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Essay: Almost all American families have an immigration story

After his parents were released from Nazi concentration camps, a Long Islander came to America at age 3

Sy Roth of Mount Sinai with his parents,

Sy Roth of Mount Sinai with his parents, Sarah and Samuel Roth. The family came to the United States from a postwar displaced persons camp in Germany in 1949 when he was 3, settling with relatives in the Bronx. They eventually moved to South Farmingdale, where he grew up. Photo Credit: Sy Roth

All of the squabbling about immigrants in this country boils down to a simple reality: Almost all Americans have an immigration story in their families. The president himself is a son and grandson of immigrants and has had two wives born in other countries.

In my case, I’m an immigrant, having come to New York from Germany at age 3.

I guess you’d call me a greenhorn, a term once applied to those who came to the United States with no language other than that of their places of origin, the clothes on their backs, and sponsors here who would vouch that these immigrants had some skill and would not be burdens.

I was born in a displaced person’s camp in Pocking, in Bavaria, in 1946. My mother, the former Sarah Mermelstein, spent the last months of World War II at Auschwitz. My father, Samuel Roth, was held at a Nazi labor camp in Poland.

After their releases, they attempted to return to their homes in Czechoslovakia, only to receive cold receptions. They met and married in Czechoslovakia after being liberated. With Europe being divided among the major powers, they decided to displace themselves and avoid living under the thumb of Russian rule. They made their way to an American-controlled zone and settled temporarily in the camp in Bavaria, living in housing that was little more than discarded soldiers’ barracks. Thousands of displaced persons shared small spaces divided only by curtains — the environment in which I was created.

Many relatives of displaced persons had been murdered wholesale during the Holocaust, and, so, the survivors desperately wanted something better and safer for their families.

In a world gone mad, this conglomeration of people no longer felt welcomed and desired in their former hometowns. They sought out many countries or any country that would provide a place of rebirth.

What little I know or remember about the displaced persons camp was told to me in fits and starts that have become a part of my history and character. The camp hosted a variety of languages, arms tattooed with Nazi numbers, faces unsmiling and intense.

We were fortunate to have relatives in the Bronx. It took my parents three years to gather all of the papers required to travel to the United States. We came over on a ship in 1949, and from the stories my parents tell, I ran about rather enjoying the voyage while they spent a good portion vomiting.

I remember seeing the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. All the new immigrants stood on deck and watched as we passed her. I guess we all hoped the statue symbolized a welcome and embrace in a place where we could live free.

I believe most immigrants believe that.

Uncle Ben and Aunt Anna Weiss invited us into their apartment — a warm place filled with couches, end tables and oversized chairs — until we could find a place to live. I slept in a narrow hallway off the kitchen. Uncle Ben became my favorite. This short, rotund man with a fringe of graying hair sat me at his knee. He spoke to me in halting Yiddish and told me always to remember the beauty of this country and that we would be accepted with open arms. Uncle Ben reminded me to learn English — reading and writing were paramount.

My aunt and uncle had come to America at the turn of the century, fleeing anti-Semitic hatred that seemed to be growing in Europe. Ben had established a prosperous sign-making company, and my father apprenticed with him. My father was a member of the Sheet Metal Workers Association until he retired.

My family became vagabonds for many years, living in Kew Gardens, the Bronx and Brooklyn (several places). My brother and I begged our parents to move after we were accosted and harassed on the way home from Hebrew school because we wore yarmulkes. In 1960, we finally moved to a three-bedroom ranch house on Lyons Avenue in South Farmingdale. We thought we had found the American dream.

When my parents got their citizenship papers, I automatically became a citizen. However, I insisted that I get my own official document declaring me a U.S. citizen. I was proud to stand before an immigration judge and raise my right hand on Aug. 26, 1958, when I was 12.

I look at the document often. It has a picture of me on the left side, a freckle-faced boy. In him, I can barely recognize the older man I’ve become, but I know what he was feeling — pride in being a part of something bigger than himself.

Reader Sy Roth lives in Mount Sinai.


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