Finding refuge

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Morris Gichtin, left, came to the United States in 1921 with daughter Tillie, center, and wife, Clara, after fleeing persecution in Russia. They are seen here with Will Astor.

Some years ago, a contractor I had vetted for my maternal grandmother, Clara Gichtin, called me. 

There was a drainage problem in the basement of her Buffalo home. He’d finished the job, the contractor said, sounding slightly desperate. My grandmother was refusing to pay him. Could I come and straighten it out?

I dropped whatever I was doing to drive an hour and a half from Rochester to Buffalo. The job, which involved digging up the concrete floor, repairing a sewer line and pouring new concrete, was neatly done. The invoice hewed to the estimate he’d given us a month earlier.

“The work’s fine. Pay the man,” I told my grandmother. She paid without further protest.

My grandmother’s recalcitrance was not out of character. Her default settings were anxiety, distrust and suspicion. She was someone to avoid being behind at a supermarket checkout line. Often she would exhaustively quiz the checkout person over what she believed were mistakes on the receipt. There seldom were. Still, she was not easily convinced. 

After the contractor left, I asked her: “Why are you like this?”

She did not protest or pretend not to know what I meant. She answered immediately: “It’s because of what they did to me.”

I let it drop. I knew what she meant. 

I haven’t thought of it often, but lately, inundated by news reports of Central American parents and children fleeing intolerable conditions, with parents deported and children interned into crowded, cold detention camps or sent to distant facilities, my grandmother’s story rises, half-forgotten but now recalled.

A life of persecution

Decades earlier my grandmother told me the story of how she; my grandfather, Morris Gichtin; her mother, Anna Kupchinetsky; and my infant mother, Tillie Gichtin Astor, came to America. 

Henry Astor, Will Astor’s paternal grandfather, extreme left, Tillie, center, and her parents Morris and Clara Gichtin.

Her story came unexpectedly as we sat at her kitchen table. Morning light streamed in, cheerfully, it seemed to me. But it was not a cheerful story. Most of it went miles over my 5-year-old head. I understood the words, but what could the emotions, the memories mean to me, a child who had known only comfort, love and safety? Still, I remember it clearly now. 

My grandparents lived in Justingrad, near Sokolievka, then part of Russia. It is now in Ukraine. They fled Sokolievka for America around 1920. Entering through Canada in 1921, they arrived in Buffalo where they spent the rest of their lives. 

A shtetl, Justingrad was established just across the River Bug from Sokolievka in 1825, when Czar Nicholai I issued a decree called a ukase. It ordered Jews who had lived in crown towns like Sokolievka but didn’t own property there to leave their homes and move onto lands owned by local gentry. 

Justingrad was named in honor of Justina, the landowner where the uprooted Jews of Sokolievka were told to settle. Despite Justingrad’s nearly century-long history as a separate shtetl, the Jews of Justingrad, including my grandparents, still identified themselves as Sokolievkers. 

Throughout 1919, pogroms had ravaged shtetls, the ghetto-like enclaves where most Russian Jews were permitted to live. Those pogroms were the most recent of a series that had been periodically incited by czars for more than half a century. They were often instigated to deflect attention away from policies opposed by Ukrainian separatists and other anti-czarist forces.  

My grandmother and her mother had quivered in fear in their house as angry peasants ravaged the town. When the peasants left, they learned that a relative had been confronted by a band of Cossacks. They forced him to dig a grave and buried him alive. On another day, my grandmother told me, she wasaccosted and chased through fields by a young Russian intent on raping her, but she managed to escape. 

My grandmother and grandfather married in 1917 as the Russian Empire fell. She was 16. He was 24. My grandmother’s tone softened as she recalled the wedding. They were married under a chuppah, she said, “the way they used to do it in the old country,” standing outside with friends and family gathered around to hold the canopy’s poles and to cheer as my grandfather broke a glass.

Morris Gichtin and Will Astor

My grandmother at that time did not tell me that during World War I my grandfather had been conscripted into the czar’s army. I learned this years later when I innocently mentioned something about Poland to my grandfather. He was generally a taciturn man, and here he said little, too, putting an infinitude of long-held but rarely expressed grievance into a single, emotionally charged word—Polacks! I looked at him quizzically, hoping to learn the why of his outburst. He would not elaborate. 

