As I was searching on the internet for interesting holidays, I stumbled on October as “Family History Month.” Given that my family, as are many of my friends and colleagues, were from different parts of the world, I decided to do a little research and find out as much as I could about my ancestors. I knew that my grandparents were from Russia and travelled to the U.S. via England, landing in New Haven, CT, NY, and by mistake, Newfoundland, Canada. What I didn’t know was that one of my great-grandfathers had bribed an officer in the Czar’s army to get my grandfather on to a boat and out of harm’s way (Czar’s army). His story is a common one; he arrived in NYC, met my grandmother who was designing women’s wear on the Lower East Side of NYC, and from there went on to have a life of freedom in their beloved United States. My other grandfather followed his brothers to Newfoundland, (now a part of Canada, but then a part of Britain’s vast empire) a “rock in the middle of the ocean,” as my mother described it. He was a peddlar, travelling to all the outposts with a pack on his back. From there, he opened the the General Store in St John’s which, until malls came to the suburbs, was a hub for shopping and mingling. My mom, having this opinion that Newfoundland was a “rock in the middle of the ocean,” begged her parents to let her come to the U.S. for university. She met my dad and eventually became a U.S. citizen.
I find the history of all immigrants fascinating. I have a Romanian friend who grew up under Caeusescu and escaped with a paper bag when she was 20 years old. She often said that Americans don’t appreciate the freedoms they have. I’ve heard that time and time again, most recently from a young taxi driver in NYC. Obama was in town, and this spurred a conversation about politics and life in the U.S. He and his family had come to the U.S. when he was 11. They too had escaped from an African country of violence, their lives filled with fear. He grinned from ear-to-ear when he related his family’s story: his mom went to nursing school, he and his brother were in college, they had work, and his mom had just bought her own home in CT. “This would never have happened in my country,” he said. “Only the U.S. could offer us this freedom and opportunity.” Once again, I heard, “Americans don’t appreciate what they have.”
I know my grandparents appreciated the life they had in this country, and I think about our freedoms every day when I watch the news and see the horrors of war across the globe.
Share your family’s history with us: where did your family originate? What do they tell you about life in the “old world,” versus life in the U.S.