Tag Archives: immigrant experience

Pittsburgh 1918, 2018

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My father, an immigrant,
crossed the ocean,
went to live with his older brother,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant,
went to 5th Avenue High,
worked hard to understand
the strange English language,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant,
went to doven each Shabbos
in the local synagogue
a world away from the
sumptuous temples of Squirrel Hill,
in Pittsburgh.

My father, an immigrant
knew anti-Semitism, later escaped Hitler,
was spared the horror of that morning,
in Pittsburgh.

What would he have said
were he born a century later
to witness murder so heinous?

Would he have cried out to the heavens
in mourning for his lost brethren,
knowing it could have been any Jew, anywhere?

Would he have recognized the
the darkening of the national identity
as human behavior descends into blind hate?

Would the ghost of my father have screamed
in the sanctuary with the fallen?

My father, an immigrant,
died in 1974, a devout believer.
His soul lingers with the eleven,
immigrants or not, who died,
in Pittsburgh.

He never questioned
the existence of evil in the world.
Would he have been surprised
that it came home to Pittsburgh
to shatter, until the next news cycle,
the spirit of man?

Coda:

And I, my father’s son,
fail to find the fitting words
necessary to speak of this tragedy.

The stop in my throat,
the tears in my eyes,
reduces me to silent outrage.

Others may be able to speak
more emotionally, more eloquently.
Instead, I will go out to my father’s grave,
put a stone on his tombstone,
and carry eleven other stones in my pocket
in remembrance of those Jews
who can no longer speak for themselves.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years. Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in the YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy, edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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The Ring

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I will never forget Thursday, May 26, 1938, the day my mother, our beloved Scottish Terrier named Peeps, and I stood on the pier of the North German Lloyd shipping company in Bremerhaven, waiting to board the ocean liner SS Europa for our departure to the United States. The Europa was the largest ship built in Germany during the 1930s.

Prior to forever leaving German soil, we were required to undergo a final physical examination; Germany had to ensure that emigrants were not taking valuables out of the country. My mother carried only the maximum amount allowed: a ten-mark note, worth about $2.50 at the time. Being eleven years old, I was not permitted to leave with any funds. It was late afternoon when we were ordered into a tent that stood only a few feet away from where the Europa was moored. Those travelers who were not emigrating did not enter the tent nor endure its indignities. Inside, two elderly white-clad matrons with gray braids and large swastikas prominently pinned to their ample bosoms, ordered us to undress from the waist down. Then, as we were bent over two chairs, the attendants inspected our orifices for hidden treasures. Finding nothing, they instructed us to get dressed. As we prepared to exit, one of the grumpy ogres pointed to my mother’s left hand with its plain gold wedding band and commanded, “Hand it over!”

It took only a second for my mother to slip the ring from her finger. What she did after that, shocked not only me, but even more so, the matrons. Thinking, but not vocalizing, “If I can’t have it, neither will you. I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow you to take my wedding ring!”

My mother, with the band tightly clutched in her hand, sprinted toward the water’s edge a few steps away. She tossed the ring into the narrow strip of water separating the ship from the pier. Just as quickly, she zoomed back to scoop up Peeps and me from the tent, dragging us to the queueing spot where other passengers had begun boarding.

After reaching the top of the embarkation ladder, but before taking my first step into the huge vessel’s interior, I turned for a final glimpse backward. The looks of incredulity, frozen on the horrified faces of the two inspectors now standing on the pier outside the tent, were beyond description. Pulling Peeps’ white patent leather leash up the last step behind my mother, I was so overcome by what my mother had done that I slowed to what could have become a fatal stop.

The unbelievable daring and courage she showed by throwing her ring into the harbor still stunned me. We could have easily been caught and then, what would have happened to us? We might have been arrested and prevented from boarding because of her disobedience.