Aunt Sonia pulled me aside and explained in a whisper: As a conscript, my grandfather had been captured and interned in a Polish monastery where he apparently had been ill-treated, possibly because he was Jewish. I never learned what they did to him or exactly when he made it back to Sokolievka. As the czar fell in 1917, many of his troops simply left whatever they were doing and made their way home. 

In the power vacuum left when the czar was toppled and he and his family were executed, factions including Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and anti-Communist White Russian militias vied for control. Marauding bandits and militia units roamed freely, taking what they could for whatever purpose they had in mind. Shtetls were an easy target.

According to survivor accounts collected in an online database by JewUa.org, a nonprofit group working to preserve Ukraine’s Jewish history, various factions mounted pogroms targeting Sokolievka Jews throughout 1919. In the first, 170 men were marched onto the bridge linking Sokolievka and Justingrad, and shot. 

As JewUa chronicles the aftermath of that massacre, there was no lull after the bandits’ retreat. Instead, “there was total anarchy. From the old town of Sokolievka, hoodlum ruffians came night after night, rioted, and attacked Jews, burned houses to force the Jews to leave. Many families did flee at that time. This went on about three months.” By the time the last of that year’s pogroms had ended in December, most of the town’s Jews had left. 

In search of freedom

When they fled Sokolievka, my grandmother was pregnant with her first child, my mother. She was born on Oct. 4, 1921, in Kishinev, a city in Rumania (now Romania) that some years earlier had been beset by its own pogroms, but where at that time, Jews fleeing Sokolievka had set up an organization to aid their fellow fleeing landsmen. 

My mother was a blue baby, starved of oxygen during her birth. My grandmother feared my mother wouldn’t survive, but my mother took one breath and then another, and lived until her 88th year. My mother and father, along with my grandparents, my two maternal aunts and their husbands, are buried in the Holy Order of the Living cemetery in Cheektowaga, which was established by my grandfather and other Sokolievker landsmen as a memorial to the Jews who died in a 1918 pogrom. Their names are listed as you enter through a little house. After he retired, my grandfather served until his death at 77 as the burial society’s secretary. 

Holy Order of the Living Cemetery in Cheektowaga.
(Photo courtesy of Elynn Boss)

My grandmother said it took six months for my grandparents to get from Rumania to Holland, where they booked passage on a ship bound for Montreal. A number of my grandfather’s relatives had emigrated and settled in Montreal. She shared only one detail of their trek across Europe. They were crossing a border illegally, walking down a railroad track. They feared detection. My mother began to cry. To stifle her cries, my grandmother covered her mouth, clamping down with her hand.

“I was afraid she might suffocate,” my grandmother told me, shuddering even then at the thought, still real and present to her.

A new life

My grandparents were preceded by my grandmother’s brother Morris Kupchinetsky. Uncle Moishe, as I knew him, had Americanized his surname to Cooper. He was about the same age as my grandfather. His son, Lou Cooper, was a buyer for the Sattler’s Department Store’s menswear department. For many years, all my clothes came from Sattler’s where Cousin Lou gave us a 10 percent discount.

In Buffalo, my grandparents built a life that fell somewhere between the Anglo-Saxon ideal of their adopted country and the shtetl they came from.

My grandfather worked alone, plying his one-horse wagon as a ragman until he retired. According to a family story, he was offered the opportunity to buy into a scrap-metal business during World War II. He understood that it would have made him rich, but he wasn’t interested. “All I need is a herring and a potato,” he said, waving away the opportunity. 

By then, my grandfather had already bought a Colvin Avenue house, which he purchased in the 1930s, moving his young family to the North Buffalo neighborhood from the cramped house on William Street he had rented close to downtown. 

My grandparents’ home in Buffalo, where I lived from the age of 10 months until I was seven with my mother, two aunts and an uncle, was a modest double near the Buffalo Zoo. We lived in the three-bedroom upstairs flat. It had one bathroom, a wide second-story front porch, a smaller back porch reached only through my grandparents’ bedroom and a small backyard with a white picket fence.

Will Astor’s aunt Adele graduated from University of Buffalo.

When I was small, the house was crowded. Sonia, who was a teenager, slept on a foldout cot in the dining room. I shared a bedroom with my Uncle Abe, who was attending the University of Buffalo, where earned a B.S. in physics. My aunt Adele and my mother shared a bedroom across the hall from my grandparents’ bedroom. Adele was also going to UB. After Sonia graduated from high school, she attended SUNY Brockport, then called Brockport State Teachers College, earning a degree in physical education.

