Without America, I Wouldn’t Be Here
For my family, America meant, quite literally, rescue, salvation, and rebirth. Nothing less.
In our case, we don’t have to go back several generations or multiple centuries. In fact, as the first person in our extended clan to be born in the United States, everyone older than me was from somewhere else, and had harrowing stories to tell about their lives before seeing New York harbor and the unforgettable image of the Statue of Liberty for the very first time.
Let’s begin with my mother Nelly.
She was born in Moscow in 1923 during the early Bolshevik period. It wasn’t a good place to be a human being with any democratic instinct, much less a Jew.
She and her family were among the lucky ones, though. By 1929, the family of four, having managed to trade an apartment for passports, was en route to Paris. They were fortunate: the Soviet exit gates slammed shut pretty soon afterward and unimaginable horrors were to ensue, beginning with Stalin’s Great Terror of the 1930s.
Life in Paris was a welcome change from the situation in Moscow, though it wasn’t easy to start over — new language, new culture, new everything. But this family was resilient, even in the face of the taunts about being “Russians” and “Jews.”
Eleven years later, the tsunami arrived. Despite French confidence that the Maginot Line would prove a bulwark against possible German aggression, and that the invasions of 1870 and 1914, therefore, would not be repeated, in the end it proved worthless. By June 1940, the Nazis occupied France, finding eager local collaborators along the way.
For my family, like so many others, the only hope was to flee south, trying to stay ahead of the aggressors. But, ultimately, it meant trying to leave France altogether and finding refuge in a faraway land where the Nazis couldn’t reach them.
At the time, American immigration policy was appallingly restrictive, especially when it came to Jews. Much has been written on the topic. But after months of effort, a guardian angel appeared in the form of Congressman Ivor Fenton (R-PA), who successfully arranged US entry visas for 14 members of my extended family.
And thus, on the eve of Pearl Harbor, my 18-year-old mother and her relatives arrived in New York. Once again, they started from scratch — new language, new culture, new everything. But, to say the least, it was worth it.
America saved them from the fate of six million Jews in Europe. America gave them a new start. America restored their dignity. And they reciprocated with a love of America that defined them ever after. In fact, as I look back, it’s amazing how rapidly and unconditionally they integrated into American society.
My father was born in Budapest in 1920. In 1936, he entered the Institute of Chemistry in Vienna, but two years later, after the Nazis arrived to an enthusiastic welcome and incorporated Austria into the Reich, he was expelled for the simple reason that he was a Jew.
For the next seven years, until the war’s end, he served in the French Foreign Legion, was imprisoned in a French Vichy camp in Algeria for three years, managed to escape, and joined the OSS, the US wartime espionage agency, where he had one dangerous assignment after another during the last years of the war. After the defeat of Germany, it was the OSS that brought Captain Eric Harris to the US.
He became a US citizen and, like my mother, felt he owed a lifelong debt of gratitude to this country for the new start it had given him — and, no less, for helping save the world, and him, from Hitler’s dream of a “thousand-year Reich.”
By the way, in 1975, the Institute of Chemistry in Vienna invited my father to come back and receive an honorary doctorate for the work he had done on “the synthesis of the heavy hydrogen atom” from 1936 to 1938, when he was still a teenager. But for the Nazis he was a Jew, therefore targeted for annihilation, and nothing else mattered. Austria’s loss became America’s gain.
This was the ambience in which I grew up on the West Side of Manhattan. My family’s story was not unique. It sometimes seemed to me that, among my friends at school, it was more or less the norm. Many of us were first-generation Americans and, sooner or later, we came to understand that, but for this country, in all likelihood we wouldn’t be alive.
Later, I had a third up-close experience with understanding what America means to a newcomer. My future wife Giulietta and her family — including her parents and seven siblings — had also been refugees, but in their case, not from the Bolsheviks or Nazis, but from Arab extremists.
The family had lived in Libya for centuries, part of an ancient Jewish community that dated back to the Roman period, long before the Arab conquest and occupation of the country. But by 1967, despite guarantees purporting to protect minorities, the Jews were not only treated as permanent second-class residents, but also convenient targets for periodic pogroms.
Giulietta and her family were fortunate to escape, but not before enduring weeks in hiding. Some of their Jewish neighbors weren’t so lucky. Today, incidentally, there are no Jews — literally none — in Libya. They were all driven out by blind hatred and fanaticism.
Ask my wife what America has meant to her since she arrived in 1979, and she is likely to call our country the last great hope for humankind, the ultimate bastion of democratic, pluralistic, and humanistic values, and the one country that gives newcomer and native alike the chance to pursue their dreams.
Apropos, where else could a Henry Kissinger or Madeleine Albright rise to the highest ranks of American society, even though they were born and raised elsewhere? America, to its everlasting credit, is not only about the second and third generations, but also about the first.
Perhaps it’s only those who came to this country from places where their fundamental rights were trampled on — like my mother, father, and wife — who can truly grasp the ultimate gift of America, the blessing of freedom and, yes, the shared responsibility to defend it.
We must not, dare not, ever take that precious gift for granted.
David Harris is the CEO of the American Jewish Committee. This article was taken from the new book Journeys: An American Story.