My Grandparents’ Immigration Lies Shaped My Father’s View of JusticeHistorians in the News
tags: Holocaust, Jewish history, immigration, refugees
Ms. Gerson is an assistant professor of journalism at California State University, Northridge, and a co-founder of Migratory Notes, a weekly immigration newsletter.
I felt like I was spying on my grandparents’ lies.
“The Blumstein family, consisting of Mr. B, age 43, his wife, same age, and their two children, ages 6½ and 2½ arrived in the United States on 12/21/50,” begins the social worker’s minutely detailed account of my grandparents’, and my father’s, first weeks as refugees in the United States.
But my grandparents and their children weren’t the Blumstein family. The Blumsteins were in Israel. The Jewish refugee family — described by the attentive social worker as “attractive” and “charming,” who arrived with $30 in cash and a baby’s bathtub — were the Gerzons. The child traveling as Abraham Blumstein, 6½, was a 5½-year-old whose birth name was Elik. He was my father. His identity, along with his parents’, had been erased for a chance to enter the United States.
Nearly 70 years later, in what would turn out to be my father’s final year, he was working furiously on a memoir. It was as if he already knew a rare and ruthless neurodegenerative disease would eat away at his mind. In those final lucid months, rather than focus on the professional legacy that would later headline his obituaries — he was well known in Washington for his work carving a legal path to sue foreign countries for sponsoring terrorism, most famously in the case of Pan Am Flight 103 — he wrestled with personal questions of ethics and immigration law.
My father knew all too well what happens when legal pathways do not exist for people to enter this country: They find alternative ways in, just as his own family had. As refugee admissions remain at historic lows, my father is no longer with us. But he left behind a warning that changes need to be made to immigration laws, seeded in the unlikely intersection of the lies of his parents, Holocaust survivors both, and his early career turn as a Nazi hunter for the U.S. government.
My father was born stateless in Uzbekistan in 1945, as World War II was winding down. His Polish-born Jewish parents had spent years in flight — first to Russia in 1939, when Hitler invaded their home country, only to be deported via cattle cars into forced labor in Siberia. My father’s older brother perished of diphtheria during the war. Postwar, my grandparents boarded trains west, but at the Polish border heard the news that nearby villagers had murdered Jews who returned and gave up on their plan to reclaim their home.
So began the lies of desperation. For five years, the Gerzons languished in displaced persons camps in Austria and Germany. They heard Foehrenwald, in the American zone of Germany, both had better conditions and bettered their chance of receiving a visa to enter the United States. But the door to the camp was shut. On the black market they found a way in: The Blumsteins, a family like them, had received permission to enter the camp but instead left for Palestine. The Gerzons thus bought the identities — and opportunities — of the Blumsteins. Once inside Foehrenwald, fearful of the consequences of their fraud, they continued their quest for safe haven in the United States under their assumed names. In 1950, President Harry Truman finally broadened quotas enabling more Polish Jewish displaced persons like them to enter. That December they arrived in New York Harbor.
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