The Bullet that Brought My Father to America

The debate on amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants brings to mind something that happened to me when I was 16. 

I was standing behind my father when he happened to be putting on his pants. For the first time, I noticed a gash in the back of his left leg about half way between his knee and his ankle.

"What's that," I asked, and he answered "Why, that's my bullet hole. It brought me to this blessed country and saved me from the Holocaust.

"Your bullet hole," I exclaimed. "How and when did you get it, and what has it got to do with your leaving Russia and coming to America?"

He told me this tale: 

He was born in 1900 in Meziboz, in the Ukraine. It took five years for the 1917 Russian Revolution to come to an end, and during that period the Czarist Whites, the Communist Reds, and the Cossacks fought over Meziboz incessantly. 

One day the Red Army would enter, hand my father a rifle, and order him to fight for the Communists. A few days later the White Army would enter, hand him a rifle, and order him to fight for the Czar. A few days after that, the Cossacks would sweep into Meziboz guiding their horses with their knees and brandishing a sword in one hand and a rifle in the other. 

They weren't looking for Czarists or Communists. They were looking for Jews to murder. One of the Cossacks fired at my father's head, but his horse stumbled and the bullet entered Daddy's leg instead. Thinking my father dead, the Cossack went looking for another Jew to kill.

As he lay still until it was dark, my father concluded that no matter which side prevailed in the civil war, twentieth-century Russia was not going to be a very safe place for Jews to live. So the next day, with no passport or other papers, he began to walk westward until he reached Belgium in 1919. He got a job on the Antwerp docks loading and unloading cargo. He did that until 1920 when he got a visa and, like millions before and after him, entered America through New York's Ellis Island.

When he married, he moved my mother, her parents, and me and my siblings to a section of Brooklyn that was only one-third Jewish. (The second third was Irish-Catholic and the third one was Italian-Catholic.)  I once asked him why he did that and he told me that he didn't think it was a good idea for us Yiddish-speakers to wait until we left an all-Jewish neighborhood to go off to college or the workplace and learn that "most Americans were not Jewish."

My father mastered English, took and passed the New York City literacy and American history tests, and became a U.S. citizen as rapidly as possible. He opposed bilingual education and English as-a-second-language courses because he believed that only total immersion could make New Americans learn our national tongue quickly and well. 

He welcomed New Americans whenever he met them, often helping them financially. But if he were alive today, he'd oppose granting citizenship to those who didn't have to wait and work for it, as he did in Belgium nearly 100 years ago.

Edward Bernard Glick is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Temple University