Several years ago, I was looking through some memorabilia from my Dad’s family. I found, in my search, several important documents that marked milestones for my grandparents, Mendel Karol and Anna (Wolf) Karol. My bubby or grandmother Anna came to Kansas City to join other relatives there after arriving at Ellis Island on the S.S. Bremen, a German ship, on May 17, 1904. My grandfather arrived within the next two years. He had family in Kansas City as well, but he came to the United States for good only after a decade-long sojourn in South Africa. In around 1895, he had left his home of Akmine, Lithuania most likely to avoid being drafted into the Russian army for life. Mendel Karol and Anna Wolf 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 immigration policy of the time. As I understand the history of immigration laws, 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.
|My parents' wedding day - August 31, 1941|
Standing: My parents, Joseph and Ruth (Glazer) Karol
Seated: My father's parents Anna Wolf Karol, Mendel Karol,
My mother's mother, Pearl Glazer
Anna Karol was naturalized on September 22, 1941, a few weeks after my parents’ wedding. She was among the millions of 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 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 likely had to tell a local registration officer a few things sometime late in 1940. She had to report that she had hazel eyes and gray hair and that she was from Nowogrodek, Russia in the district of Minsk. And she had to declare 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 grandmother would even think of becoming 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 both became citizens when quotas had been established within the immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 that applied to anyone trying to enter the United States from that time on. Those laws all-too-effectively prevented the entry of many people who would likely have added to the quality and character of our nation. Quotas likely originated, at least in part, out of fear of the stranger or foreigner. Those limitations were imposed several years before the Great Depression, so the rationale for those rules may not have been based in economic concerns, If today’s laws had been in force between 1900 and 1910, I assure you that my grandparents would not have been allowed into the United States and I would not be sitting here.
Because of the experiences of my grandparents, I cannot help but be moved by the stories of the many people who come to the United States to escape threats to their personal safety back home or to make a better life. Residents of the United States who want to be citizens of our country should readily have the opportunity to make that happen. Refugees who are leaving war torn areas go through levels of vetting that some of us might not be able to pass. I am proud of the work of groups like HIAS, know originally as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, that is providing for protection and resettlement of people seeking a peaceful life in a variety of nations, including ours.
I understand the sense of caution with which some Americans approach the issue of immigration, but only up to a point. I believe that we are enriched by the diversity of our national population and by the skills and wisdom and that that people from many different places bring to our society.
As a rabbi and a grandson of Jewish immigrants, Leviticus Chapter 19, verses 33 and 34, strongly resonate with me: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him or her. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
I am grateful 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 nation that is welcoming to all who want to enjoy the benefits of citizenship, is always within our reach.