Deeply troubled by the reports of violence against the Jews in Europe, Gil Kraus decided to rescue children from the clutches of Nazi Germany, his posh home and successful law practice in Philadelphia treasures he could let go. Even with two kids, 13 and 9—and perhaps because of them—he was willing to confront danger for families suffering terror. Won over to his vision, his wife Eleanor prepared affidavits from people who signed on to help support the kids financially. When she was kept from joining him on the voyage to Europe, Gil convinced their friend and children’s pediatrician Dr. Robert Schless to take her place. The men found themselves in Austria which, swept into the Third Reich, saw Jews by the tens of thousands in a panic to flee. At Gil’s urging, Eleanor caught the next ship out across the Atlantic.
Austrian Jews streamed to give their children up to the couple, fully aware they might never see their precious ones again. Eleanor wrote: “Yet it was as if we had drawn up in a lifeboat in a most turbulent sea. Each parent seemed to say, Here, yes, freely, gladly, take my child to a safer shore.” The most agonizing part was choosing whom to save. Dr. Schless advised caution, as any sick child would be refused at the doors of Immigration, and the children needed to be mature enough to endure the separation from their parents. Hoping for 50 visas from the American embassy in Berlin, the Krauses along with Dr. Schless finalized their selection of the kids, ages five to fourteen. “Their eyes were fixed on the faces of their children, Eleanor remembered of the parents later. Their mouths were smiling. But their eyes were red a fnd strained. No one waved. It was the most heartbreaking show of dignity and bravery I had ever witnessed. Almost a third got visas and later reunited with their children.” (Reader’s Digest excerpt of Steven Pressman’s 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple’s Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.)
About half the children are still alive, now elderly. With the support of counselors and medical staff, and some with their parents, the young emigrants seized the lifeline of a new language and culture. Fear gave way to hope, hope answered by achievement. When these teachers, doctors, writers, business executives found love, they became parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. Their lives, in other words, meant the lives of many others. This, despite the stringent refugee quota and unconcealed antiSemitism in the U.S. State Department, thanks to the startling sacrifices of three Americans to whom their own lives meant more than personal comfort and safety.
Fast-forward 25 years, the law that would determine my own place in the world before I was born:
This measure that we will sign today will really make us truer to ourselves both as a country and as a people. It will strengthen us in a hundred unseen ways. This system [that] violated the basic principle of American democracy the—principle that values and rewards each man on the basis of his merit as a man…is abolished…We can now believe that it will never again shadow the gate to the American Nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege…The dedication of America to our traditions as an asylum for the oppressed is going to be upheld. (Lyndon B. Johnson, as he signed the The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 that opened America’s doors to Asia, Africa, Latin America.)
Fast-forward 50 years. The man who campaigns to build a wall and protect the nation’s borders wins the presidency.
The exuberant response to the election results among some families I know brought about a revelation for me. Though they have been polite, some even kind, I had not noticed the white bubble that floats them from activity to activity, a way of life I find unnatural in diverse Southern California. But then again, I thought, aren’t these Caucasian families entitled to keep the company they wish? I was reminded of the way Korean-Americans manage to find their own in every large city. And there are the Chinese and Indian and every other ethnic group. Take a mélange of people, and we don’t disperse like marbles you shake in the jar. No, multiculturalism doesn’t work that way. The marbles organize themselves, often by color: NYC’s Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Italy. Sure, we build cross-cultural friendships. The marbles mix. But cultures will always build their own communities. This is one way those who interface the white mainstream as outsiders maintain their blood identity. So it jarred me to see white people enjoying life in their happy sac. It meant they were content to keep outsiders…outside.
But I get it. If I had grown up on Wisconsin cheese, if my grandparents and great-greats were all white, I wouldn’t be necessarily racist for not flinching at threats against immigrants. After all, these are other people. Not the ones you have Bible Study with, the ones your kids have sleepovers with, not the friends you gather over a latte. They are characters in the margins of your life, the check-out girl at Walmart you don’t really look at, the day laborers you drive past in the rain, extras moving as on a reel. They are center stage only on TV and the news.
And when you watch us Asian-Americans kick butt in school, take the stage with our awards.