A few hours later, after stowing Peeps into the dog kennel on the top deck and finding our belongings in our cabin, my mother and I went above to witness the ship’s departure. It was getting dark and would soon be time for the Europa’s high-speed steam turbine engines to start up. Simultaneously, we heard the ship’s orchestra begin playing the tear-jerking, traditional German farewell folk song “Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Staedtele hinaus?” (Why must I leave this small town?)

Standing at the railing beside my mother, I saw she had tears running down her face.

“Mom,” I asked, “aren’t you glad we are finally getting out of here?”

“My dear child,” she replied, “I am and we have every reason for being grateful. But you must remember that I have lived through much better times than ours and it is these I am remembering at this moment. The good and happy times. And now I am looking forward to being in the new country and being reunited with your father.”

My mother’s first request after reaching the United States and settling in Louisville was for my father to buy her a new wedding ring. After all, she needed to show she was a married woman. I cherish her replacement ring, and after almost eighty years, I still proudly remember the incredible moment of defiance when my mother tossed her original wedding band into the water to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

Editor’s Note: Ellen Norman Stern shared a different version of this story, “Ring of Defiance,” with The Jewish Writing Project in 2012. We’ve included a link here to show how a writer’s memories can fuel different stories, and how our retelling of these stories can differ from draft to draft over the years, depending on what we find most worth telling at the time: (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/ring-of-defiance/).

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Ibex, Sheep, and SWAT Gear

by Saraya Ziv (Jerusalem, Israel)

The son of my lawyer, Dina, is getting married tonight and she has just about obligated me by contract to show my face for the ceremony. The wedding is across the street from Jerusalem’s large central market where a pigua, a terrorist attack, hit this morning. In my evening bag I carry pepper spray which I do not know how to use and which looks as menacing as a canister of breath freshener. I have two sharp pencils. I have the dull pin of an old brooch. I have no chance if a pigua hits tonight.

One route to this wedding is through the town of Beitar. The bus winds past a stretch of trees which reminds me of a parkway on Long Island. When we travel through concrete tunnels erected to postpone bullets blowing off my skull, I remember I’m not headed towards my brother’s Oyster Bay colonial. At a checkpoint, a civilian has another in a bear hug; they’re both giggling. Our driver opens his window and says something that sobers them. On a thin meridian, shoulder to shoulder, soldiers stand guard.

We pass between razor wire fences into Beitar. A life size diorama of ibex, sheep, and deer graze at a giant welcome sign. One large billboard encourages – enjoy Shabbat, from the minute it comes to the minute it leaves. Another warns – you’re bad talking others?  I don’t want to hear it! The only one to jump when two figures in SWAT gear and masks board our bus at the front door and exit at the back is me.

I reverse the trip in the dark. My bus is stuck behind a truck that says FedEx International. I imagine the truck plowing the Atlantic, crossing Europe, and landing in front of us, all on a single tank of gas. The driver is tuned in to a radio station he selected in New Jersey. His radio reports that the Garden State Parkway is backed up for miles, the new Miss America can drive a tractor, and nothing about pigua in the soft Judaean Hills.

On the hill to my village we halt at a roadblock. Two soldiers, one a woman with a French braid and a sub-machine gun, examine the trunk of a car. A loud crack terrifies me. It’s the limb of a tree, victim of a recent conflagration.

Saraya Ziv attended SUNY Buffalo, worked as a Business Analyst on Wall Street, and left the United States one April morning in 2015 on a one way ticket to Tel Aviv. She was born and lived in New York City all her life, but now lives a short drive to Jerusalem. You can find more of her work at her website, Mask for Winter (http://www.maskforwinter.com/) where this piece first appeared.

Note: This story appeared under a different title, “Beitar,” on the Mask for Winter in 2017, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission. 

 

 

 

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Sing and Tell of My Grandfather

By Bruce Black (Sarasota, FL)

During National Poetry Month, WNYC invited Pulitzer Prize winning poet Sharon Olds to share a writing prompt on its poetry site. Thanks to the prompt, I ended up writing “Sing and Tell of My Grandfather,” a poem that I hadn’t even known I was thinking about writing.

