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HOW BEING AN IMMIGRANT SHAPED MY LIFE

                                                                                              By Sonia Pressman Fuentes
 

Talk given at the 11th Annual Conference of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs
Marriott East, Warrensville Heights, OH
August 4, 2007

 

Good morning.


I'm going to share part of my life with you today -- the part that relates to the effect my being an immigrant had on my life. After that, we should have time for questions and answers, and then I'll be signing copies of my memoir, Eat First -- You Don't Know What They'll Give You, The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter, for those who would like to buy a copy.

My parents, Hinda and Zysia Pressman, were both born in the early 1890s in a village named Piltz in Poland, an hour's drive from Cracow. I had the thrill of visiting that village six years ago and of finding my mother's birth certificate.

 

My father left Piltz as a teenager to seek his fortune in Germany. On a visit home he met my mother, and after their marriage in Poland in 1913, they moved to Germany. My brother, Hermann, was born in 1914, and I came along fourteen years later.


By 1933, the family was well-to-do and living in Berlin, where my father rented and managed a men's clothing store and factory. My mother and Hermann helped out in the store.

 

 
On January 30, 1933, President Von Hindenburg appointed Hitler Reichs Chancellor of Germany. After various atrocities had been committed against Jews, some involving our family, at my brother's urging, my family left Germany for Antwerp, Belgium, in the middle of 1933. We spent nine months in Antwerp, during which time I attended school and learned Flemish, and my father and Hermann attempted to get established in a number of businesses in a number of countries. None of the business ventures worked out. On April 20, 1934, we boarded the Red Star Line's S.S. Westernland for the United States. Neither of my parents had any education to speak of, and except for Hermann, none of us knew a word of English. At the time, my mother was 42 years old, my father 40, Herman was 19 and I was 5.

We landed in New York City on May 1, 1934, basically knowing no one except some cousins in Brooklyn. We first settled in the Bronx. That's where I learned to speak English. Our apartment was in a building that was built in a semi-circle around a small garden. I would stand in the garden listening to the other children at play, and whenever I caught an unfamiliar word, I'd run upstairs and repeat it to Hermann and he'd give me the German equivalent. A month after our arrival, I turned six and started kindergarten.

As newcomers, we had to make a life for ourselves--and that resulted in quite a few dislocations--beyond the dislocations we'd already experienced in moving from Germany to Belgium to the United States. When we lived in the Bronx, my father went into the men's clothing business in New York City. When that didn't work out, we moved to the Catskill Mountains of New York State and my parents went into the summer resort business, a business they'd never been in before. Initially, they rented and ran a rooming house in a village called Woodridge, New York, and then we moved to the larger nearby town of Monticello, where my father built and ran a bungalow colony. Because my parents weren't fluent in English, from childhood on, I was involved in their business dealings. I drafted the rental contracts for the rooming house and the bungalows and was an active participant in their business lives. That was no doubt a factor in my becoming a lawyer later on.

The dictionary says that to "immigrate" is "to come into a new country, region or environment, especially in order to settle there." The operative word for me in that definition is new. To immigrate is to come to a new country and to have new experiences. And, like everything worthwhile in life, to be an immigrant is both a blessing and a curse.

It's a blessing because it's challenging and exciting to do something new, something different, something everyone else isn't doing. It's a curse because it's scary to embark on any new activity. So to be an immigrant is to be continually caught in the tension of the excitement of being an outsider to a society, and the stigma of being different from those around you. To be an immigrant is to constantly reflect on who you are, where you come from, and how you are different from those around you. When you're an immigrant, you don't really belong anywhere--and you're never really at home anywhere.

An immigrant is like Philip Nolan, the man without a country in the short story of that name by Edward Everett Hale, the grand-nephew of American patriot, Nathan Hale. In that story, Nolan, a former lieutenant in the U.S. Army, who had the bad fortune to get mixed up with Aaron Burr. He was court-martialed for damning the United States and saying that he wished never to hear of it again and his punishment was that he was forced to spend fifty years roaming the seas on various federal ships.

In the story, Nolan is particularly affected when he hears part of the sixth canto of a Poem called The Lay of the Last Minstrel by Sir Walter Scott. The feelings expressed in that poem are similar to those felt by immigrants everywhere. It starts like this:

Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd,
As home his footsteps he hath turn'd,
From wandering on a foreign strand!

It is a wrench to be torn from the country of your birth and the feeling of dislocation never leaves you.

I'm an American citizen--but I wasn't born here so I'm not totally an American. I'm certainly not a German either. I returned to Germany in 1978 as a speaker for the United States Information Agency--because to be an immigrant is to want to stay in the country you came to but to also long to return to the country you came from. Being an immigrant saved my life--and robbed me of my childhood.