My mother was widowed in 1947 when my father, Norman Astor, died. At the time I was born, he was a journalist for CBS Radio News in Los Angeles. I’m told Harry Reasoner was a colleague. Later, my father worked for the Buffalo Evening News. This was after he followed my mother back to Buffalo where they had originally met, and where in 1946 she had unilaterally and abruptly decided to return. After my father died a year later, my mother and I stayed on with my grandparents. When I was seven, she remarried. We moved into the downstairs flat, where we lived until 1961, when my stepfather’s work took us to Brighton.  

Building a schul

In 1951, my grandfather and other Sokolievker landsman pooled their resources to build a shul, Ahavas Achim Lubavitz, a two-story yellow brick building on Hertel Avenue that still stands a few blocks from our house though it is no longer a shul. 

By the late 1970s, many of the Ahavas Achim congregants including my grandfather had died. The building was sold to a church, which later also vacated it. It is now empty and for sale, mistakenly identified by a real estate agent as “circa 1900 ” structure.

At Ahavas Achim, the men prayed in the old way as they had in Sokolievka, with no cantor leading, prayer shawls covering their heads as each man swayed back and forth. The Yiddish word for such praying is daven. When the men davened, each went at his own pace, as if they were all in some kind of praying race. Finding themselves at different points in the service, each man would bob up and down at different times as all swayed back and forth. Their voices rose and fell in a dissonant cacophony.    

My grandfather told a joke about davening: A gentile asks a Jew why Jewish services have to be so loud and disorderly. Why can’t they be quieter and coordinated like church services? The Jew explains: Your God is young. Our God is old, so his hearing is not so good. That’s why we have to pray louder.  

My grandfather planted a peach tree, a cherry tree and a raspberry bush in the tiny back yard. Every spring he hauled out a 40-foot wooden extension ladder and changed the house’s wooden storm windows for wood-framed window screens, repeating the process in the fall in reverse. He also used the ladder to periodically brush a new coat of battleship gray paint on the house’s exterior.

My grandmother, a homemaker, planted hollyhocks, peonies and a marvelous rosebush. In the kitchen, she made kreplach and blintzes from scratch, and for Friday Sabbath dinners she baked a challah and roasted a delicious chicken. Her roast chicken and chicken soup were made with chickens she bought live at the farmers’ market on Broadway. She took them to a schohet, a ritual slaughterer who had a storefront near the market, to be killed properly, with a knife sharp enough to split a hair, as the Torah specifies. The schohet would pore over the chickens’ innards. If there was any sign of disease, the animal must be discarded. 

My grandmother took two buses to get to the farmers’ market. I know because she dragged me along, oblivious to my pleas to be left behind to play with my friends. She would feel the live chickens before she bought them, gently palpitating like a doctor feels a patient. She did it to see if they perhaps had a concealed bonus—an unlaid egg. If there turned out to be an unformed embryonic yolk in the bird, she would make sure that I got the eyerlekh (little egg) in my bowl of soup as a special treat.   

Like all observant Jewish wives, my grandmother kept four sets of dishes, four sets of silverware, four sets of kitchen utensils and four sets of pots and pans, one set for milk and one for meat plus extra sets to be used only during Passover. 

As Passover approached each spring, my grandmother would laboriously scrub the house, which she kept scrupulously clean anyway, purging it of the least scrap of chumetz, leavened bread. After she finished her cleaning but before she trekked to the attic to exchange the ordinarily used dishes, silverware and kitchen paraphernalia for their Passover analogs, my grandfather would go through the house, brushing symbolic bread crumbs into a paper tray with a feather. 

When he had collected all the crumbs, my grandfather carried the tray to the basement and threw it into the coal furnace, where the crumbs burned to ash, a sign that the house was truly free of the leavened bread that we shunned during the Passover week. We shunned it to remind us of our ancestors’ hurried departure from Egypt, where they had been slaves fleeing the pharaoh’s army, with no time to let bread rise. 

I knew that because at the Seders held during the holiday—we had two during the weeklong holiday—I as the youngest would chant the Four Questions that begin the ritual reading by the eldest, my grandfather, of the Haggadah. The Haggadah’s text is the family patriarch’s answer to the Four Questions. Interspersed with rabbinical commentary, it details the history of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. 

