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My Turn: Statue of Liberty holds a special place in my immigrant heart

Last modified: 10/4/2015 1:39:08 AM
Lately, the evening news, Pope Francis and even a Monitor haiku have been talking about me. On Sept. 9, Janet Splan of Andover said in a haiku at the top of the Forum page: “Hey, wake up AP! They’re refugees, not migrants! There’s a difference.”

The haiku caught my eye since I’m a retired AP editor – and my family fled Lithuania and bounced around refugee camps between 1944 and 1952 in Germany during and after World War II, before we got to the United States as “displaced persons.”

As I watch the desperate refugees on the evening news, I think: That’s us 70 years ago. Same thing, same people. Lots of kindness, much xenophobia. Only the armies change.

But it was Pope Francis who brought out my tears when he declared he was the son of an immigrant, the kind of people who built the United States, my adopted country, and spoke of refugees, immigrants and foreigners.

It occurred to me that I was a foreigner before I was an American, a refugee before I became an immigrant, an immigrant before I became an American.

Becoming an American was not easy. I was not born one, and I worked hard to become one. In Gemany the locals called us “Verfluchter Auslaender” – damn foreigners. Before the war ended, we would hide from Allied bombers in basements: British bombs at night, American bombs at day.

In the United States, an adult with an Italian surname (probably son of immigrants) told me when I was 13, “You know what DP means?” Of course, I said, “displaced person.” He said, “No, it means dirty pig. You f---ing people came here to take our jobs!”

I recall that encounter every time politicians bash immigrants.

To tell my story here, I dug up a piece I wrote in 1985 as the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor was refurbished. I have plagiarized myself in some of the paragraphs that follow.

Our story

In the winter of 1952, for much of the eight-day crossing on a converted Liberty Ship between Bremerhaven and New York, I was seasick. But news of approaching New York evaporated my queasiness.

At nearly age 11, I wasn’t interested in confirming whether the streets were paved with gold. But this was America! My three sisters, mother and father were transfixed by the Statue of Liberty.

“Laisves Statula,” I called her in my native Lithuanian, my English vocabulary consisting of “umbrella,” “aerodrome” and the rote singing-recitation of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.”

While my sisters and I wondered and marveled, my mother wept. What thoughts she must have had! – leaving forever the land of countless ancestral generations on the Baltic Sea for a new foreign home on the other side of the earth.

Our arrival in New York ended an eight-year odyssey that began as World War II was ending and my father, pregnant mother, my sister and I had become the flotsam and jetsam of the war. We found ourselves refugees from Soviet Communism in Nazi Germany. After eight years of nomadic life in Displaced Persons camps, surviving through the grace of United Nations charity and my father’s wits and moxie, we arrived in America.

My father would never see Lithuania again. As we migrated from camp to camp, refugees from every corner of east-central Europe emigrated to every corner of the globe, preferably the United States. Our relatives who had fled with us found their way to the United States, Australia and Canada. My father, blacksmith-turned-welder, provided as best he could for the family, which by 1952 would grow to four children.

He collected dollars from relatives and the profits of gifts from America – coffee, nylon stockings and cigarettes. The dollars would make it easier to leave Europe. By 1952, we were in the last wave of World War II Lithuanian refugees to come to the United States. Most had reached North America’s Lithuanian-American communities of Chicago, Boston, Cleveland, Baltimore, Toronto, Montreal, New York and enclaves in Connecticut, Michigan, California and elsewhere by 1949. We were late because my oldest sister had been chronically ill. Because of that, we were rejected repeatedly as we applied to emigrate to the U.S. It was not until 1952 that the U.S. would let us into the country.

In New York, we were picked up by a Lithuanian from Waterbury, Conn., who took us the 100 miles to our new home in Middlebury, Conn., in his 1938 Pontiac. What a marvelous machine it was, with a dash radio that played even as it moved with the car! Our driver was the second Lithuanian-American we had met since leaving Germany. The first was a sailor aboard our ship, the General W.G. Haan, who knew a bit of our language and regaled us with miraculous stories about a place called Florida where flamingos strutted among palm trees! He treated us with monstrous, heavenly oranges – fruit we rarely saw in the refugee camps – especially fruit of such heroic soccer-ball size. Yes, America would be heaven.

But it was not heaven for my father, who never adjusted to America, nor for my mother, who retired from the clock and textile mills of Connecticut after slaving 30 years for the minimum wage, nor my late sister, who never completely overcame the illness that almost kept us from America. But the rest of the family survived, two sisters contributing four sons and several grandchildren to the melting pot – adding Italian and French-Canadian and recently Jamaican to the Lithuanian lineage. I am married to an Italian-American woman.

By 1965, I was a naturalized American citizen, living in New York in what was to become trendy SoHo and commuting to New Jersey as a reporter for the Bayonne Times. I had several ways to get to Bayonne from Manhattan but usually took the ferry across the Hudson from Liberty Street to Jersey City and the Jersey Central train to Bayonne.

The ferry and train offered the most magnificent views of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. By 1966, I was working for the Jersey Journal in Jersey City and writing stories about the Statue, reminding the Journal’s readers that its home, Bedloe’s Island, is in New Jersey, not New York.

New Jersey’s claim on the Statue was reinforced by the blackouts of 1965 and 1977, when New York lay powerless in darkness but the Statue, whose electricity came from New Jersey, unaffected by the outages, gleamed ever more the beacon she is in the dark harbor.

The attraction for Americans, especially immigrants and children of immigrants, to the Statue is equally obvious and mysterious. She is not a mere cornball symbol that models for plastic statues and oil-on-velvet paintings. She has an appeal that’s philosophical, esthetic and visceral. She is not only the American but also the singular universal symbol of all-embracing welcome.

Perhaps her appeal is best explained by Johnny Johnson, a character in a 1936 Broadway opera written by librettist Paul Green and another immigrant, composer Kurt Weill. Johnny, a boy from the South, sees the Statue as his troop ship leaves New York to take him to France in 1917: “Think of it. There you are standing like a picture in that history book I read, your hand uplifted with a torch, saying goodbye to us, good luck and bless you every one. And God bless you, oh mother of liberty.

“That’s what you are, a sort of mother to us all and we your sons.”

(Adolphe Bernotas lives in Concord.)


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