When the boat docked in New York and my grandmother was processed through immigration at Ellis Island, she was filled with visions of a country where the streets were paved with gold and there was a millionaire standing on every street corner. The reality was rather different.
Grandma was nine years old and spoke no English. She had grown up on a farm in Kutna Hora, a city in what was then Czechoslovakia. Her parents had sent her to live with her aunt who had made the journey to the United States a number of years earlier.
Grandma was a beautiful child with round face and lovely long brown hair and would certainly grow into a beutiful woman. The plan was that she would marry a successful American and have a much better life than could be expected in her home country. As fate would have it, grandma married for love and not money.
Imagine the challenge of being a child in a strange country with strange customs and no ability to communicate with most of the people you met. Of course, she was expected to pull her own weight annd start bringing in some income to pay for her room and board, so grandma got a job – as a cleaning woman. Earning an income was the first priority – learning to speak English was secondary. In order to learn her new language, her aunt taught her at home and armed her with a valuable tool – a Czech/English dictionary. Grandma carried that dictionary everywhere, as she told it, for the first five years she was in New York.
For her 14th birthday, grandma treated herself to what she always said was the best present she ever owned. It was an English dictionary that she was able to buy from the money she had saved during the five years she was here. She spent at least half an hour a day for the rest of her life reading through that dictionary and expanding her vocabulary!
My grandmother’s story is hardly unique. It was fairly typical of most of those who came to America in the great waves of immigration at the beginning of the 20th century. Some had more resources and were perhaps better educated, but all of those who came had the hope of a better future than what they might have expected in their native lands. They came with a dream and helped to actualize it through their hard work. The America they built became a shining becaon to the rest of the world of what was it was possible to accomplish in a free society. They pulled together and they worked toward a common goal.
That is a lesson that we have perhaps forgotten.