Sh*tholes

In May of 1919 my Grandfather Henrich Frankel sat his family down and told them they were leaving their home, all they had ever known and they were going to America.  They weren’t poor and weren’t going in search of a better economic life.   But he gave a litany of other reasons.  Their country had been on the losing side in the just ended World War I and where they lived now was no longer part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.  In fact, there was no Austrian-Hungarian Empire anymore.  It was Czechoslovakia.  Under the Austrian-Hungarian Empire all ethnic groups shared equal status and that was all over.  My Grandfather had served in the losing army and the Czechs, who had been among their enemies in the War, were running the show now.  Things were getting bad, scary and they were only, going to get worse.  In short, my Grandfather summed it all up by saying.  “We’re leaving for America because this place is becoming a Sh*thole!”

The immigrant’s story in America is told by the immigrants.  How they came to America and the first thing they saw was the Statue of Liberty.  How they could now do things here, that they never could have done in the old country.  Like make a good living, buy property and accumulate enough wealth so they could leave a nice part of it to their children and grandchildren.  How they literally were able to climb the economic and even the social ladder of success.  And, it is a true story.  But it’s their side of the story.  Another side of the story is most people living in America today no matter what ethnic group they belong to, or where their families came from, are here, because their ancestors were cheap labor.  Not because anyone in the government of the United States ever wanted “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free” or someone else’s “wretched refuse”.  It’s not like they were being invited over for dinner.  They were invited over to work and to fill up and almost empty country.  And as I stop to think about it, referring to them as “the huddled masses” and “the wretched refuse” is insulting.  My family wasn’t anyone else’s stinking garbage.  And, The Statue of Liberty was not put there to greet immigrants and the poem at her base was added as an afterthought.  The Statue was given to the United States in 1876 from the people of France to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the United States.  And, Ellis Island built in 1892 was not a welcoming center.  It was a processing center where the newly arrived would be immigrants, were lined up like cattle, then poked, prodded and examined.  If anything was found wrong with them, they were placed on the next boat back to wherever they came from.  And, those people who were sent back never became immigrants and never part of the immigrant’s story.  And, there is no corner of Ellis Island where the brass band played and confetti wasn’t dropped from the rafters.  You can go take a look see, as it is a museum now.  And, if you do, you will find it is a very sterile and eerie place.  There was never anything welcoming about it.

And, if anyone is wondering why someone would leave everything they have ever known and embark on a journey fraught with peril, it could be that they dreamed of being an American.  But it is most probably because wherever they lived, it was a Sh*thole.”

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Don Frankel

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