Except the mentality of Other was the long sleepy response of the masses to word of Hitler’s brutality overseas. After all, America had problems of its own. And to this day, claiming American citizenship remains a privilege and a problem. Let’s start in our backyard, the detritus we never cleaned up. In all the talk about race, we rarely hear about the Native Indians anymore, and that’s because they are going extinct from war, disease, emigration, and eradication of their culture. The Navajo reservation in Arizona my church has visited remains worse off in crime and poverty statistics than those of our inner cities. The country that built itself on the bleeding backs of slaves grew on the sweet milk of bigotry and contempt for anyone who was not white. This included all “Asiatics” like the Chinese who laid the rails to unite the states of America. The largest mass lynching in U.S. history was not of blacks but the Chinese in the massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles. We also remember the Japanese-Americans, uprooted and packed away in camps during the Second War.
Let me put down the textbook and pick up my journal. Both my father and younger brother have been mugged at knifepoint and my mother spit on at the deli we owned in Queens, New York. On the other coast in 1992, my aunt watched the flames engulf her store in the LA Riots, the work of black arsons. America picked its way through the racial degradation and rose to its feet as a single country, not by skyscrapers but by the brick and mortar of dry cleaners, shops, restaurants, the acquiescence of immigrants who did whatever it took because hard work was not an option. The dirt and concrete just fertile soil for dreams, their Korean sons and daughters, for one, conquered the best schools. Harvard Law. Stanford School of Business. Columbia. M.I.T. If Trump had been President in 1965, he would not have welcomed the little girl with pigtails from Seoul, Korea—though he hails from immigrants just the same. In any case, I don’t apologize for having come. Somebody has to watchdog the English grammar in this country. I have taught children of all class and color how to write, and write well, figure numbers with ease, give speeches, write poetry, seek beauty. My Asian-American friends have bettered hospitals, furthered academia, moved Wall Street, planted churches, fed the homeless. Our commitment to excellence, intelligence, the drive with which we have emulated our parents served not only our secrets dreams but our country. This work ethic and hope in freedom have forged America, generation after generation, filled and cemented the fissures of mistrust between disparate cultures as we did business together, advanced the economy together with the currency of respect. This, Mr. President, is how we have helped make America great.
And friends, free market to me doesn’t mean billionaires or corporate executives first. It means customer first. I come to the table every time expecting the type of service and dedication my parents and I put in whenever, wherever we were up at bat. And if you don’t come through, I open my purse elsewhere and you will learn to do better. Free market means choice and choice means you had a chance. It’s not always front and center but in this country, the holy grail of opportunity awaits the thirsty and the earnest. Resourcefulness always finds room, a corner it can turn. And if you can’t move the boulder somebody put in your way, you can raise that strong, beautiful voice you claimed at birth. I honestly believe those feeling trapped can look up and find open sky. At least they could, once.
I am not saying we have to answer every country’s knock and plea. A group is only as strong as its weakest members, at least how well the other parts can compensate for them. And yes, turning the country into an international homeless shelter creates some serious socioeconomic complications. But to lock the pearly gates and do an about-face while humanity perishes behind our back hardly makes for world leadership. Don’t make it a zero-sum game, and don’t spew hateful rhetoric in the name of patriotism. History asks America to renew its vows to liberty and justice, which we now look about to abdicate.
There they stand, the good, bad, and the ugly, the many faces of the most powerful nation in the world. The heterogeneous richness, opportunity, support, competition, hypocrisy, oppression. This April marks for me and my parents 40 years in this country. English may be my second language, but this land will always be my home. Because it’s simple. I am America.
260 thoughts on “WHY AMERICA IS GREAT and WHY IT ISN’T”
With the deepest respect, I think you may be simplifying the issue somewhat. I think that a liberal polity like ours can legitimately deny entry to illiberal people. If Mr. Trump is wrong to block immigration indiscriminately (and I think that he is), then others are wrong to advocate immigration indiscriminately. I think it is unfair and unhelpful to characterize opposition to haphazard immigration as racist.
If there are foreigners who love freedom and equality and who desire admission to the US, then it is our duty as Americans to admit them, no matter what race they are. If there are foreigners who hate freedom and equality and who desire admission to the US, then it is our duty as Americans to reject them, no matter what race they are.
