by Elaine Steinmetz
I HAVE GROWN accustomed to my story. I have through the years shaped it – like a bird building a nest, I have enlarged the narrative, put layers of gathered soft material to pad the unknown. Now, at age 92 (how is that possible!?), I own the story of my walk across the Canadian Border. What haunts me most is what I might have fabricated, what is blatantly untrue; but I am the center of my story, and I can only tell it to the best of my recollection.
A long time ago, I was born in Szczuczyn (pronounced “Shtutchin”), Poland, close to what was once the border with Prussia, the second child of Rebecca and Louis and sister of three-year-old Alex. Papa took his degree at the university in Leipzig. He was a pharmacist. Mama had a young Polish girl help with housekeeping and us children.
A picture from 1927 — I am two years old, standing on a chair close to Mama. I am dressed in a white coat with matching hat and am holding a small purse. Mama looks regal. She is wearing a black hat with a sheer veil wrapped around the crown. The veil flows past her shoulder. Mama is in mourning: her dear mother had died a month before. Alex is in a black wool coat with six buttons, a fur collar, and a fur hat. We look straight at the camera. We are not smiling. This was the last photo taken in Szczuczyn, Poland.
Leaving Poland started with Uncle Ben (more about him later), my mother’s brother, who made arrangements for us to leave our birthplace to join him, Papa and the rest of the family in Brooklyn, NY, USA. He was the force behind the family’s migration.
Our first destination was the port of Danzig. We spent a year waiting for a visa in order to travel to Toronto, Canada. Our sea journey was on the Duchess of Atholl. The Atlantic was rough, tossing people and suitcases from wall to wall. We spent most of the time in our cabin. Mama tried to comfort us. Alex was sick.
AT AGE FOUR, in 1929, I stood next to a woman who looked like my Mama but was not. She had grey hair and blue eyes. She leaned down and whispered in Yiddish, “Call me Mama.” Her hand was soft, warm. I held on tight. It was the 4th of July weekend. Many people were crossing the border; families meeting up with one another. The sky was turning grey, and soon it was dark, and a strong light lit the path we followed. I saw a man with a gun. A car ran its motor and went nowhere. We walked quickly. No one spoke. We passed two signs: “You are leaving Canada,” and a few feet farther on, in large black letters, “You are entering the United States Of America.” Mama and Alex followed me and this woman who pretended to be my Mama.
We were the last of our family to enter the United States. Papa had arrived several years earlier. Our destination was a red brick house in Brooklyn.
Uncle Ben was young, spoiled, the only son in the family (there were three daughters), and eager for adventure. His parents had wept with shame when he left home, bound for America. He had arrived about the time that the USA entered the First World War. He enlisted in the army and spent his years in a camp in the South, where he learned to be a soldier and to speak English. He was discharged as a citizen and it was indeed a new beginning. He married, flourished in business, and encouraged his family to join him.
To get us across the border from Canada, Uncle Ben had paid the right people. The restrictive quota system, deliberately small to begin with, had been filled. It heavily favored immigration from northern and Western Europe, creating the unspoken attitude that people from Eastern Europe, people like us, were undesirable. These laws continued long after that day in 1929. It wasn’t until the mid-1960s that U.S. immigration laws became less restrictive. Uncle Ben, an impatient, can-do man, had purchased us our safety and reunited our family. No one in our family ever used the word “bribe,” and no one dared talk of his having done anything against the law. Aunt Sarah, his sister, had filled reams of paper while we waited in Toronto for the phone to ring. We had been there for one year, living on Morgan Street in a Jewish section where everyone spoke Yiddish.
One day the phone rang, and Mama said, “Pack, it is time to leave.” Mama was suddenly very busy. I held my doll close. Alex read a book in English that Aunt Sarah had sent to him. He was proud of his ability to read. He could not speak English, but he liked to say he was a clever boy who remembered everything.
I grew up with our story of crossing the border that came to me in fragments. I participated. It was I who held the hand of a stranger, walked quickly to keep up with the long strides of the adults surrounding me. Still, I always felt as if the story did not belong to me. I remembered nothing. Then, a few years ago, while visiting Alex at his home in Sanibel Island, we sat in the screened porch looking out on the Gulf of Mexico shimmering beneath the setting sun, watching the pelicans dive for their dinner. And that day Alex told me about us – who we were and where we came from. He ticked off our life’s journey, and I listened, trying again to imagine my four-year-old self wearing a white coat and hat and holding a small brown handbag while being led by a strange woman across the Canadian border.
“Where were you born?” It was a question I’d heard all my life and couldn’t avoid, but I always wondered: Is that question anyone’s concern? Why ask? Through the years I formulated an answer that satisfied my need to hide from the truth. “Oh,” I’d say, “I was raised in New York.” It was my truth. After all, I knew no other place. I’d played on the streets of Brooklyn. I’d skated on concrete until the metal wheels split open as I sped around the corner and back home. I could see the ball bearings that made my wanderings possible. I’d jumped into the ropes my friends held and twirled, high and fast. I had a hard red Spalding ball that left my right hand and aimed at the penny on the sidewalk crack. When the penny flipped over, I’d jump for joy.
