On a cold late December dawn at
the height of World War II a steam ship from
Europe sailed past the Statue of Liberty in New
York harbor. A thousand people stood
shivering on the deck, as night turned to day,
for the biggest event of their lives. And
at last they could see it, and sailed right past
it! The ship's captain sounded the deep
resounding fog horn to add music to that most
incredible moment. Nearly everyone on deck
was a refugee, fleeing Hitler's Nazi genocide.
As they saw the majestic Statue holding its
torch aloft, people burst into tears; some
falling to their knees in prayer. My
mother stood among them, quietly crying, stoic
and somber, speaking to no one; simply
experiencing the moment that would change the
rest of her life.
"AMERICA! OH MY GOD! AMERICA! SAFE! SAFE AT LAST!"
me your tired, your poor,
huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
wretched refuse of your teeming shore."
After much maneuvering, the ship
pulled into a dock at Ellis Island. As
they slowly debarked, there were uniformed guards
directing people to form lines. These were
not the unformed brutes the passengers had been
used to fearing in Europe. They did not
have guns, they did not have vicious barking
dogs; some of them were actually smiling as they
directed people with hand gestures. "This
way please, thank you....."
And slowly they entered the
great reception hall, by the thousands.
Some had been traveling for weeks, even months,
across the face of Europe, on trains, hiding in
the back of trucks, walking; and now at last,
here they were. The stench of unwashed
humanity was overwhelming! And the babble
of languages echoed off the walls of
the great hall. It was dizzying. And
the lines were hours long.
Some, like my mother, had
skipped the simple pre dawn breakfasts on the
arriving ships, either because they were too
excited or too sea sick to eat. She nearly
fainted from starvation by the time it was her
turn to step in front of the immigration agent.
She handed him her tattered German passport with
a big 'J' stamped over her photo. J for
Jude, Jew, intended by German authorities as a
disqualification for anything and everything.
The agent looked at her questioningly, holding
out his hand for further documents, arching an
eyebrow to ask if she had anything more.
She shook her head; that's all I have. No
visa, no other papers. Nothing. She was an
illegal immigrant. The agent understood;
she was a refugee. He filled out a form
from the information typed on her passport, and
stamped it with a big rubber stamp: WOP, without
papers. Gesturing and pointing, he
directed her to a reception desk in another area
of the hall, handing her the form and her
After more hours of waiting, her
name was called, and a German speaking clerk
filled out more preliminary forms; explaining
that her case will be considered while she will
be held for a few weeks on Ellis Island in
women's refugee quarters. It was dusk when
she was directed into the next room.
There, volunteers stood behind a table laden
with cheese sandwiches each neatly wrapped in
waxed paper. Two pieces of plain white
bread with a slice of American cheese.
That was her first dinner in America.
After a day arriving in America, begun before
dawn, a lousy cheese sandwich never tasted so
After two months, she was
allowed to stay, given the equivalent of a
resident alien green card, and on the cold
February dawn of departure from Ellis Island,
she was issued five cents to pay for the ferry
ride across New York Harbor, past the Statue of
Liberty, to begin her new life in freedom.
Welcome to America. That nickel was the
only welfare she ever received for the next
sixty years of her life in America.
The rest of her family were
murdered in the Auschwitz Nazi death camp; their
ashes buried in mass graves beneath the snow and
barbed wire in Eastern Europe. She raised
me to be an American Patriot. "Nothing in
the world is more precious than American
Freedom," she taught me as a toddler. So,
I volunteered and served for ten years during
and after Vietnam, despite being gay.
Ellis Island is a museum now.
I visited as a young adult, walking through the
vast empty dusty great hall. Imagining
what it had been like on the day my mother began
her life in this county; filled with thousands
of war weary bedraggled people, crying babies,
fearful worry and the babble of a hundred
languages. As I stood where she has waited
all day on line, I nearly vomited imagining her
anxiety. The grand front door of America
is closed now, still guarded by the Statue that
welcomed millions of refugees to the land of
Now, refugees arrive at the back
door, in the American southwest; unsmiling
uniformed armed guards with vicious dogs do not
welcome them. Instead, they rip small
terrified children from their parents arms and
take them away, put them in cages, ship them
across the country, give them away without
paperwork, and loose track of them. Even
after the government was court ordered to
reunite all the children with their refugee
parents, there are still some fifty thousand
lost children, even today. Imagine their
lonely Thanksgivings in this land of freedom
ruled by a monster who ordered their lives
destroyed. The monster who is President of
the United States of America, whose theft of
these nameless lost children is a crime against
The Nazis kept better track of
their victims than this administration!
How many of these stolen lost
children will become
proud patriots, rather than bitter angry
recipients of the bigoted reception that
banished their parents but kept them in lifetime
Welcome to America; Welcome to the alternate