When I see photographs or movies about Germany or hear German songs, I wonder who I would have been and who I would have become if Hitler and Nazism hadn't caused my family to leave the country of my birth. That is, of course, a speculation to which one can never have an answer. But it is the kind of speculation that haunts immigrants.

Kati Marton, author of The Great Escape: Nine Jews Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World (2006), spoke about the effects of uprootedness this past May 9 when she was honored by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research at the Center for Jewish History in New York City, and I quote:

"The moral is that exile is never compensation for who you once were, what you had and will never again have...Though they triumphed, they never again found what had been stripped from them--a sense of belonging."

I became an immigrant at the age of five--and have remained one all my life.

What does this mean? It means that the fact that I left Germany, the country of my birth, and after a brief stay in Antwerp, Belgium, came to the United States, has colored everything I've been and done since then.

The effect of my being an immigrant has many facets. First of all, it made me different from most of those with whom I came in contact after I arrived here in 1934.

Actually told more than 40 percent of all living Americans--over 100 million people--can trace their roots to an ancestor who came through Ellis Island. The influx of immigrants to the United States between 1892 and 1954, during which time 12 million immigrants were processed at Ellis Island, was the largest human migration in modern history.

But I didn't know that when I was a child. What I knew was that I was different from my classmates. I had European parents and was European myself. My classmates in the Catskill Mountains of New York were, by and large, born in this country, as were their parents. My parents spoke a foreign language at home and they had ideas and customs that differed from those of the parents of my classmates.

My mother sent me to kindergarten wearing knee high hose; I longed to wear ankle socks like my American classmates. My parents were also older than the parents of my classmates because my mother was 36 when I was born.

I was different in other ways, too. I had no siblings at home for company because my brother, Hermann, married when I was then years old and left home. I had no close cousins with whom to play and no grandparents in this country. Three of my grandparents had died long ago and the fourth, my paternal grandmother, Udel Ulmer, lived in Poland. In addition, every winter my parents and I would go to Miami Beach so I would spend part of the winter with my class in the Catskill Mountains, first in Woodridge and later in Monticello, and part with my class in Miami Beach, Florida, thereby making me an outsider in all these schools.

And I was Jewish. When I was growing up in the 1930s and '40s, being Jewish wasn't what it is today. today it's chic to be Jewish or to be a member of another ethnic minority. Back then it was a mark of difference. It set you apart from the mainstream of the culture. I always remember feeling particularly excluded at Christmas time--the beautiful Christmas trees, the lights, the carols, the exchange of presents, the family gatherings--all that was not for me. I was the outsider. That's what immigrants are. They are outsiders. Aliens to the culture. Ultimately, I became a writer. Writers, too, tend to be outsiders. So they can look at the culture and see it from a vantage point that differs from those who are an integral part of it.

As an adult, I continued this pattern of being an outsider in my society. I became a lawyer in 1957 when 3% of the law school graduates in this country were women. I chose to have a career when most women opted for marriage and a family. I got married at the age of 42, twenty years after most of my contemporaries had gotten married. I married a man from Puerto Rico. I gave birth to my daughter when I was 43 --when most of my friends' children were in college. And even when I retired, I chose a different route--instead of relaxing, I embarked upon a career as a writer and public speaker.

Being an immigrant had something to do with all that. Because I escaped from the Holocaust and was able to come to this country, I felt that I was not free as other girls and women were to simply seek happiness through marriage and family. I felt I had been saved for a purpose and that there was something I needed to do with my life to contribute to society.

These feelings led to my attending law school in 1954, taking a job with the newly-created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in Washington, D.C., in 1965, and becoming a founder of the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1966. I concluded that the contribution I could make to society was to fight employment discrimination based on race, religion, color, sex, and national origin. Minorities and women in this country were set apart, treated differently, and discriminated against--all conditions natural to immigrants.

As it turned out, I became an expert in the developing law of sex discrimination.

Shortly after we arrived in this country, my parents applied for citizenship papers and five years later, when they became citizens, I automatically became a citizen on my father's citizenship papers. But I was never comfortable with the fact that I did not have my own citizenship papers. So while I was a student at Cornell University, I applied for my own papers. Thereafter, I went to the nearby city of Ithaca, New York, and at a ceremony just for me, I was given my own citizenship papers. That was quite a thrill. I have always felt that I appreciate the privilege of living in this country more than those who were born here--and I have never, ever taken it for granted.

I made a wonderful discovery when I was doing research for my memoir. It was my recollection that the ship on which we came to the U.S. was the Red Star Line's S.S. Westernland. My parents had a small, fabric, male doll in a navy blue uniform and white cap in our house and I remembered that the label on his cap said, "S.S. Westernland." But that doll got lost, and I wasn't sure my recollection was accurate. I asked Hermann and he thought we came over on the Cunard Line. I wrote to the Cunard Line but for a long time, I got no answer.