For me, the Colvin Avenue house’s crowded confines had an unintended benefit: I got to be a fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the adults’ endlessly fascinating conversations.

Sonia read to me: Doctor Doolittle books, and the Sunday funnies. Like a dutiful older sister, she dragged me along on errands, leaving me to fidget impatiently while she stopped and flirted with boys. I knew I was safe and loved. I had no reason to suspect that it could be otherwise, not even the germ of a notion that had my grandparents not been allowed to settle in Buffalo, and to become citizens of the United States, the picture would have been different and darker.  

Familiar horrors

Today, refugees fleeing violence not unlike the horrors my grandparents fled crowd internment camps where the Trump administration is parking asylum seekers it does not want let into the United States. They mostly come from the Central American countries known as the Northern Triangle: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. 

According to a June 2018 Council on Foreign Relations backgrounder 110,000 refugees had fled the Northern Triangle countries as of 2015, a fivefold increase from 2012. More recent estimates put the total as of this year in the 500,000 range.

In an echo of the trials faced by my grandparents as they fled pogroms, extortion by bandits and forced recruitment into the czar’s army, most of those fleeing Central America, “cite violence, forced gang recruitment, and extortion, as well as poverty and lack of opportunity, as their reasons for leaving,” the Council on Foreign Relations found.

“A surging tide of violence sweeping across El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras forces thousands of women, men, and children to leave their homes every month. This region of Central America, known as the Northern Triangle, is one of the most dangerous places on earth,” a 2015 report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees states.

Many of those fleeing the Northern Triangle are women who “face a startling degree of violence that has a devastating impact on their daily lives. With no protection at home, women flee to protect themselves and their children from murder, extortion, and rape. They present a clear need for international protection.” 

The UN report adds: “Based on US Department of Homeland Security data covering fiscal year 2015, of the thousands of women and girls from these countries who expressed a fear of being returned to their home country and were subject to the credible fear screening process, US authorities have found that a large percentage have a significant possibility of establishing eligibility for asylum or protection under the Convention against Torture.”

By way of example, the UN report relates the story of a woman it calls Norma, the wife of a Salvadoran police officer. Before seeking asylum in the United States, Norma was abducted, taken to a cemetery and raped by four members of a gang that controlled her neighborhood and extorted biweekly payments from residents. She contracted a sexually transmitted disease as a result of the rape.

Her husband, the police officer, filed a report and vowed revenge. Gang members threatened Norma and told her they would harm her children. Norma moved to another part of El Salvador with relatives and changed her phone number, but gang members still found her. She left her husband and children behind and fled, hiring a coyote to take her across the Mexico-U.S. border.  

Norma told interrogators at the border that the gang members who raped her “took their turns. … They tied me by the hands. They stuffed my mouth so I would not scream. When it was over, they threw me in the trash.” 

The caravans

In 2017 and 2018, large groups of Central American refugees began to form so-called caravans in hopes of making their way more safely across Mexico to the U.S. border. Aid groups say the caravans are mostly made up of asylum seekers like Norma. Others believe them to consist mostly of economic refugees.

Offering no evidence and deaf to the many critics who disagree, President Donald Trump has repeatedly portrayed caravan members and refugees seeking entry at our southern border as a collection of rapists, drug dealers, terrorists and “bad hombres.” Giving his stamp of approval to an unproven conspiracy theory, Trump has publicly entertained the notion that billionaire George Soros is funding the asylum seekers’ caravans.

A Jew who fled Nazi persecution as a teenager, Soros spent millions of dollars during the Cold War to help bring down Communist governments in his native Hungary and other Eastern European countries. In recent years he has come to be reviled by many on the right, including Trump, for his support of liberal causes. 

The Trump administration did not start the practice of detaining refugees. Norma, who sought asylum when Barack Obama was president, was detained in 2015, the UNHC report states. But under Trump, U.S. immigration policy has taken a darker and harsher turn.

Steps taken during Trump’s first year in office included reducing refugee admissions to the lowest level since a refugee resettlement program was created in 1980 and ending temporary protected status for Haitian, Honduran and Nicaraguan refugees seeking asylum. A complete list is posted by the Migration Policy Institute.

