On Dec. 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, my father, Lionel Olesker, skipped all of his freshman classes at New York University and instead signed up to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
He was 18, the son of Polish immigrants who wished to be seen as fully American. Now, their son was fulfilling that wish. When children sign up to risk their lives in war, they are signing symbolic citizenship papers for the entire family.
In the winter of 1945, after one of his bombing runs over Europe, my father sent a letter home, which bore a slight sound of apology. “Pop,” he wrote, “last night we bombed your old hometown.”
“Never mind regrets,” my grandfather Max wrote back. “We’re Americans. Don’t forget.”
I’m reminded of that letter because of some awful recent events. Seven decades after World War II, there were neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, Va., in August, chanting “Jews will not replace us.” And there was a president who somehow found it difficult to criticize them.
Also at this time, there are an estimated 800,000 children of undocumented immigrants who now face possible deportation, even though many of them have never really known any country but the United States. These “dreamers” find themselves vulnerable because this president finds it politically useful to threaten deportation, and we have an attorney general who hides behind law books to justify cruelty against innocents.
When do we permit people to consider themselves fully American?
When those neo-Nazis hollered “Jews will not replace us,” I thought, “We’re not trying to replace anyone.” We thought we were already part of the fullness of America — and we hoped others saw us this way.
When we saw people out there in the muck and the sewage of Texas during Hurricane Harvey, as nature did its worst, these people did their best. They risked their lives to save strangers. We’ve learned that among the bravest were these so-called “dreamers,” the children of undocumented immigrants, the young people now threatened with deportation.
Why must children pay for the “sins” of their parents — particularly when the “sin” of slipping into America was born out of sheer desperation?
When do we permit people to qualify as real Americans?
I ask this question as I recall my father’s letter home to my grandparents. He showed his devotion to America by literally obliterating his family’s roots from the face of the earth.
The Jews are like any other minority, wondering if we’re truly accepted by the majority, or are we still seen as The Other? Are we fully American, or just hyphenated Americans? Was Charlottesville our latest answer?
When do we permit people living in America — abiding by the law, helping their neighbors, doing good works — to feel fully American? I ask this not in the legal sense, but the moral sense former President Barack Obama mentioned in his response to President Donald J. Trump’s deportation order.
What price has to be paid?
When my father, the son of Polish-American Jews, signed up for the war, there were young men in Baltimore’s Little Italy doing the same thing. One of them was John Pica Sr., who would become one of Maryland’s most decorated World War II heroes. Some years back, Pica told me about the day he left home for the war.
“There was a bunch of us from the neighborhood who signed up together,” he said. It didn’t matter that America was fighting Italy, where so many of their parents had come from. They thought they were Americans now.
“There was Russo, Culotta, the Abatto boy, myself,” Pica said. “And the Georgilli boys. Old man Georgilli had five boys in the service.”
All those years later, the pain lingered. “Five of ‘em” Pica repeated. “And yet, old man Georgilli was pulled out of his house and questioned downtown by the police because he wasn’t a citizen yet.”
When do our immigrants become fully American? What price has to be paid?
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
Top photo: Protesters and counterprotesters clashing at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Va., Aug. 12, 2017. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
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