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July 4th patriotism: When post war newcomers embraced American ideals

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Olga and Miriam Levy in 1952. Miriam now goes by the name Mary.

While participating in a workshop on family genealogy, I reviewed the passenger list of a ship that recorded two individuals by the name of Miriam. One immigrant was an adult woman and the other was a 6-year-old girl, me.

The choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean that moved us westward opened a fresh chapter in our family’s life. Not withstanding the loss, grief and trauma that characterized Jews leaving Europe, my parents made room for hope. Hope for new beginnings in a landscape of freedom. Freedom that was wide and endless to the horizon in America. How could anyone keep from embracing to such an amazing prospect? Each step of the way was eased by the care and encouragement of the good-hearted people of the Jewish aid agencies (for example HIAS and the JDC) of the 1950s. 

The Greek Jews were relocated, including us, upon arriving in New York City’s harbor to Chicago. Our families bonded through a shared language, the incomparable experiences of the Holocaust and an earnest desire to form a new bud of a community from European roots. They came with permanent resident visas but they wanted more, to be citizens of the United States of America. Years of preparation to achieve this crucial goal flew by; always with the hustle and bustle of each helping the other, and celebrating milestones along the way.  

Each and every one labored to fulfill the requirements for citizenship. Adult night school offered instruction in English language skills: spelling, reading and writing. Learning a new language had its challenges. After a spelling quiz the man sitting at the desk next to my mother angrily complained that his grade was lower than hers. He wondered how that was possible since, he asserted, “I copied all the answers from your paper!”

Those were heady times. The back and forth phone calls, group study sessions and oral quizzes to check a multitude of proficiencies became the stuff of our lives, even the children. Our parents studied and we studied along with them. We were, girls and boys, the first to speak English so we helped them, too. 

My parents and their generation were introduced to the most vital documents in American history, the Declaration of Independence and the highest law of the land, The Constitution of the United States of America. By studying the civics lessons of these official papers, the newcomers learned how to participate in American democracy. Civic responsibilities included calling senators and representatives, giving opinions to elected officials, publicly supporting or opposing an issue, and writing letters to newspapers. My father, though not wholly proficient in spoken English, was an avid reader of the Op-Ed pages of the Chicago Sun Times newspaper. He readily had views, consequently, about city government, which was dominated by Mayor Richard Daley for years. He along with others considered casting their votes in the ballot box a duty and a right. With certainty and resolve they became the new defenders of American democracy. 

They respectfully recited the Oath of Allegiance with these words, “I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same … I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.” The Oath of Allegiance was the culminating act of becoming rightful U.S. citizens.

It is striking to me, therefore, that more than one native-born American has said nonchalantly, “I take being a citizen for granted.” For me, that’s embracing the rewards of a free society yet stopping short of paying the necessary dues. Our parents, aunts and uncle, and grandparents made the necessary payments. They believed their hard-won examples would extend to future generations. 

Looking back at our immigrant past should not be only for memory’s sake. We should be energized to seize opportunities to defend what we believe in, just as our newcomer families did. We should be inspired by their unshakeable fortitude and religious faith to choose this land that promised, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, individual rights and religious freedom. Let’s not squander the civic lessons of the past. Those lessons are necessary activities for today: paying attention to the bills introduced by lawmakers, contacting and meeting with elected representatives to support or oppose crucial issues, joining community action groups and running for office. Former Gov. Madeleine Kunin of Vermont and an immigrant herself, has maintained that “activism [is] … the lifeblood of democracy.” 

As Independence Day approaches, I am reminded of the ship on which I sailed, the S. S. Nea Hellas. An Internet video of the S.S. Nea Hellas includes music with only Greek lyrics but the title reveals the collective echo of all freedom seekers, “America.” America is the dream and the promise.

Mary Greenberg, Ph.D. serves on the State of Kansas Holocaust Commission. She and her family sailed from Piraeus Harbor in Athens, Greece to the United States in 1952. Her speaking engagements on preventing anti-Semitism, and the link between anti-Semitism and leadership are based on her research that advances the study of the Jewish people in the Diaspora.