My grandfather, Joe, came to this country from Russia when he was about thirteen. He didn’t speak the language. He didn’t have any money. He didn’t have any family, except for one cousin. At Ellis Island he arrived as Joseph Kaganovich; later he would take the name of his cousin with whom he stayed.
Joe learned English and learned a trade. He became a pattern maker in New York’s garment industry, still a highly skilled job. He worked for David Crystal, the company that gave the world the Izod shirt. In fact, Joe is the one who came up with the design. Some of the models Joe worked with included Lucille Ball, Gloria Hatrick (the future Mrs. Jimmy Stewart) and Lauren Bacall, long before they achieved international fame.
My grandfather saved enough money to eventually bring his sister over, but unfortunately, the rest of his family was killed in the holocaust. His sister, Ann, arrived in New York the same day the Nazis invaded Poland. By then Joe was married to my grandmother, who also came here as a young child, albeit it with her family, with two children of his own, my father and my aunt. The family lived in a modest apartment in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn. My father has told me how unbearably hot the apartment, with a tar roof, was in the summer. There was always money for necessities. As my father puts it, “We never lacked for anything…perhaps we weren’t Park Avenue, but we were never hungry, always well-clothed and if money was needed, Joe was beyond generous.” There was always a little money to help my parents when they were starting out.
I don’t know if things were easier back then. Simpler, perhaps, but I don’t think easier. Life was hard. Nothing was handed to Joe, or the other immigrants like him. They came to this country because there were opportunities – just like the people who are here “illegally” today. They came here with nothing. America was, and is, the land where you have a chance. Do people abuse the system now? Well, sure, there are always people who abuse the system. I’m sure there were some back in Joe’s day, when Murder, Inc. and the Mafia ruled New York and other great cities. Back then, there were times people made their own justice. The government didn’t have the myriad of programs to bail people out. People worked their entire lives and retired without benefits or social security.
I don’t think today’s immigrants grew up dreaming of risking their lives, injury, getting beaten up or never seeing their families again to cross the border to come to the north so they could grow up to be underpaid, overworked maids, nannies, busboys, day laborers, etc. Do you? No, I think these immigrants grew up dreaming of the good things all children dream of. Or maybe not. Maybe they witnessed bloodbaths of their families and their neighbors when they were young, by insurgents or the government. Maybe they witnessed many die from lack of medical attention or food. I doubt very much these immigrants grew up with Gameboys and Barbies and all the things we all take for granted. I’m sure most grew up with very few toys, if any at all. I doubt some of them even had the opportunity to go to elementary school.
“These people” take the jobs many U.S. citizens refuse. My cousin is an artist, and even during the slowest times in his business, he didn’t seek work as a day laborer. I worked my way through college with odd jobs – a record store, an office – but I never cleaned someone’s toilet or scrubbed dishes in the back of a restaurant. “These people” aren’t going back home to abject poverty, and we benefit mightily from their presence, so it seems we might as well find a way to make their being here work for everybody. Perhaps a day will come when we have an enlightened national government that could put into effect a truly workable plan for everybody. Perhaps a day will come when all immigrants are simply viewed as people who come from foreign lands with rich cultures and a myriad of talents. Don’t hold your breath, though, as that day isn’t coming any time soon.
Laurie Robin Rosenthal