As the number of Central American asylum seekers has surged, the Trump administration has tightened rules to make it harder for would-be immigrants to seek asylum. Treating asylum seekers as illegal border crossers, it has stepped up detentions, crowding refugees into camps and separating families in the process. It has sometimes deported parents but forced them to leave children as young as two or three behind and put the children in camps or sent them to private facilities in distant states. 

By its own admission, the Trump administration has lost track of the whereabouts of some 2,000 interned children’s families and thus been unable to unite them with parents or other relatives. Critics believe the number is higher. Under a deal struck with Mexico, it recently began to send asylum seekers to Mexico to wait months for an immigration-court hearing. Children as young as two have faced such hearings with no lawyer.  

Trump and supporters like Stephen Miller, a special adviser to the president and a principal architect of much of the Trump administration’s immigration policy, claim that they mean only to enforce the law. Their beef is not with legal immigrants, Central Americans, Mexicans or any other group but only with law breakers, they insist. The administration makes the rules, however. And, charge critics, their enforcement of those laws is harsher and more needlessly inhumane and more widespread than the administration admits. 

Faced with court orders to reunite families pulled apart by the family-separation initiative, the administration was forced to admit that it had not kept good records and could not say how long it might take to match detained children with their parents or relatives living in the United States. Conditions in the migrant detention camps remain poor, the New York Times recently reported, citing testimony of congressional Democrats who toured such facilities. 

Miller, asked by an interviewer about how he thought the Trump administration’s increasingly harsh immigration policies comport with the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed at the Statue of Liberty’s base that in part reads, “Give me your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” he replied that the poem was not originally part of the Statue of Liberty. 

Miller’s story

Miller’s family history is similar enough to mine to be in some details virtually interchangeable. He appears to be untroubled by that similarity. His uncle, David Glosser, is not. 

Last year, Glosser detailed his unease with his nephew’s views in a Politico column headlined: “Stephen Miller is an Immigration Hypocrite; I Know Because I’m His Uncle.” 

Glosser is brother of Miller’s mother, Miriam Miller. He wrote of the travails of his grandfather, Wolf-Leib Glosser, Miller’s great-grandfather and the patriarch of the Glosser family’s American branch. Wolf-Leib came to the United States in 1903, fleeing his native Belarus. 

In Belarus, the Glossers lived in a shtetl called Antopol where Jews, most of whom were poor subsistence farmers, much like my grandparents in Sokolievka, were periodically beset by murderous pogroms and faced with forced conscription into the czar’s army. 

Leaving his wife and children behind, Wolf-Leib arrived at Ellis Island alone with $8 to his name. He spoke three languages, but English was not one of them. Beginning as street peddlers and sweatshop workers, he and family members who joined him later grew and prospered. 

Wolf-Leib became a pushcart peddler, earning enough to send for his son, Nathan. Settling in Pennsylvania, Wolf-Leib and Nathan, “by street corner peddling and sweatshop toil,” earned enough to bring the rest of their family to America. The father and son sent enough money home to Belarus to pay off debts and buy the immediate family’s passage to America in 1906. Glosser descendants founded and ran a chain of supermarkets and discount department stores that at one time employed thousands.

“I have watched with dismay and increasing horror as my nephew, an educated man who is well aware of his heritage, has become the architect of immigration policies that repudiate the very foundation of our family’s life in this country,” Glosser wrote. 

While my grandparents and Miller’s ancestors faced nothing like the barriers today’s asylum seekers face, Emma Lazarus’ vision was not entirely realized when they came. Jews who emigrated to the United States when my grandparents did got in under the wire, a few years before anti-immigration sentiment led to the passage of restrictive immigration laws.

In 1924, not long after my grandparents and Wolf-Leib Glosser emigrated, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act, a law that capped the total number of immigrants from countries in the Eastern Hemisphere at 165,000, roughly halving the previously allowed number. It also set country-by-country quotas, a measure that fell most heavily on Eastern European Slavs, Italians, Jews and Greeks. The law completely barred Asians. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1919 barred Chinese nationals but had not been enforced. The 1924 law included tough enforcement measures that provided for deportation of immigrants who exceeded the national quotas. It stayed on the books until 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Hart-Celler Act, which abolished the 1924 law’s quotas. President Harry Truman had tried to abolish the quotas with a veto of a 1952 law that put restrictions on Communists but kept the Johnson-Reed quotas in place. Rather than revise the law, Congress overrode Truman’s veto. 