The assignment from Olds was to write a short poem (16 lines or fewer) using (among others) the words acid, anise seed, butter, cherish, grisly, margarine, mother, pearl, sing, and tell. Here’s the poem that I found waiting for me:

Sing and tell of my grandfather
a baker who learned how to use butter—
not margarine—to add flavor to the cakes
and Danish pastries and bread and rolls
that came out of his oven in Zharnow, hot
and steamy and sweet, not grisly anemic rolls
but thick and fluffy, with drops of sugar, like pearls,
and anise seed, like slivers of jade, the kind of rolls
his mother said would bring him wealth and long life
and happiness if he left home. “If you stay,” she said,
“you’ll live with the taste of acid in your mouth, if they
let you live at all.” So, he sailed for America and became
a baker and bought his own bakery and raised a family,
two daughters, thank God, one of whom became my mother,
and lived a life the ones left behind could only dream of.

If you’d like to read more poems written in response to this prompt, visit the WNYC site: http://www.wnyc.org/story/happy-national-poetry-month-heres-assignment-3/

Bruce Black is the founder and editorial director of The Jewish Writing Project. His work has appeared in Blue Lyra Review, Elephant Journal, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Reform Judaism, The Reconstructionist, The Jewish Week, and The Jewish Exponent, as well as in OmYoga Magazine, Yogi Times, Mindbodygreen, Yogamint, and The Sarasota Herald-Tribune. For information about his book, Writing Yoga, visit: 

http://www.rodmellpress.com/writingyoga.html

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Rescuing The Past

By Sheldon P Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

At a recent tag sale, I happened upon an item that just didn’t seem to belong there.

The sale took place at a small, non-descript house that stood out in sharp contrast to every other home on the street. Flakes of peeling paint littered the walkway and elongated weeds stood at solemn attention in the narrow front yard. A bold white and red sign proclaiming “Tag Sale Today was affixed to the porch and, within no time at all, brought forth a gush of interested opportunists in search of a good buy. I happened to be in the area and decided to stop and take a peek.

A wobbly screen door let out a high-pitched screech as I entered the premises. Once inside, I found myself transported back in time. There had been little if any updating over the years. What had been purchased sixty or seventy years ago now lay scattered about in every direction waiting to be pushed, poked and squeezed by a multitude of inquisitive fingers.

Initially, there was very little that caught my eye, but, upon entering the kitchen, I couldn’t help but notice a black and white photograph that seemed to be out of place. It lay partially covered by some old books and faded documents that had been carelessly tossed onto an old wooden table. In a dented tarnished metal frame was the picture of a solemn man dressed in what was likely his Sabbath attire. His distinctive cap and long unruly beard identified him as an observant Jew who, more than likely, had resided somewhere in Eastern Europe generations earlier. His sad eyes and resolute face immediately caught my attention. It was a face that could have served as the ideal cover for a book containing stories of a difficult existence in a far off place filled with conflict, tumult and hardship. The man in the photograph was silent but I could sense his strength and determination, and his desire to free himself from the past.

After picking up the picture, I asked the middle-aged fellow who was in charge of the sale if he knew the identity of the man in the photograph. “I think it was my wife’s grandfather,” he answered indifferently. “You see, this house belonged to her father, and, after his death, we decided it was time to empty the place of his belongings before we put the house on the market. My wife is fairly certain that the man with the beard was her father’s father. The photo was taken way back when in the old country. We have no use for it so if you want it, I’ll throw in the picture if you decide to buy anything else.”

Rather than have it end up in the trash, I bought a small-framed etching that I really had no use for and left with the picture pressed firmly to my side.

