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
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
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
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 ½--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
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
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
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
"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.
2007 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes.
In 2000, Sonia lectured on “How Being an Immigrant Shaped My Life” at
Cornell University and thereafter gave varying versions of that talk at
other venues. Articles on that subject have appeared in: 120 HIAS
Stories, a book published to commemorate the 120th anniversary of
HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) (July 2002), Women in Judaism,
a Multidisciplinary Journal (April 2006), the Sarasota-Manatee Jewish
News (January 2007), and the website of Der Bay, the
newsletter of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs (Vol. XX,
No. 1, Jan. 2010).
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.