A young woman, her mother and brother left Austria for Milan, Italy, on May 20, 1939, shortly after Hitler annexed their homeland to the Third Reich in 1938. This was their first stop on the way to the United States. At the time, the young woman, who would in time become my mother, was 23, and she had completed a degree in Romance languages at the University of Vienna. Thanks to her proficiency with languages other than her native German, the three found refuge in Italy, where they spent two years before moving to Paris, and then to London. There, a brother of her mother helped them find eventual transportation to New York.
At Ellis Island, they were given a few choices for a place to live. These were brought to their attention by a national resettlement organization, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society . HIAS, both then and now, quietly, effectively and efficiently provides a bridge, a helping hand, to immigrants of all faiths, from all lands, in need of a simple gesture of understanding.
HIAS offered transportation to any place west of the Hudson River. My mother’s family chose Peoria, Illinois. In later years, friends wondered why they picked Peoria over more bustling American big cities. There was a reason. My mother would say that she had learned while in school in Austria that Peoria was an important city in America’s “breadbasket,” a vast region of the Midwest that was vital to the country’s agriculture. Another version, equally plausible, was my mother, teasing, said that to her Viennese ear, “Peoria” had a musical ring to it so it must be a good choice.
Thanks to the humane generosity of Peoria natives, they were welcomed there and flourished. The person who would become my mother earned another baccalaureate degree at Bradley University while doing housework at the homes of wonderful Peoria citizens. Her brother brought his technical training to good use by employment at the Caterpillar Tractor Corp. Their dog (the first of several dachshunds in my family) thrived, as did my grandmother.
Two years after arriving in Peoria, my grandmother was invited to speak on a Peoria radio station on the eve of her becoming an American citizen. Her spoken English was not refined, and she therefore wrote out her remarks. A page or two have been lost over time. In any event, she delivered them after the station had played a recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
The spirit of joy in what America had become — the joy she found in the music of her Vienna soulmate Beethoven — is at the heart of the pages that have survived. We are a nation of immigrants, many of whom have fled unimaginably inhumane conditions to bravely come to our land of plenty and contribute to the building of our country. The generations on both sides of my family who settled in America were eternally grateful for the opportunity to live productive lives.
In this season of the Fourth of July, it is appropriate to look back to a time when immigrants found in America a dream come true. Regardless of where one is on today’s political spectrum, we would not be here unless an earlier generation made the great journey from far off lands to our shores.
May they inspire all of us on July 4, 2020.
Ted Tarkow is a Columbia resident.