Tuesday, August 14, 2018

American Heritage

The op-ed in Politico by David S. Glosser has garnered attention not only because it calls out Stephen Miller, one of the architects of Trump’s cruel immigration policies as both a hypocrite and a betrayer to his family’s history, it points out that unlike the fears stoked by xenophobes and racists, immigrants came to America to make life better for themselves and their families.

Let me tell you a story about Stephen Miller and chain migration.

It begins at the turn of the 20th century, in a dirt-floor shack in the village of Antopol, a shtetl of subsistence farmers in what is now Belarus. Beset by violent anti-Jewish pogroms and forced childhood conscription in the Czar’s army, the patriarch of the shack, Wolf-Leib Glosser, fled a village where his forebears had lived for centuries and took his chances in America.

He set foot on Ellis Island on January 7, 1903, with $8 to his name. Though fluent in Polish, Russian and Yiddish, he understood no English. An elder son, Nathan, soon followed. By street corner peddling and sweatshop toil, Wolf-Leib and Nathan sent enough money home to pay off debts and buy the immediate family’s passage to America in 1906. That group included young Sam Glosser, who with his family settled in the western Pennsylvania city of Johnstown, a booming coal and steel town that was a magnet for other hardworking immigrants. The Glosser family quickly progressed from selling goods from a horse and wagon to owning a haberdashery in Johnstown run by Nathan and Wolf-Leib to a chain of supermarkets and discount department stores run by my grandfather, Sam, and the next generation of Glossers, including my dad, Izzy. It was big enough to be listed on the AMEX stock exchange and employed thousands of people over time. In the span of some 80 years and five decades, this family emerged from poverty in a hostile country to become a prosperous, educated clan of merchants, scholars, professionals, and, most important, American citizens.

What does this classically American tale have to do with Stephen Miller? Well, Izzy Glosser is his maternal grandfather, and Stephen’s mother, Miriam, is my sister.

I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country.

I shudder at the thought of what would have become of the Glossers had the same policies Stephen so coolly espouses— the travel ban, the radical decrease in refugees, the separation of children from their parents, and even talk of limiting citizenship for legal immigrants — been in effect when Wolf-Leib made his desperate bid for freedom. The Glossers came to the U.S. just a few years before the fear and prejudice of the “America first” nativists of the day closed U.S. borders to Jewish refugees. Had Wolf-Leib waited, his family likely would have been murdered by the Nazis along with all but seven of the 2,000 Jews who remained in Antopol. I would encourage Stephen to ask himself if the chanting, torch-bearing Nazis of Charlottesville, whose support his boss seems to court so cavalierly, do not envision a similar fate for him.

As Dr. Glosser notes, this is a classically American story of immigration and assimilation.  Change the country of origin to England or Wales and you have my own ancestry.  Ask your neighbor named Cramer or Hollenbeck or Shapiro or Perez or Yang their family history and it will probably sound a lot like the Glossers in macro: their ancestors — or maybe even their parents — came from someplace else.

There are four types of American ancestry: Native Americans, immigrants, refugees, or slaves (or a combination thereof).  And even the Native Americans will tell you they came from somewhere else back in the mists of time, either via the land bridge from Siberia or up from South America.

That’s what makes America America, and I’m not just talking about the United States.  The same stories are told in Canada, Mexico, throughout the Caribbean, and South America: everybody there came  from some other place to find a better life, to escape persecution, to do what human nature programs us to do: survive and thrive.  (And we also have a powerful curiosity to know where we came from.  Why else would millions of people pay $100 to spit in a tube and mail it off to Ancestry.com?)

America has been through these fits of xenophobia and paranoia about immigration throughout its history; excluding entire races and ethnic groups for the most hateful of reasons until, of course, they can find a use for them, be it a labor force to build the railroad, pick the lettuce, or build an atomic bomb.  We have, in the past, risen beyond the self-inflicted ignorance and hypocrisy, and we can do it again.  It’s the American way.

2 barks and woofs on “American Heritage

  1. About the “up from South America” comment: if we’re going back into the mists of time, there were no people in South America to move north. The pattern of migration was just the opposite.

Comments are closed.