One hundred years ago this July, my 6-year-old dad, his 7-year-old brother and their parents arrived at Ellis Island. It was a trip six years in the making, beginning six weeks after my dad’s birth in Dniepropetrovsk, in what was then Russia and is now Ukraine.
My grandparents, secular Jews whose paternal great-great grandfather had been a silversmith to the Czar (and received a Russianized last name in place of one deemed too Jewish-sounding), had left Moscow when my grandfather took a job with a German company. That move brought the country’s latent anti-Semitism into sharper focus and brought them frighteningly closer to the pogroms that had begun to sweep the Russian countryside.
So as soon after my dad’s birth as my grandmother could travel, they packed up their belongings and moved to Berlin. My grandfather worked for the same company for another five years and my grandmother marketed her impressive talents as a seamstress.
When they’d saved enough for passage, my dad and his family went to Rotterdam. They spent several months in a tiny apartment waiting for “their ship” to arrive and take them to the United States, where my grandparents’ siblings and families waited to welcome them.
At Ellis Island, their surname was changed again, to Miroff, after the immigration clerked deemed “Wladimiroff” unpronounceable. New name and all, they headed off to Chicago and their new lives. They soon became proud American citizens.
When the U.S. entered World War II, my dad left his parents to run the family book and record shop in Chicago and enlisted in the Army. He became an officer and served for several years stateside before the unit he commanded was first sent to Europe and then Germany in the final year of the war. His fluent German and functional Russian language skills enabled my dad to communicate both with the German citizens they encountered and with the German officers and soldiers they took prisoner – and to communicate in a more rudimentary way with the few Russian troops they met after the war’s end.
A month after my dad’s arrival in America, my mom was born in Chicago to an English and Scots-Irish Protestant mom and a German-American Lutheran dad. My parents met during the war, when my dad was home on leave in Chicago.
Following the war, my dad informed his folks that they’d be selling their shop in Chicago and moving with him to Los Angeles to embark on their no-more-snow, just sunshine, retirement. He would find work and they would buy a home with a small income-producing apartment building behind it.
My mom followed him to California, and they were married in L.A. on a warm, sunny November day in 1947. That’s when my maternal grandfather disowned my mom, because she married a Jew. She never again spoke to him, only to her mother, and only on the sly. She went home to Chicago just once during my childhood – after her father’s death, to see her mom and siblings again.
That rejection offended my father deeply, of course – but not just because it was targeted at him: because it was a rejection of everything America meant to him.
“Otherness” was, to my dad, un-American. He refused to recommission as an officer after the war because of the Army’s segregation of minority troops – whose soldiers were assigned hand-me-down equipment, more meager supplies, worse accommodations and the most dangerous missions.
When they bought the home I grew up in, my parents refused to look in neighborhoods where home deeds still contained racial covenants – settling us in a GI-bill neighborhood in the northeast San Fernando Valley where whites, Blacks, Mexicans (the only Hispanics in L.A. in significant number back in the 1950s) and Japanese were all welcome.
Our Japanese neighbors were remarkably pleasant and proper. They kept their homes spotless and their yards beautifully landscaped and insisted on perfect behavior and top grades from their children. Their propriety and reticence finally made sense to me many years later, when I realized that these families had moved back to the Valley after having their homes and farms taken from them and being shipped off to internment camps. The Imari-style plate one of those neighbors gave to my husband and me upon our marriage holds a special place in my heart, because of the beauty and the hurt and the pain and the redemption it now signifies to me.
I still remember the day we learned a family from India was moving in across the street – because my dad made it a day no one in the neighborhood would soon forget. A realtor, thinking he’d be able to frighten owners into listing their homes, knocked on our door and conspiratorially informed my dad that an Indian family – “and not a high-caste one” – had bought the house catty-corner from ours, and surely we’d want to sell ours before the whole neighborhood started to deteriorate. My dad opened the screen door, stepped out on the porch, and got in the man’s face. As he backed the man down the steps and driveway to the street, my dad told him to get off our property and take his f-ing bigotry with him.
Word spread quickly. No one listed their home. And curry dishes became part of our neighborhood potlucks.
To put it simply: I grew up experiencing the American ideal. I grew up thinking this was how every American grew up. Or at least how we all should grow up.
Therein lies the rub. We don’t all grow up thinking of American diversity as a good thing. We don’t all appreciate what people of different nationalities and races and religions bring to our great national experiment.
And Donald Trump has made it okay for those who don’t value or appreciate diversity to express their opposition – with words, and with hateful deeds, and sometimes with violence and even murder. He does not speak for my America. He does not speak for the America that the rest of the world used to look up to and admire. He speaks for division and discrimination and violence and for “othering” those who aren’t “like us.” He is destroying what America has always aspired to be. How could I not speak up? How could I not be an active participant in our democracy? If I didn’t speak up, if I didn’t take part, I would betray all that my mom and dad lived and worked for – and that my dad risked his very life to protect. They’d expect me to speak out.
So I do.
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