Anti-immigrant fervor

Arguably, anti-immigrant fervor has been a strand of the United States’ DNA since before the country’s founding. Pushback against it has too. Public sympathy for one side or the other has waxed and waned.

Xenophobia and nationalistic exceptionalism are the premise of one side of a debate this country has had with itself since its birth. On the other side is the idea that we are a nation that defines itself as a haven where all humans are equally entitled to—indeed, endowed by their creator with—a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. 

The Naturalization Act of 1790 declared that only non-citizens who were “free white persons of good character” would be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. The free-white provision also excluded whole classes of people born on U.S. soil including Native Americans and enslaved and free blacks. Subsequent revisions of the 1790 law kept those restrictions until after the Civil War, when the Constitution was amended to allow for people of African descent to become citizens. 

In the decade leading up to the Civil War, a xenophobic, anti-immigrant political faction called the American Party rose to some prominence, portraying German- and Irish-Catholic immigrants as Papists whose first loyalties would always lie with the Catholic Church. The party, first called the Native American Party, was an outgrowth of anti-Catholic secret societies that formed earlier in several states. Because the anti-Catholic lodges instructed members to say they knew nothing when questioned by outsiders, the political parties’ and secret societies’ members were called Know-Nothings. 

Lewis Charles Levin, a Jew who won a Pennsylvania congressional seat in 1844, was prominent in the Know-Nothing movement. In the run-up to the Civil War, Know Nothings, who opposed extending slavery to new territories, were sometimes allied with the new antislavery Republican Party.  

In the 1850s, some speculated that the rising young Republican star Abraham Lincoln’s sympathies might lie with the Know-Nothings. Fearing that answering that charge would only stoke further controversy, Lincoln publicly ignored it. 

But when fellow Republican Joshua Speed asked Lincoln to clarify his position, Lincoln replied in an 1855 letter: “I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can anyone who abhors the oppression of Negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we begin by declaring that all men are created equal. We now practically read it all men are created equal, except Negroes. When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read: all men are created equal, except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics. When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty, to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” 

After the Civil War the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution was meant to clarify the position and ease the way into full, productive citizenship for millions of freed slaves. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery; the 14th granted birthright citizenship to African Americans; the 15th prohibited states from disenfranchising voters for reasons of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  

Native Americans had to wait for birthright citizenship until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924 and were still denied citizenship by some states until 1957. 

In August, Trump floated the idea of entirely ending birthright citizenship, which he derided as “ridiculous.” In the same month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced new policies that would deny citizenship to children of some armed services members born on foreign soil. 

In a recent New York Times column, historian Eric Foner detailed how a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions and moves by former Confederate states chipped away at and undermined the spirit of the post-Civil War amendments and turned them on their heads, using them to advance states’ rights theories to lay a foundation on which they built a structure of discriminatory Jim Crow laws. 

“The process was gradual and never total, but the fate of the three amendments offers an object lesson in what can happen to constitutional rights at the hands of an unsympathetic, conservative Supreme Court,” Foner wrote, warning that more recent Supreme Court decisions echo and renew the Reconstruction Era’s erosion and, in his view, perversion of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments’ original purpose and spirit.

The America First slogan that Trump has adopted as a catchphrase is not new. It was used through much of the first half of the 20th century to promote nativist, isolationist and anti-immigrant movements, in the World War I era by 1930s isolationist and fascist sympathizers, and during World War II by the Nazi-sympathetic America First Party. Such sentiment kept the United States from allowing a boatload of Jewish refugeesfleeing Nazis to land at Ellis Island and led to the internment of Japanese Americans without evidence that they posed a threat after Pearl Harbor.   

At the close of his essay, Glosser wrote: “I shudder at the thought of what would have become of the Glossers had the same policies Stephen so coolly espouses—the travel ban, the radical decrease in refugees, the separation of children from their parents, and even talk of limiting citizenship for legal immigrants—been in effect when Wolf-Leib made his desperate bid for freedom.

Before he was murdered, Lincoln exhorted Americans to pay heed to “our better angels.” As the Civil War drew to a close with union victory virtually assured, he begged Americans of the North and South to act with “charity toward all and malice toward none.” 

Lincoln’s visage still looks down on us from the memorial in Washington and from the height of Mount Rushmore. Sometimes we heed his calls. Sometimes we don’t.

