I’m going to tell you a story.
This story, in so many ways, is about all of us in The United States.
My grandfather was a Russian immigrant. He came to this country in 1905. He was a sailor in the Royal Russian Navy during the time of the first Russian Revolution. He was a large machine mechanic. A machinist’s mate. He served on board a battleship. His ship, like so many others, was ordered to fire on Russian people in order to quell the early uprising. Like so many others in the navy, he refused. He would not fire on his own people.
He jumped ship somewhere near Vladivostok. He and a large group of his unit. There is a famous book and movie about this called, “The Potemkin Incident.” It is about a battleship crew, how they scuttled the ship and deserted. But not his crew. He made his way to Hamburg, Germany. He had few citizenship documents. And, if history serves, Russian police, soldiers and agents looked everywhere for these men. They had to, since about half the navy deserted. Yes. Deserted. My grandfather deserted rather than kill his own people.
When he got to Hamburg, he managed to buy a steerage class ticket on some broken down old tramp freighter. He and his friends lived in the bottom of a ship for about 30 days eating only apples and Kasha (a sort of rough grain that we still eat today) and drinking putrid water. When they arrived at New York harbor they were quarantined for a short time and then passed through immigration at Ellis Island. My grandfather spoke no English. The immigration officers spoke no Russian or Ukrainian. That’s how I got my family name. When he entered, they wrote “Laskowitz” because that’s the best that they could do. That’s not what our name is. It is something like Laskowicz, or Laskevitz or…
He passed through immigration and made his way to the Lower East Side of New York City, which was an Eastern European ghetto. In 1910, he met my grandmother who immigrated from Poland. They married. They moved to Newark. New Jersey. They had two children. My aunt Olga. And, my dad. Walter. In 1917, while World War I was starting to move slightly in the Germany’s favor, my grandfather enlisted in the US Army. As did many immigrants, he went back to Europe to fight for his newly adopted country. The US government decreed that all immigrants who served and who were holding the historical equivalent of the “green card,” would immediately be granted full naturalized citizenship upon being discharged from the military. They just had to apply.
Apparently, my grandparents learned a couple of lessons too well. They didn’t trust any government. Register? Apply? Noooooo…. Although he could have been naturalized in 1919, he wasn’t. He waited until 1947. My dad, by this time, had served the country during World War II. He was home and convinced my grandfather — his dad — to claim his veterans right. He did.
My grandfather passed in 1949. I never knew him.
One more family story. My grandfather’s family were sausage makers by family trade. They lived in a small village. During World War II, the Nazis burned the village to the ground. Later as the Soviets pushed through the village, they salted the land so nothing would grow. The only thing that stands there today is a small monument.
Today is 30 January 2017. The past week was pure hell. Think about it. Make what you will of my family’s story.