue.
Newcomers were often unfamiliar with indoor plumbing, a mail delivery system that was convenient and consistent; and public libraries that allowed you to remove the books you wanted at no charge. Education was free, women worked outside the home, frequently in sweatshops and transportation was generally comfortable and affordable.
The entry process at Ellis Island was long and convoluted, with many immigrants being returned to Europe because of a contagious eye disease. There was so much to comprehend and process, I now have great appreciation for my family that moved to the Midwest, secured jobs and raised families. In many cases, they initiated all of this with no money, no family in the US and no ability to speak English.
As we ponder and analyze the subject of immigration then and now, we must consider the immense challenges that they faced. Thanks to despots and pogroms in Eastern Europe, life free of tyranny, endless laws and prohibitions and a compulsory military service became a solution with multiple joyous freedoms. Who wouldn’t want to live here instead of there? If you’re not familiar with “Give us your tired…,” it’s the inscription at the base of the Statue of Liberty.
While we debate immigration and all its facets, we must remember the terror of life outside our borders, situations we can only imagine. We can’t liberally integrate all those who want part of our American blessings. But we can improve our understanding of their eagerness to partake of what we cherish. Shalom.
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