October 26, 2012

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Immigration is the name of the American game

Cynthia DewesAmerica is a nation of immigrants. We all came from someplace else, originally, even the so-called Native Americans.

Even if we are aware of that fact from high school social studies classes or from current newspaper stories about border patrols and problems with illegal immigrants, we may not feel personally involved. After all, most of our ancestors came to this country at least a couple of generations ago.

We love to go to Sons of Norway and Ancient Order of Hibernians events to maintain our family memories. We bake baklava and apfel strudel and julekage to keep our ethnic taste buds alive, and we study family genealogy as a national pastime. But we may not have had the experience of immigration up close and personal.

When we were a young family, our next-door neighbors were a German couple who had been brought to the U.S. as displaced persons (DPs) by the Quaker Church after World War II. They had two sons and spoke English well. Ruth was a homemaker.

Fred was a technical assistant to a chemist. He told us that he had wanted to come to America in the late 1930s because he admired the “American experiment,” as he called it. But his mother said that if he were drafted into the German army and didn’t appear, he could never return to Germany. So he spent the war as a paratrooper in Italy.

Afterward, because he spoke English, he became an interpreter for the Allies. Later, he made his way through the Soviet Zone to Stettin—now Szczecin in Poland—to retrieve Ruth. Their first son had already died while she was fleeing the advancing Russians.

They wound up in West Germany, living with a farmer whose apples inspired Fred to help them all survive by selling alcoholic applejack. A second son was born, and then they were rescued by the Quakers and brought to the U.S.

In middle age, Fred went to college at night and became a lawyer. During his last years, he helped others as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board. He was indeed a survivor.

A few years later, from Korea on still another continent, came Taihee, who married my husband’s brother when he served there in the U.S. Army. She was born in Shanghai, China, where her Korean parents took the family to live because of her father’s business. Then the Japanese occupied the city, and Taihee spent her girlhood under their rule.

She remembered being taken with other schoolgirls to the airstrip to strew flowers for the kamikaze pilots as they prepared to take off on suicide missions.

World War II ended, her father died and the impoverished family returned to Korea, where Taihee and a sister worked to support them all. One of her brothers, then 14, disappeared one day and after a long search was presumed kidnapped for conscription into the North Korean army.

Taihee’s life was filled with fear and hardship, like Fred and Ruth’s experience, except for the added stress of racial difference. And like them, she prevailed with courage and grace. It was our good fortune to befriend these newly arrived immigrants to our country, whose stories are somewhat similar to those of our immigrant ancestors.

If we have learned one thing about people everywhere from the newcomers, it is this: They value the same things we do—faith in something greater than themselves, family, friends, and work that sustains and enriches them.

And, most of all, they believed, and still believe, in the goodness of God and the goodness of America.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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