immigrant song

scared little faces peering out from buses at hostile, snarling grownups. what must they be thinking?

loads of children are making a perilous journey, sans parents, to the united states. most are coming from honduras, guatemala, el salvador, and mexico. we can talk all day long, i’m sure, about our immigration policy and how problematic it remains — while we don’t all agree on what should be done, we all, with the possible exception of the US Congress, realize that something must be done to improve the situation. and until they figure things out, we as a nation continue to show our both best and our worst side to the world. i admit i was intrigued by a thread i had read about what sort of parents let their children travel alone to a foreign nation. who in their right mind would put young children in the care of people they don’t even know and hope that they make it to their destination in one piece.

i know exactly the sort: my great-grandparents.

my great-grandfather aron katz was born in 1879 and married rose kogan between 1899-1901 in odessa, russia. aron was a tailor and they were not well-to-do. to put it mildly, things in russia were not great for anyone at that time but particularly not for jews, who were routinely persecuted and often killed. he, rose, and the two youngest children — sam and my grandmother belle — emigrated to the united states in march of 1913. oddly enough, they did not come through ellis island as most did. at the time, a lot of people in the US were pretty hostile to all those jews coming in. instead, my great-grandparents were caught up in the galveston movement, which essentially lasted from 1907-1914 and was an effort to disperse the jewish immigrant population throughout the united states by bringing them in through the port of galveston, texas.

on the manifest of the SS cassel, the ship they came to the United States on in march of 1913, their destination is listed as kansas city, missouri.  now i have no knowledge of whether they ever made it to kansas city; however, we know that by november 1913, they were living on the lower east side of new york. when i was in college, i completed an oral history of my grandmother’s life — and i still remember her telling me that her father was a tailor — and oy! could you imagine a jewish tailor in galveston, tx? she told me that they somehow made their way up the mississippi and then eastward where their relatives lived on the lower east side of manhattan. but we know that they had made their way because in november 1913, they had an important delivery to receive.

because they were not wealthy, my great-grandparents could only afford the fare for their two youngest children. their two oldest stayed behind with relatives until they were able to raise the fare for them to come over. in november 1913, those two children came to america on the ship grosser kurfurst. my great-aunt lillian (or liebe) was 11 years old, and her brother max (or mordechai) was 10. imagine being a child and taking a journey to a place you had never been? according to my cousin ilene (lily’s daughter), her mother had recounted how terrifying and awful the trip had been.  her mother was especially frightened by all the drunken sailors on board. i can only wonder what she dealt with as the elder child in charge — and only at age 11. somehow, though, after a long time fending for themselves on board, lily and max made it to new york, where they were reunited with the rest of their family.

so what kind of parents would put their children in harm’s way? what kind of parent would take young kids and have them fend for themselves among unscrupulous adults who might take terrible advantage of them — or worse? i can imagine exactly the kind of parents — very desperate ones. my great-grandparents lived in a place where they faced peril regularly.  they knew they had to get somewhere safe for their family’s sake. i can only imagine how it killed them a little bit to leave two of their kids behind. they crossed their fingers that the children would be cared for and, once the money was raised, they would send for them, too. i wish i had had a chance to talk to my great-aunt about her trip. knowing that jews were not exactly welcomed when they arrived, i’m sure their initial experience in america was probably not too pleasant; but i can figure that anything had to have been better than a pogrom so they were going to make it work here no matter what.

thinking about this experience sheds light on what mothers and fathers in dangerous places such as honduras must be thinking. they scrape every little bit of money they have and borrow what they don’t and send their children to a place where they hope their children can somehow be protected from their current daily misery. the situation has to be pretty bad for a parent to send her child off with strangers in the hope that somewhere else is better than the child’s current environment.

so whatever you might think about immigration policy, think twice before you impugn the fitness of parents of these children because they send their kids off to america. faced with the same choices, we all might do the same thing. instead, while the immigration situation gets sorted, why not treat the children as you would hope strangers would treat yours?

in the end, human nature is human nature, whether you’re in central america, russia, the united states, or anywhere else parents and children exist.

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