Then a friend told me that the manifests--the passenger lists--of most ships that arrived in the United States were at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I went to the archives and was told that the information on the manifests was on microfiche. I got the microfiche for May 1934, inserted it into the viewing machine and looked for the name Pressman. But I could not find it. I didn't know whether that was because the microfiche was so unclear or because I didn't know the way the manifests were organized. I turned the machine this way and that but nothing worked. So I asked the young woman who was at the reception desk if she could help me. She came over, took a look, and, like me, was unable to see anything. When I had come in, I noticed a tall man standing at the reception desk but couldn't figure out whether he worked there or was a visitor like me. When the young woman gave up, I asked this man if he could help me. His name was Dan Law, he was a technician at the Archives, and he came over to help.

Dan told me that some of the microfiche was old, had deteriorated, and therefore was hard to see. He asked whether I'd mind if he sat down at the machine and gave it a try, and of course, I was delighted to have him do so. Then he asked me for my brother's first name, explaining that the manifests were organized in terms of the passengers' first names. After I gave him Hermann's name, he asked if I knew how old he was in May of 1934 when he arrived. "Of course," I said. "He was 19."

"Here he is," said Dan.

The information the microfiche allowed him to locate the manifest in a book of manifests. Hew showed it to me and said, "Would you like to have a copy?" Would I? Dan ran off a copy for me and then I held in my hand a copy of the manifest of the name S.S. Westernland with my parents names on it, Hermann's name, my name--and even that of my grandmother Udel, who was not on the ship but on whom the ship had a record.

Some time later I received a letter from the Cunard line's office in England. It turned out that they had bought the Red Star Line and they sent me several pictures of the S.S. Westernland with text of the many immigrants the ship had brought to the United States.

When one thinks about immigration, the two symbols that come to mind are the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I visited the Statue of Liberty years ago; next to the flag, it is our country's most famous symbol for freedom. The Statue has been referred to as the most famous immigrant ever to come to this country. It was a gift to the U.S. from the people of France in recognition of the bonds formed between our two countries during the Revolutionary War, as a lasting memorial to independence, and to show that France was also dedicated to the idea of human liberty.

When I visited the Statue, I read again the poem on the bronze plaque at its base, the poem that is almost as famous as the Statue itself. The poem, entitled The New Colossus, was written in 1883 by Emma Lazarus, a woman who grew up in New York City in a prominent fourth generation Jewish family. She was one of the most outspoken Americans on issues affecting Jews. You all know her poem, which was used to help raise funds for construction of the Statue's pedestal in 1903:

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses
Yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Those sentiments haven't always represented U.S. policy--but, to the extent possible, they should remain our goal. In October of 1996, I took the ferry at Battery Park for a visit to Ellis Island.

From 1892 to 1924, Ellis Island was the principal federal immigration station in the United States. More than 12 million immigrants were processed there. My family didn't go to Ellis Island when we arrived in the United States in 1934 for two reasons. First, after 1924, Ellis Island was no longer the entry point for newly arrived immigrants. Instead, by that time, the U.S. had established embassies all over the world and prospective immigrants applied for their visas at American consulates in their countries and the paperwork and medical inspections were conducted there. Secondly, we came in first class, and first- and second-Class passengers who arrived in New York Harbor were not required to undergo the inspection process at Ellis Island. Instead, such passengers underwent a cursory inspection aboard ship. The theory was that if a person could afford to purchase a first- or second class ticket, they were less likely to become a public charge in America due to medical or legal reasons.

The situation was very different for steerage or third-class passengers. Third-class was called steerage because those passengers were housed on the lower decks of the ships where the steering mechanism had once been housed. For third-class passengers, their first step on American soil was on Ellis Island. These immigrants traveled in crowded and often unsanitary conditions near the bottom of the steamship with few amenities, often spending up to two weeks seasick in their bunks during rough Atlantic Ocean crossings. They traveled in terror that during their examinations at Ellis Island they would be found to have a contagious disease or considered likely to become a public charge or an illegal contract laborer and they would be returned to their countries of origin.

Actually, only 2 percent of the immigrants who passed through Ellis Island were turned away--but that translated to over 250,000 people whose hopes and dreams turned to tears.

Most immigrants entered the United States through New York harbor, but others sailed into other ports, such as Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Francisco, Savannah, Miami, and New Orleans. They came on steamship liners of companies like White Star, Red Star, Cunard, and Hamburg-America.

