Tuesday, March 27, 2012

No longer a stranger - March 27, 2012

       I was recently looking through some memorabilia from my Dad’s family, where I found some important documents that marked milestones for my grandparents, Mendel Karol and Anna (Wolf) Karol.  My bubby Anna/Nechame came to Kansas City to join other relatives there after arriving at Ellis Island on the S.S. Bremen (a German ship built in 1897) on May 17, 1904. My grandpa arrived within the next two years (he had family in Kansas City as well) after a decade-long sojourn in South Africa (he left Akmine, Lithuania most likely to avoid being drafted into the Russian army). They were married on March 17, 1907, in Kansas City, Kansas. What allowed both of my dad’s parents to enter the United States was the open immigration policy of the time.   As I understand the history, as long as there was someone in the United States to offer support, a new arrival was allowed to pass through the gates at their point of entry.      Mendel became an American citizen on April 28, 1924, and Anna was naturalized on September 22, 1941, a few weeks after my parents’ wedding. She was among the residents of the United States required to register in compliance with the Alien Registration Act of 1940. That act established a program to fingerprint and create a record of every non-citizen within the United States.    This legislation also explicitly declared, as one of its purposes, to prohibit “certain subversive activities.” It became known as the “Smith Act” because Virginia Representative Howard W. Smith authored the Act’s anti-Sedition section. So, my grandmother had to tell a local registration officer, sometime late in1940, not only that she had hazel eyes and gray hair and that she was from Nowogrodek, Russia in the district of Minsk, but also that she had not “been affiliated with or active in organizations, devoted in whole or in part to influencing or further the political activities, public relations, or public policy of a foreign government.” I admire the fact that my bubby became a naturalized citizen following that experience! After many years of operating a dry goods store (which closed on January 7, 1939), I am sure that she had nothing to hide!
     These documents reminded me that my grandparents were, at one time, strangers in this country, and that officially becoming an American was part of a long process of acculturation. They became citizens when quotas had been established that prevented the entry of many people who, if they had been given safe harbor here, would likely have added to quality and character of our nation.  Many controls on immigration still exist today that prevent the possibility of citizenship for some who might want to add the best of what they have to offer to the collective American personality. Quotas likely originated, at least in part, out of fear of the stranger or foreigner, which seems to persist even today, even when the diversity of our country should provide Americans from different national or cultural back- grounds with ample opportunities to get to know one another better.
     Attitudes based in fear and misunderstanding still continue to guide the words and actions of some political leaders as well as private individuals who feel they must take the law or their ideology into their own hands, here and in other places around the world.   The murders perpetrated by Muhammed Merah in Toulouse, France, and the case of George Zimmerman, who shot Travyon Martin when Zimmerman had been told by a police dispatcher not to pursue Martin, are two situations that illustrate what can happen when people act out of anger, hatred or personal assumptions that fail to view others as fellow human beings but through the lens of a label placed on those people.
    “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” “In every generation, we should see ourselves as if we went free from Egypt.”  I am glad that my grandparents had the courage to make a change in their lives and come to the United States.   What I hope is that the land that they envisioned – a land of freedom, in a world of freedom – is still within our reach. Let us do what we can to create freedom, peace and understanding in our corner of the world.

Wedding of Joseph and Ruth Karol, August 31, 1941, Kansas City, Missouri
Top Row - Joseph Karol and Ruth (Glazer) Karol, my parents
Bottom Row - Anna Karol, Mendel Karol, and Pearl Glazer (my Mom's mother) 

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