When I was six or seven, my grandmother sometimes would send me to Blitzer’s Kosher Deli on Hertel Avenue in Buffalo with a note and some money to buy a quarter pound of pastrami or sliced corned beef or salami. I would hand the note to Mr. Blitzer. He stood behind the counter and sliced the meat. I stood in front of the counter and watched him. I was fascinated by a missing finger on one of his hands and wondered why he had a number tattooed on his forearm. I thought he must have cut off his finger in the meat slicer.  

Mr. Blitzer was kind. Once, when I scooped up bits of meat that had fallen from the slicer and stuffed them in my mouth, he gently asked if I was hungry. He asked in a way that did not make me feel foolish. 

I learned recently that Mr. Blitzer was a survivor of the concentration camp at Auschwitz, his hometown. I learned that he and his wife, who is also a Holocaust survivor, came to America in 1949 along with their infant son, who was born after World War II. They were able to come because Truman had signed a special law that said Holocaust survivors and other refugees would be welcome.   

I learned this from a video posted by Mr. Blitzer’s now-grown son. In the video, the son relates that his father eventually left the deli business to become a successful home builder. I never met Mr. Blitzer’s son, but I’ve heard of him. His name is Wolf.    

And so I wonder: What will become of the children and grandchildren of the asylum seekers whose entry to the United States we are now trying so hard to prevent? What might those children and grandchildren achieve if we let their parents and grandparents in?

Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.

5 thoughts on “Finding refuge

  1. The Edic side of my family came here in 1720. They were German Catholic immigrants escaping religious persecution. This makes them pre-revolution ‘real’ Americans, a characterization that is a fantasy of the right and the Millers of the world. Their reality was escaping to start a town in the woods north of Utica (Edicville) that was regularly burned to the ground by hostile Native Americans. They survived because friendly Native Americans would warn them and they would leave, then rebuild. This country is a country of immigrants and a refuge and always has been. It is the central fact of our existence.
    Thank you for telling this story.

  2. A great article Will . This is an example of history that needs to be taught in schools just as the true history of Native Americans , African Americans , Reconstruction , and Jim Crow need to be taught but are not . If it was taught with the passion that you have expressed here , students would not think history was boring . Bigotry would be on the decline instead of on the rise.
    Those claiming their ancestors came over the “right way ” might be surprised to know most came fleeing dire circumstances including bigotry and violence . Many also came fleeing their debts , the law , and the army , as our President’s grandfather was fleeing a peacetime draft .
    The promise of America , not always realized , was you could come from anywhere and be an American . Even with corruption that fills books , no other reason is necessary to purge
    the White House of it’s current occupants in the next election , but to stop the Statue of Liberty from becoming the Statue of Bigotry .
    Thanks for the article . Your ancestors would be honored .

  3. Will – Thank you for sharing this. The immigration issue is complicated and emotional and unfortunately full of untold stories like your family story and countless others. I appreciate the additional information you shared and offering a personal perspective on this issue. Another great thoughtful and insightful piece in the Beacon!

  4. My father was an immigrant from Slutsk, a town in White Russia that had a very large Jewish population until the Nazis and locals shot them and buried them alive to die. He came with his sister and Mother, Aunt and Cousin to NYC, where his father was living, left behind two older brothers and sister, one died in the war two lived for decades after, although he never saw them again.
    It took them a year to come to America, and my father told few stories about that journey, it was a period in his life that was too painful to recall. His sister described being isolated in a cage at Ellis, they thought she might be diseased and she was haunted by those memories although eventually admitted to the US. She refused to go to Ellis with me father and with me many years ago, when it was still unrestored; my father remembered the ferry boat rotting in the slip that had carried them from their steamer to our shores, or at least in sight of our shores on Ellis.
    ***
    I think the story you told is incredible; incredible not simply for being so moving but incredible for how many people can tell the same story, or variants of it, then, and now.
    It does credit to us as a Nation to bring people to our shores, it brings us incredible shame to close our borders to those seeking to do just as our ancestors did, bring a better life for their children, where they could live in reasonable safety with some prospect for their children’s lives being better.

  5. Thanks for a beautifully written article, Cousin “Billy”. I’d heard just a skeletal version of this growing up, and too late realized that I would have appreciated hearing this from Baubie and Zeydie. I especially honed in on the sections including memories of you with my mom.

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