After getting into the car to head home, I glanced over at the front passenger seat where the picture lay and got to thinking about how little family photographs and mementos mean to some people. After all, this was more than likely her grandfather, the one person who was a critical link in a long chain of family members who played a role in her being here. There was not the slightest reservation about disposing of the only photograph that she possessed of her grandfather. It also got me to thinking about all of the other personal or religious items belonging to departed loved ones that so often appear at tag sales.

Elderly parents or grandparents may have kept personal mementos and prized religious items hidden in a drawer or cabinet and would, with the utmost respect and adoration, take them in hand during holidays, family events and special occasions. After loved ones pass on, children suddenly abandon old photographs, prayer books, prayer shawls, and other ceremonial items, and grandchildren feel no attachment to what are viewed as meaningless outdated relics.

The picture got me to thinking about how easy it is for some of us to jettison our history, our culture and, yes, our own identities. The man in the photograph was on a mission. It’s as though he came here to remind me that, like it or not, we can never escape from the past.

We must never forget who we are.

To this day, I don’t know his name but he resides in a new frame that hangs on the wall as you enter my home.

“Who’s the man with the beard?” a number of visitors have asked while pointing to the picture on the wall.

“I have no idea,” I reply, “but he belongs here, he just belongs here.”

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears (http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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Ellis Island

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

i

Hi, Dad.
Today I discovered the manifest
of the ship you sailed on
when you crossed the Atlantic alone
and arrived in New York, November 7, 1923.
The basic facts jump off the computer screen:
Age 18, single, male, brown hair,
$40 in your pocket and a
second class ticket in your hand.
Name of vessel – the “Polonia”
Ethnicity – Hebrew, Lithuanian
Port of Departure – Libau
But the pages before my eyes
say little how you felt
passing the Statue of Liberty,
said nothing of your dreams and fears.
Were you excited? Scared? Or both?
What words did you reserve
for your running thoughts then?
What words do you have for me now?

ii

You never told me tales of your youth,
except to say how hard life was,
and how you had to go without.
You never told me lessons you learned,
or what private words your parents presented,
and if they gave you blessing to cross the sea.
You never told me at the end of your life
what conclusions you had drawn
or whether you’d be leaving the world at peace.
I suspect you didn’t.
I suspect you withheld large portions of your years
that were to remain completely unopened.
Perhaps if I had known you better,
and did not gather information
off a ship’s manifest, it might have
made a difference, then again, perhaps not.
I do wish your life hadn’t been
such a Cracker Jack’s surprise box,
as I hope the airing of this and other poems
won’t be such a revelation to my own children.

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss.

If you’d like to learn more about his work, visit: http://www.melglenn.com/

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From the Promenade

by Mel Glenn (Brooklyn, NY)

My parents passed the Statue of Liberty,
refugees from the ravages of the second World War
searching for a piece of the American dream pie.
Child of immigrants, I stand now, some 60 years later
staring out at the same lady from the Promenade
in Brooklyn where earlier strangers to the shore
battled the British with meager resources.
Before me, across the busy East River,
lie the jagged teeth of the city skyline,
blocking the exposed cavity of 9/11.
Other immigrants, other times, same religion
came through the cavernous halls
of Castle Garden where they were
accepted or rejected for arbitrary reasons.
This harbor of my Jewish forefathers
seems less welcoming now, awash in the tide
of a resurgent radicalism loath to let in
anyone new and foreign and strange.
The port of New York sits warily
across the railing of the Promenade,
keeping its once wide open door cynically ajar.
Fortunate now, I see America in parts.
Then, would I have even been permitted in?

The author of twelve books for young adults, Mel Glenn has lived nearly all his life in Brooklyn, NY, where he taught English at A. Lincoln High School for thirty-one years.  Lately, he’s been writing poetry, and you can find his most recent poems in a new YA anthology, This Family Is Driving Me Crazy,  edited by M. Jerry Weiss. For more information about Mel’s work, visit his website: http://www.melglenn.com/

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