My Salute to Birthright Citizens – Including My Dad
Birthright citizenship in the United States: who knew it would become controversial? The newly heated discussion, along with an energized general disdain for immigrants, caught me by such surprise that I did something quite outside my skill set: I made a music video.
It started out as a poem until I decided that my poem was really song lyrics, so I composed a little tune, hired a singer and fashioned "Dark Lamp," a music video that, on a broad scale, pays homage to the American tradition of immigration and, on a personal level, raises my own voice to say, “Birthright citizens form an essential patch of the American fabric!”
After all, without birthright citizenship, I wouldn’t be here. I don’t mean I wouldn’t be in the United States; I probably wouldn’t exist at all.
My father became a birthright citizen more by accident than by design. He was born in 1902 during the window of time his parents, Rosa and Raphael, lived in New York City. They’d emigrated from Belgium and, when Dad was six years old, for some reason decided to return home. Had Hitler not begun exterminating Jews, Dad most likely would have lived out his life in Antwerp. Instead, as World War II raged on, he found easy re-entrance into the land of his birth. The plan was to work from here to bring over his mother to join him. His father had died before the war.
Dad’s story saw its 15 minutes of fame right at the beginning. Awaiting the arrival to Ellis Island of a boat full of immigrants was Dad’s cousin Georges, who was asked by a radio journalist whether he was meeting a refugee. Georges responded that he was there to pick up his cousin Robert, a U.S. citizen who did not speak English. Georges was an immigrant as well, having moved his young family from Paris not long before. The reporter decided that was pretty interesting and waited to interview them both for a featured spot on the evening’s newscast.
Dad must have picked up the language quickly. He found a job in Detroit in his field of mechanical engineering and fit in with his new pals on the company bowling team. Punctuating his American rights were his duties – almost immediately, Dad was drafted into the U.S. Army. He served stateside, helping to develop war machinery at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Throughout this time, he corresponded regularly with his mother while simultaneously petitioning the U.S. State Department for permission to secure her safe passage out of Europe.
Although the “birthright baby” thing worked out for Dad, “family migration” – derogatorily nicknamed “chain migration” today – did not go well at all. Just as Dad finally received the permission he sought from the State Department, he also got word that it was too late; his mother had been taken away. In 1945, a few months before Germany surrendered, Dad received confirmation that Rosa had been taken to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in the Czech Republic and was not seen again after that.
By then Dad felt at home in Michigan and decided to remain in the United States. Attending a party that Georges threw in New York, my father met my mother, Bertha, and, after a brief courtship, Dad and Mom married in 1946. My brother was born in 1948, and I came along in 1953. Our names – my brother is Ralph to honor Raphael, and I’m Rosanne in memory of Rosa – were the only hint other than Dad’s accent that our father had more than 40 years behind him in an entirely different life. My parents relocated to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where we went about as a typical Jewish-American family. Dad died in 1977, Mom in 1991.
Among my parents’ effects were about 100 wartime letters, most sent to Dad from his mother, that Ralph and I donated to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. I know the file there is safe and available to me anytime I want to see it, which I did a few years ago and probably will do again from time to time.
Meanwhile, I watch my “Dark Lamp” video to remind myself that immigrants built this country and continued over centuries to define it and refine it. And I watch it to remember that one of the greatest American dads was a birthright citizen who worked hard, loved his family deeply, served in his birth country’s military, and understood freedom the way only those whose freedom has been threatened can appreciate a country like ours. Why would such people be unwelcome?
To learn what the Reform Jewish Movement is doing to promote immigrant and refugee justice, visit the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism's Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus Initiative Immigrant and Refugee Justice Action Center.