The Naturalized Patriot
In 1914, my mother, her brothers, and my grandmother fled Austria-Hungary. My mother was five years old. In one frantic night, they abandoned their small cottage, their chickens and home-grown vegetables. My grandmother had always bartered eggs and fresh produce for milk and other necessities with neighbors and even with the soldiers who sometimes were forced to persecute her. Toys and clothing were at a bare minimum in their home. They were poor, but rich with love and family and hard-working hands. So what possessions they brought with them came down to food for the arduous journey. My grandmother was a clever, sweet woman who knew how to survive.
Mother would never again see the daisy fields behind their small house where she played with her cousins. They had word from my grandfather, who had gone to New York to find a way for his family to emigrate, to leave immediately and take no possessions. Archduke Ferdinand had been assassinated on a bridge near Sarajevo, and Jews, who had not been safe from pogroms before that day, were being rounded up. War was on the horizon.
The young family climbed onto a hired donkey cart. They fled through the night to the docks where they boarded with other refugees, the freighter, “Kaiser Wilhelm,” for a journey that took them across the sea in deplorable conditions and lasted many weeks. My mother and her siblings developed eye infections in the crowded steerage and when they finally arrived at Ellis Island they were almost turned back. Grandmother bathed her children's eyes until they opened and they were released after several days of detention to Delancey Street where my grandfather had found a one-bedroom apartment.
Mother was determined to learn English even at that young age, actually taught it to her parents, and finally thrived, in this, her beloved land of opportunity. Her best memory from the trip was the vision she saw when she opened her eyes in New York. It was the “great lady,” she said, the Statue of Liberty, and the tears she shed not only cleared her crusty eyes, but instilled in her a sense of patriotism that never left her.
She loved America and the English language and educated herself after she was forced to quit school in Junior High to help support my grandparents’ burgeoning family. She became a bookkeeper, and, as a naturalized citizen, voted every year, read newspapers voraciously and voiced her opinions at meetings. She never missed a Chuck Schumer event or a political rally for a cause in which she believed.
As the world continues to erupt in wars and grass-roots struggles, even in these times, where no part of the planet is free of turmoil, people are still desperate to live and work in a country that abhors persecution. That country, our country, is America, whose full name starts with "United." It’s our responsibility to engage in respectful dialogue that upholds principles of democracy and to vote— rights Mother never took for granted. It's our duty to remain firm in the principles which can keep us strong, with compassion for all.
And that is especially important this year when the stakes are so high. I will vote for the person I think is most sane and who will keep closest to the ideals of civility and respect for the values that my immigrant family sought when they took that journey across the ocean.
I hope all Americans do the same. Vote your heart, but vote smart.
- Rosalind Brenner