Respect is mutual, Harry. I concur and appreciate the way you frame it at the end. It’s obviously a colossal elephant I grabbed. I got only the tail this time around (hence the sense that I’d simplified when all one could in a post is address a piece of the issue). It isn’t opposition to haphazard immigration I consider racist. The sad thing is, I don’t need to explain why one would call our president racist. Thx for the read and thoughtful engaging.
Agreed. Sadly enough, the idea of complete open borders to any world citizens, masses and masses of immigrants does not work either, which does not mean that each and every country has the duty to accept those people who are really in need such as war refugees and politically prosecuted citizens. The paradox is that our governments have caused and are causing masses of people to abandon their countries. Capitalism, as philosopher Slavoj Zizek very well says, feeds itself with masses of refugees orbitating on earth, displaced and dispossessed. Donald Trump’s policies are currently devastating, but your country is not the only responsible. Many other countries have been and are playing the game.
I appreciate how you broaden the scope of responsibility.
Glad you liked my comment. In Spain, of which Catalonia, where I come from, still forms part — and I say this because we Catalans are holding an independence referendum on October 1 — the various governments have accepted indiscriminated numbers of immigrants to exploit them as cheap workers. Many of them were not even people in extreme need, political or war refugees, but people who were sent in without certain control. The result is that no one in the end is happy. In 2009 the economic recession began and the unemployment rate in Spain became one of the highest in Europe. Many people made those immigrants responsible for that, even when such responsibility belongs to the political leaders who have promoted this massive labor exploitation. Many people who complained and showed/ show racist attitudes are precisely those who voted for those political leaders. Now that the numbers of refugees are increasing, Spain’s moral obligation is to accept, at least, a certain number of them. But the Spanish central government is not doing it. Our government in Catalonia is ready to accept these refugees, but cannot operate without the higher government’s consent. And I laugh at Donald Trump’s lies about immigrants. In the U.S. the risk of jihaddist attacks is lower than in Europe. (You only have to recollect all the past terror attacks in Belgium, France, England, Germany…). I think the Reps and all these oligarchs in a few rich countries, the very rich, are in command of everything, making us all miserable day by day. F–ck capitalism. Trump is just a puppet of the puppeteers. Otherwise he would have long been impeached for lying to the American people obstructing justice. And I so care about this because it affects us all human beings on earth. In this sense, yes, you grasped a huge issue on your blog, the elephant’s tail, but well done!
This is not only one of your best posts, it’s one of the best I’ve ever read.
I don’t know how I missed it back in Jan.
I really appreciate it, Kevin. As you might have guessed, I put everything into this. The LA Times didn’t take it but then again, I didn’t trim as I suspected I should’ve. My husband thought the NY Times would be keen to it for its political leaning, but by then, DT had settled in his high chair ( twisted joke) and I thought this was probably outdated by a month, the way news turns out at the speed of light. I let it go. Thanks so much for the read and the encouragement.
A long read but well worth it. I’m not American, but my brother is. This might as well be his life too.
Long writes are rare here. =) Had my reasons this time, obviously. As for the American life, it is a far cry from what the black-and-white TV shows portrayed decades ago. People get into trouble when they forget that. Thanks, AJ.
Funny thing about the US, they sold the world the American Dream only to turn it into a nightmare once people got there. If I were to go by the news, that is, because my brother, as far as I know, didn’t experience so much racial bigotry. Or perhaps he didn’t want us to know.
Or perhaps he didn’t want us to know.
It also depends a lot on where he’s lived here.
NYC in the first decade then Louisiana down south till now.
I should’ve said it depends on where and what shade he is, though of course the urban areas wouldn’t be urban apart from the mix. Wow, I would be so interested to hear his experiences!
The American Dream has become The American Illusion. The only thing that keeps any hope alive is people like you, who arrive with great expectations and persist. Sadly, many forget their own family who arrived similarly once upon a time and made a better life for not only themselves but also their not even conceived of grandchildren and great grandchildren. Being the world leader is not a right, it’s a privilege, and one that will be lost if things continue the way they are.
Bravo on the privilege. Something we forget about so many of our blessings, but indeed — when one is given so much, to that extent is one accountable. Thank you!