THE YEAR WAS 1938, and I was 13. It was a warm evening; the kitchen window was open, held in place by a six-inch mesh screen. Stillness blanketed the trees in the park across the street. Every once in a while, a voice rose from the local teen aged boys who hung out on that first bench closest to the entrance. They smoked and told dirty jokes. Mama took off her apron and called to Alex and me. ”Sit down, I have something to tell you.” Homework could wait.
I pulled out the heavy maple chair, sat down and wiggled until I was comfortable. We spent many hours sitting at the large maple kitchen table. It was our meeting place, a place for doing homework, eating meals, listening to the radio, reading under the bright light that hung from the ceiling. (Papa preferred the desk in the living room. We knew not to disturb his business papers.) The dinner dishes had been cleared. The last taste of graham crackers and strawberry jam was still in my mouth.
Mama and Papa leaned forward. Mama’s cheeks flushed, her bright blue eyes focused on Alex and me. “We must go to the local police station and register as illegal immigrants. It is the law.” Papa patted Mama’s arm to calm her. Later I learned that that law was the Alien Registration Act.
A week later we were standing in line, neatly dressed, impatient, and uncertain. Mama, Papa, Alex, and I stood close together. Parents held the hands of children and whispered, “Don’t fuss, be quiet.” Most of them spoke Yiddish. A small child cried. Parents wiped eyes and noses. The smell of talcum powder and ink filled the airless, windowless, room. The room was larger than our living room, with four long tables in the center, little space left for big men in dark blue uniforms with shiny police badges pinned to the pockets.
We moved forward slowly until we reached a table too tall for the little ones. A dark hand took mine, and finger by finger, he rolled one, then the other, on an ink-soaked pad and repeated the motion onto a large sheet with my name on it. The officer handed me a towel and helped me wipe off the ink. He smiled but said nothing. It was days before I raised my hands again; I was sure the ink was still on them, and I felt ashamed for having been fingerprinted.
It was official – we were registered illegal aliens.
We left the police station and walked home past all the old familiar shops. It was just another day on the streets of Brooklyn. The fruits and vegetables were in baskets on a table outside Mr. Goldberg’s store, with the freshly baked bread lined up like soldiers in a bin near the door. We walked into our apartment, bewildered by the experience, uncertain what this registration would mean for us. Mama washed her hands, put on her apron, and said, “Time for lunch.” She moved quickly around the kitchen. Once again we sat at the old maple table. But something had changed. It was hard to talk about being fingerprinted, so it remained our secret.
Through the years I heard fragments of conversations. I gathered that we were a family who lived in freedom but that restrictions had been imposed upon us. We could not vote or attend public universities. My parents had the equivalent of a college education and spoke five languages, and it was a given that Alex and I would attend university. My brother enrolled at St John’s, and I took classes at Columbia. All of our friends matriculated at public schools. We paid our way and kept a low profile. What else we were denied escapes me. I was being nurtured by a loving family, but I know that my parents were uncomfortable with our status, and as a result, so were we children.
WORLD WAR II ended in 1945. U.S. soldiers stationed abroad had fallen in love and married; some had children. All were eager to join their husbands and fathers in America. What to do with these non-citizens? A new category called “War Brides” was created by the War Brides Act of December 28, 1945, which let the wives and children of U.S. soldiers enter the U.S. legally without needing a space in the quota.
It was my good fortune to qualify under the War Brides Act. In 1946, just shy of 21, I married H.M. He had spent three years in an army uniform in a special program at Kansas State, graduating as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. After months of filling out a mile of papers, I took the train to Canada and re-entered the United States. This time at the border, I received a document that declared that I was a legal resident. I gained citizenship. A citizen! With my change of status came a sense of relief and belonging to the only home I had ever known. We had a small celebration, but sadly Mama and Papa were gone, miles away in a cemetery in Queens.
For years I felt uncomfortable when people asked me where I was born, and after answering that I had grown up in Brooklyn, I would quickly change the subject. Several years ago I started to give the true answer. I was born in Poland. I have grown accustomed to that answer. It is, after all, the only truth that I am sure of.
Elaine Steinmetz has lived in Los Angeles, California since the summer of 1991. She and her husband, who died in 2005, previously lived in London for five years, Brussels for five years (as part of the diplomatic corps), and Washington D.C. for close to twenty years. She has spent more than twenty years as a Docent at the American Art Museum and the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C. and in LA at the Hammer Museum at UCLA and LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). She continues to take classes at SAGE, reads, writes, attends concerts, and is grateful for a loving family.