For those coming into New York Harbor, the ship would dock at the Hudson or East River Pier. First- and second-class passengers would disembark, pass through customs at the piers and be free to enter the United States. The steerage and third-class passengers were transported from the pier by ferry or barge to Ellis Island where they were required to undergo a medical and legal inspection.

Among the immigrants who came through Ellis Island and later attained fame in this country were songwriter Irving Berlin, bandleader Xavier Cugat, Father Edward Flanagan of Boys Town, Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, actors Bela Lugosi, Claudette Colbert, Edward G. Robinson, and Rudolph Valentino; singer Al Jolson, African-American leader Marcus Garvey, entertainer Bob Hope, impresario Sol Hurok, co-founder of the Actors Studio Lee Strasberg, director Elia Kazan, football coach Knute Rockne, Admiral Hyman Rickover, and Baron von Tropp and his Family, whose story later became The Sound of Music.

Although I did not come through Ellis Island, it was a very meaningful place for me to visit. One of the outdoor exhibits at Ellis Island, the American Immigrant Wall of Honor, honors America's immigrants regardless of when they immigrated or through which port they entered. Virtually every nationality is represented on the wall from every inhabited continent on the face of the earth. Those who endured forced migration from slavery are included, as are our own earliest settlers, the American Indians.

Among the people whose names are inscribed on the wall are Colonel John Washington, George Washington's great-grandfather; Myles Standish, who landed at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower in 1620; and the great-grandparents of President John Kennedy.

If you make a contribution to the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, you can have the name of an immigrant inscribed there. Some years ago, I had made a contribution to the Foundation, and so when I visited, I could see my brother Hermann's name on the Wall of Honor. Thereafter, my daughter made a contribution and now the Zysia Pressman family name is there too. The wall is currently inscribed with over 700,000 names.

Ellis Island did not close after it ceased to be the major entry point for new immigrants. After 1924, it remained open for many years and served a number of purposes. Immigrants were detained there if they had problems with their paperwork, as were war refugees, displaced persons, and, during World War II, enemy merchant seamen. The U.S. Coast Guard also used it as a training facility. Ellis Island was closed in 1954. Valery Bazarov, who is on the staff of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, told me this past year that he has reason to believe that the last case on Ellis Island involved a Jewish family who were to be deported until HIAS won an appeal of the deportation decision against them.

It was through HIAS that I learned this year of a dedicated woman who worked at Ellis Island for years helping women immigrants. Her name was Cecelia Greenstone, and I learned of her because she and I were both included in an article in the Summer 2--7 issue of Passages, the HIAS journal, about feminists who had connections to HIAS. Cecelia was born in Bialystok, Russian Poland in 1887; she became Socialist-Zionist, and, when that brought her into conflict with the government and the police, her family fled to America in 1905. After arriving in New York City, she turned down job offers until she could speak English. She went to the library and taught herself not only English but also Hebrew, German and Yiddish, eventually learning to speak seven languages. She was hired by the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) in 1907 and worked six days a week at Ellis Island, assisting single women, mothers and children through the immigration process. In 1905 along, NCJW dealt with over 600,000 women and children, most of whom were helped by Cecelia Greenstone.

A $250 million restoration project for Ellis Island, which began two years ago, is now underway. It is expected that the 750-bed hospital that was part of Ellis Island will be restored in the next 10 years, and it's likely that the new space will be the site of future conferences on important topics, like globalization, health care and immigration.

When I think of how being an immigrant affected my life and what it means to be an outsider, I am reminded of the writer Henry David Thoreau and the circumstances that led to his book, Walden, one of the world's greatest books. Thoreau, of course, was not an immigrant. He was as American as one can be. He was born in Concord, Massachusetts in 1817, educated at Harvard, and started out as a teacher. What is interesting about Thoreau, is that, in effect, he turned himself into an outsider to discover what life is all about. In 1945, he left the bustling town of Concord, built a cabin at Walden Pond and lived there for two years. He set out deliberately to live away from the crowd, and he wrote about his thoughts while at Walden Pond in his book.

"I went to the woods," he wrote, "because I wished to lived deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." At the end of Walden, in writing about what he had learned, he wrote these famous lines, which I will paraphrase to be more inclusive.

"Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man or a woman does not keep pace with their companions, perhaps it is because they hear a different drummer. Let them step to the music which they hear, however measured or far away."

I hope in that sense that each of us will be an immigrant--an outsider--to our own culture so that we can explore who we are, where we came from, and where we are going--and that we will each listen to our own drummer.

Thank you.
 

2007 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes. Ms. Fuentes is a public speaker, writer, lawyer, and co-founder of NOW (National Organization for Women). She is also the author of her memoirs titled Eat First--You Don't Know What They'll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter.
 

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