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July 5, 2016 6:46 am

What is the Meaning of America? Ask My Family

avatar by David Harris

Email a copy of "What is the Meaning of America? Ask My Family" to a friend
The American flag. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The American flag. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

To truly understand the meaning of America, ask someone who wasn’t born here. In my case, that’s easy.

My mother was born in the Soviet Union under Bolshevik rule. She, her parents and her brother were among the lucky ones to get out in 1929, before the exit doors slammed totally shut. They never looked back. Joseph Stalin’s iron-fisted rule, including the murder and imprisonment of millions, and his maniacal antisemitism, made certain of that.

The foursome found sanctuary in France, or so they thought. Eleven years later, Nazi forces easily crossed the allegedly invincible Maginot Line and overran the country. To make matters worse, a collaborationist French regime with its capital in Vichy emerged as a Nazi partner. Once again, the family was on the run.

In the end, they were among the fortunate ones, managing to get entry visas to the United States on the eve of the attack on Pearl Harbor, when entry was almost impossible.

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My mother, about to turn 93, will never forget how their ship, the SS Exeter, sailed into New York harbor and they had their first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. No, it wasn’t just a sightseeing opportunity on a Circle Line tour — but rather the welcome mat to a new country that carried the torch of freedom as its most enduring symbol.

The love affair with America was instant. It never wavered. Life wasn’t always easy or fair, but for my mother and her family, this country had given them the most precious gifts of all — a new beginning, a democratic home, and the promise of opportunity.

As an only child, I was rather indulged by my mother, but one of the very few times she showed raw anger was during the Vietnam War days, when I said some critical things about the US. Never forget, she said, that this country sheltered us, gave us a new start, and is the last, best beacon of hope for the world.

My father was born in Hungary, and raised in Germany and Austria. He arrived in the United States after the Second World War, following an immensely difficult 12-year journey that began with Hitler’s assumption of power in January 1933 and culminated with V-E Day in May 1945.

For him, it was the same as for my mother. Okay, the coffee had been far better in Europe, and American football, as opposed to soccer, made absolutely no sense. But still, the US was a unique land, worth fighting for, as he did. He treasured this nation not only each July 4th, but every day. He, too, had experienced the denial of freedom and basic rights, and understood there was nothing more precious than possessing them.

Still, my parents came to realize that America had its shortcomings, especially after a road trip they took from New York to Florida in 1959. I recall how excited I was for their return and the presents they might bring. Instead, they were thunder-struck to have witnessed widespread racial discrimination south of the Mason-Dixon Line.

As Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe, they were all too familiar with institutionalized segregation, but the idea that America, which had sacrificed so much to defeat Hitler and his racial theories, could permit some states to enforce it was unfathomable.

Yet in absolutely stark distinction to Nazi Germany and its allies, American democracy was a work in progress that was ultimately answerable to its citizens. Hence the joy that greeted the historic legislative and judicial decisions ending legalized racial discrimination. Once again, my parents’ abiding belief in this land was vindicated.

And then I got to see the meaning of America through a third lens, my wife’s. She had been born and raised in Libya, a country that never knew the meaning of equal protection under the law, free and fair elections, smooth transfers of power, or First Amendment rights.

Sure, the Libyan constitution, adopted in 1951 when the country became independent, promised everything under the sun, but it was all a tragic facade, especially for the Jewish minority. Years later, my wife and her large family were lucky to escape with their lives.

Ever since she arrived for the first time in the US in 1979, and, later, proudly became a citizen, she never ceased to say how lucky she felt to live in a place where her rights did not depend on the whim of a ruler, but rather on the supremacy of law in a democratic society.

But, like my parents, she bemoaned the fact that too many native-born Americans seemed to take the precious gift of their birth here for granted; that, having never experienced the denial of freedom, they couldn’t fully grasp its majestic meaning; and that they, too, often belittled America without understanding the enduring hope it inspired across the globe.

Thank you, America, for opening your home, and your heart, to my mother, my father, and my wife — and to countless others.

Happy 240th Independence Day!

This article was originally published by The Huffington Post. 

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