Wednesday, April 7, 2010

From Every End of This Earth

Today we're lucky to have Steven V. Roberts, author of From Every End of This Earth, guest-blogging for us. Steven will be at Tenement Talks on April 15. The book is a marvelous collection of immigrant stories, featuring 13 families from around the globe, who've all come to the US to work, raise families, and start new lives. As you will read below, Steven is deeply inspired by his own family's immigration story.

As I listened to Barack Obama’s inaugural address, I heard him say: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth.”

I knew then that I had a title for this book. I liked the lilt of his language, but more than that, I shared his sense of what makes America great. This country’s genius flows from its diversity.

“We know,” said the new president, “that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness.”

Or as Eddie Kamara Stanley of Sierra Leone puts it, “it’s the nation of nations, you can see every nation in America.”

But diversity only describes color not character, ethnicity not ingenuity. Over many generations, the immigrants who chose to come here, and were strong enough to complete the journey, were the most ambitious, the most determined, the most resilient adventurers the Old World had to offer.

“The greatness of our nation…must be earned,” said the new president, and building that greatness has never been “for the faint-hearted.” Rather, he added, “it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things” who led the way.

“For us they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.”

The “faint-hearted” stayed behind.

This book is about the doers, the risk-takers, the makers of things that Obama describes. The president knows them well because his own father was an immigrant from Kenya, and his stepfather was from Indonesia.

I know them well, too. All four of my grandparents came from the “pale of settlement” on the Western edge of the Russian empire where Jews were allowed to settle in the 19th century. They were born between 1881 and 1892, and while they all described themselves as Russian, borders have shifted so often since then that their hometowns today are in three different countries - Poland, Belarus and Lithuania.

Both of my grandfathers were carpenters, “makers of things,” who settled in Bayonne, N.J., just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. One lived with us, in a house he had built himself, while my other grandparents were three blocks away.

I thought everybody grew up that way and most of my friends did. Our grandparents all had accents and our babysitters all were related. If our families weren’t Russian or Polish, they were Irish or Italian, with an occasional Czech or Ukrainian or Litvak thrown in. I grew up thinking WASPS were a tiny minority group.

Most of our relatives fled a life of poverty or persecution in the Old Country and would not talk about the past; they wanted to leave all that behind and become American.

But I was lucky: my Grandpa Abe used to tell me tales of his youth in Bialystok, a town that achieved a fleeting notoriety when Mel Brooks used the name “Max Bialystok” for the main character in his play The Producers.

In fact Abe, like many immigrants, moved more than once, and spent his teenage years as a Zionist pioneer in Palestine, working on the first roads ever built in what’s now Tel Aviv.

He arrived in America on April 7, 1914, aboard a ship called the George Washington that sailed from Bremen, a port on the North Sea. The manifest spells both of his names wrong (“Awram Rogowski” instead of “Avram Rogowsky”) and persistent mistakes like that have hampered the search for my family’s records. On her birth certificate, my mother is listed as “Dora Schaenbein”, when in fact her name was Dorothy Schanbam. At her 90th birthday party I took note of that discrepancy and joked that perhaps we were celebrating the wrong woman entirely.

This background left me with a life long interest in ethnicity and immigration. My last book, My Fathers’ Houses, chronicled my family’s arrival in the New World and the lives we made here. This book is really an update, the stories of 13 families who are living the journey today that Grandpa Abe and my other ancestors made almost 100 years ago.

In a sense I have been working on this volume for my entire writing life. When I became a reporter on the city staff of the New York Times in 1965, I convinced the editors to let me do a series about the ethnic neighborhoods of New York.

One favorite was Arthur Avenue, an old Italian section near the Bronx Zoo, and I remember coming back from that assignment with some great anecdotes and a box of delicious cannolis from a local bakery. On weekends my wife and I occasionally roamed the Lower East Side, and one favorite destination was Katz’s deli on Houston Street, started by Russian immigrants in 1888 and famous for its slogan, “Send a salami to your boy in the army!”

Some years later, when I decided to search for my own roots in Europe, I called the Bialystoker Center on East Broadway. They put me in touch with a man who was an expert on the Jews of Eastern Poland. With his help, my wife and I journeyed to Bialystok in 1991.

I asked to go to the train station, where many of Grandpa Abe’s early adventures had taken place. You’re in luck, said the guide, that’s one of the few buildings left in town that looks the way it did when your grandfather lived here.

As I walked out onto the platform, I could feel Abe’s spirit. I looked upward, held out my arms, and said softly, “Pop, we survived, and I’m here to prove it.” Then I broke down and wept, not realizing until that moment how deeply grateful I was to my grandparents for having the heart and heroism to make a new life for themselves and their grandson in a new land.

They are all heroes -- the generations who poured through the Lower East Side a hundred years ago and the ones who still come today, from every end of this earth.

- Steven V. Roberts

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