The Legacy of Immigration
Helmut Nickel, Curator Emeritus, Department of Arms and Armor, Metropolitan Museum of Art
Leaving one's home is a heart-wrenching experience for anyone; leaving one's homeland, perhaps never to return, is cause for indescribable anguish even when done to escape the most dire of circumstances. For generations now, drawn by the promise held out by the words engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty, written by Emma Lazarus (herself the daughter of Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Portugal), the "tired," the "poor," and the "wretched refuse" of other countries have taken the often perilous journey to these shores.
In earlier times they came jammed on massive ships, with barely room to move or air to breathe, to escape political persecution, even genocide; later, they braved dangerous borders to be smuggled through thin cracks in the Iron Curtain hung by a now-dead regime. But no matter how they came, always the immigrants carried with them treasured reminders from their old home to take to their new. More important, they also brought intangibles that could never be contained in any box or bag, and that would ultimately become invaluable contributions to their new homeland: their music, their cuisines, their skills, their artistry, their faith, their intellects—and their memories. Over time, these cultural gifts, from the mundane to the monumental, became so ingrained in the developing American culture that many today don't realize their origin. Few cherished items of our American heritage—from apple pie to the Christmas tree to pizza and Halloween—cannot be traced to immigrant origins. These outside influences can be very subtle indeed; I suspect, for example, that Old Glory's were inspired by the nine red-white-and-blue stripes of the Dutch West India Company's flag that flew from the mast of Peter Minuit's ship, when he, a German by birth, bought the island of Manhattan. And it was the Swedish-born colonists in Delaware who introduced another American icon, the log cabin; and Pennsylvania Dutch gunsmiths made the first "Kentucky" rifles.
We tend to forget, too, that it was primarily immigrants who turned a fledgling technology into what would become the multibillion-dollar film industry; and that many of its earliest stars, in front of and behind the camera, hailed from other countries—Rudolph Valentino and Marlene Dietrich, among many others. It was an immigrant from the West Indies, Alexander Hamilton, who became our first Secretary of the Treasury and laid the foundation for the early U.S. economy. Engineers today continue to marvel at the brilliant foresight of John A. Roebling, builder of the Brooklyn Bridge. Men and women such as Albert Einstein and Gerty Theresa Radnitz Cori (the first American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine) put America at the forefront of scientific achievement. Architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen have, literally, changed the face of the American landscape. And immigrants such as Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright continue to rise to the top of the political arena. The list of foreign-born past and present contributors to America's greatness is, truly, endless.
As we move past the halfway mark into the first decade of the twenty-first century, perhaps it is time to remind ourselves and others what we owe immigrants, especially now that immigration is once again an issue of hot debate among our politicians and fellow citizens. Too often, I hear the term "illegal alien" used—it seems to me—with little or no regard to its human aspect. As an immigrant myself, I may be forgiven for taking a very personal view of this issue. I came from what had become East Germany; my wife Hildegard came from West Berlin, where for three years I lived as an "undocumented refugee." Hildegard owes her survival—and freedom—to the Americanled Allied airlift of 1948-1949. One of our family's prized possessions is an American flag, the Stars and Stripes, Old Glory—a gift from Marica Vilcek to celebrate our citizenship. Marica, an immigrant from Czechoslovakia, and a White Russian baroness, were witnesses during our U.S. citizenship interview. All four of us serve as classic examples of immigrants who were helped by other immigrants to integrate into America, answering the call inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
Today, the yearning for freedom and a better life continues to drive millions to risk their lives and the lives of their children. They cross large bodies of water in leaking, overcrowded, ill-equipped boats—or, indeed, anything that floats; they climb over or crawl under barriers of cement or barbed wire; they brave the perils of parched deserts; they swim rushing rivers in the dead of night. No danger is too great if only to be given their chance to fulfill the promise that America signifies to them. Even as they struggle to blend into the proverbial melting pot, knowing they are viewed with suspicion, they continue to come, believing that America is the land of unlimited opportunities, and that any immigrant can make his or her way—if given the chance. Who among these millions might be the next Einstein, Saarinen or Albright?
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