Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner


Originally posted on March 20, 2014

Very early in the last century my parents immigrated from the old country. The traveled from Eastern Europe and came to the USA, to New York City. There was a huge immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to England and the USA, the “golden country.” Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty always touches me.

My mother was born near Minsk, in what is now Belarus—then it was the western part of Russia, in the “pale of settlement” where Jews were allowed to live. My father was born in Poland, not far from Warsaw. My mother emigrated with her father around 1905 and settled in New York City; my father came over by himself as a young man around 1911, served in the US Army in the First World War, and met my mother in the late 1920s. I don’t know the exact details.

While of course there was a story of the personalities of the individuals in my family, there was also a larger story of so many of the people who came over, the immigrants. There were stories of what life was like in Europe in the 19th century, what immigration was like, what life was like in the “new world,” and how they assimilated.

My folks weren’t great story-tellers. “Who wants to remember the bad times,” my mom said when I asked her. But reading about that time was amazing.

In the late 1800s the Russian Jews were persecuted in many ways, the worst being occasional state-run pogroms—organized “riots” that vandalized the Jewish homes and worse; and worse yet, involuntary conscription of the young men who were forced to eat pig products and again worse. So there was a lot of immigration. Check out the movie “Fiddler on the Roof.”

There was of course many variations of what went into immigration, but being poor and traveling in the bottom of the ship, “steerage,” was a terribly trying experience. Getting started in a new country as “greenhorns,” not knowing the language; being preyed upon by con men and crooks, and exploited by low wages and such is a rich and complex history of the immigration from the “old country” between around 1880 – 1920. But millions came over. They also came from other countries—Italy, Greece, Hungary, Poland, and so forth. A few decades earlier, immigrants came from Scandinavian countries and settled in the north-mid-west. The Irish came in to Boston and New York in the mid-19th century. And so forth.  Some Jews came into other ports, such as into Texas. But most arrived in New York and Boston.

Then there is a rich history of what new immigrants faced in their new lives. There were challenges of assimilation, many jokes and even humor books about their funny dialect. There was a mid-20th century television show, the Goldbergs. My own parents somewhat assimilated, and they talked Yiddish to each other so we boys in the 1940s wouldn’t understand. I’m sure they were worried sick and heartbroken at news from central Europe and the interruption of communications from the relatives left behind. Many of my cousins and more distant relatives were killed in the Holocaust.

There’s a rich and deep literature about the dramas during the first three decades of the 20th century, the music, newspapers, types of business, tenement houses, and so forth. Life for the new immigrants was as adventurous as life for the pioneers from the American Colonies, from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Mexico coming to Texas 80 years earlier.

Finally, there’s a rich history of living to varying degrees in the communities of similar ethnicities, the name changes, assimilation, prejudice, the breakdown of prejudice, intermarriage —all of these full of rich history. The Jewish-American community contribute Yiddish words, literature, a rich tradition of comedy, jokes, a continued evolution of religion, and flavored urban life in the urban areas of the Northeast and coastal California. These and many aspects of life all continued to evolve into the present.

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