History of World War Two Told Through Letters
I recently returned from a visit to Chicago where I watched my brother graduate from Medical School. Congratulations, Zach! We explored this exciting city between the ceremonies and celebrations. We wandered through the Blues Festival, visited the Art Institute and took an architectural boat tour.
Chicago is the city my great-grandfather, David, Alex’s father, first came to when he arrived in the United States. He worked in the steel mills of U.S. Steel. How amazing, then, to see my brother become a doctor in the very same town. David arrived after World War I by himself. His wife, Pauline, stayed in Europe.
The federal immigration bills passed in 1921 and 1924 severely limited immigration to the United States. In the face of rising nationalism immigration was limited “to 3% of the population of the United States, based on the 1910 census” (http://www.historycentral.com/TheTwenties/Immigration.html). David remained by himself in Chicago until 1929. During this time he sent money back to Italy for his wife and four children.
In 1929, Alex (my grandfather, the youngest of the siblings) and my great-grandmother Pauline were allowed to join David in Chicago. By that time David had gotten his citizenship and could bring his wife and any children who were still minors to live with him. Alex just met this criteria – he was 17. One might imagine that the reunion, after so long, was movie-like. How amazing, after all, to leave the old world and come to the country where “the streets are paved with gold.” However, after an almost ten-year wait, Pauline arrived at David’s run-down apartment on the South Side and, story has it, her first words were, “You make me leave my family to come to this?” According to Alex, she always wanted to go back. “She never learned English, although she spoke Hungarian, Italian and Yiddish. She never adjusted to America.”
The family left Chicago by train and moved to New York. Alex told my father that he remembered coming to the U.S. as “coming to a country on fire.” My dad tells me, “He meant that when he arrived and traveled by train to Chicago from NYC all that he noticed were the billows of smoke and fire from factories and steel mills in Pittsburgh, Indiana and Chicago. That’s what he recalled. He, too, was pretty upset.”
I’ll let my dad continue with his explanation of my family’s adjustment to America: “My grandmother [Pauline] always said that poverty here was so much worse than in Europe. In Europe she believed that the poor were part of a community and there was a culture and self-respect to be a working class person. But in the US it was seen as a sign of weakness and failure so everyone was much more ashamed of their station in life. I’m not sure whether this was really the case, but that’s how my Dad explained her ‘withdrawal from America’ to me.”
Alex’s first job in the U.S. was also in the steel mills as a shoveler. This is someone who had to race into the open area in the ovens and shovel out the debris that had fallen from the oven walls. He remembers that many of the other workers helped him since he was a weak 17 year old kid. They often took his place in line so that he could have more time to recover from the previous “run.”
David (my great-grandfather, not my dad) was a highly skilled mechanic in Europe and took a great deal of pride in his work. But here he was put on assembly lines doing terrible, unskilled, and in his eyes, humiliating jobs. He ultimately gave up all his working in factories and ran a newspaper stand when he moved to NY. It was on East Broadway near Canal. He had a heart attack working in it in 1946 and died there.
This narrative is one of hardship and triumph mixed up all together. While America might not have been the land of happiness for everyone in the family, and without forgetting that professions do not define people, I think it’s okay to stop and think about how in three generations Chicago saw the family go from steel workers to doctors. I’m so proud of you, Zach.