May is a month of transitions and celebrations. Graduations abound. Reflection and perspective. I’m thinking a lot about my son, a soon-to-be high school graduate and about a stateless war refugee. The connection? They are the threads of my family’s story.
In less than a month, my 18-year-old son will graduate from high school. An honors student and an accomplished athlete, he will enter Duke University this summer as a member of a Division 1 football team. The stuff of boyhood dreams.
This month also marks the 70th anniversary of the day my father, Daniel’s grandfather, arrived in America. In May, 1947, my dad – a penniless 27-year-old, orphaned by the war – finally reached the land of his boyhood dreams. But under circumstances he could not have dreamed of – even in his worst nightmare.
As a young boy in Berlin, Germany, my father loved sports. He played and watched soccer at every opportunity. He also dreamed of some day going to the U.S. It was a dream that had consumed him from an early age, fueled by tales of his great-uncles who had made the journey in the 1800s. When the 1936 Olympics came to his city, my father used the few words of English that his English-born grandmother had taught him to speak with the athletes he met in the streets. As a Jewish boy, he could not have been prouder when Jesse Owens’ victories caused Hitler to storm out of the stadium.
As a young boy, my father was a talented student who was university-bound. Prescient beyond his years, he somehow convinced his mother that learning a trade might prove more useful than a university degree. The typesetting skills he learned at a vocational school proved invaluable when after Kristallnacht in November 1938 he left his family and fled to Shanghai, China – the one city in the world that asked no questions and welcomed all arrivals.
While working for a German-language newspaper in Shanghai’s refugee settlement, my father never lost sight of his dream of coming to America. After the war, as my dad’s aunt and uncle left for Australia, my father chose instead to head to Peking (now Beijing) in search of work with the U.S. Army. That decision proved fateful when a year-and-a-half later, a U.S. soldier he had befriended told his mother about a stateless Jewish guy he had met back in China.
There were immigration rules and requirements – not easy to meet and quite burdensome. But grateful to have her own son home unharmed, a widowed mother of two committed to help a young man she had never met to leave a country halfway around the world. Soon, my dad was on his way to San Francisco and then on to Cape Cod to meet and thank this remarkable woman. And the rest, we say in our family, is history.
Just over 6 months later, my father met my mother (another German war refugee) on a blind date in New York, married and began to live the American dream – starting a business, raising a family, buying a home in the suburbs.
It’s hard for me to imagine as my son walks across that stage – that at about the same age, my father boarded a train and a boat bound for a far-off land and an uncertain future. He never saw his mother or father again.
Two years ago, I took my son to Berlin to visit the city of his grandfather’s youth. We visited the Brandenburg Gate and the 1936 Olympic Stadium and the remains of the Wall. Then we visited the Jewish cemetery where we found the graves of my son’s great-great and great-great-great grandparents. It was a stark reminder of the twists of fate that can shape our lives and change our dreams.
Graduations. Anniversaries. Births. Deaths. We mark the years. We dream of the future. We honor the past. I know my son will face many challenges along the road, but I know that he carries in him the love, determination and resilience that carried his grandfather forward to unknown shores.
BARBARA FIELDS is a Providence resident and proud mother of two teenagers. She currently serves as CEO at RIHousing, Rhode Island’s housing bank.