I SPEAK AMERICAN
Last night we were out with friends, and somewhere along the way, I found myself telling part of the story of my immigrant grandparents and how they happened to come to this country. I don’t know what was running through our friends’ minds at the time, but I found myself compelled to talk about it, even while I knew it was probably not appropriate light dinner conversation.
It runs like a rich, dark thread through the tapestry of my life, this saga of four brave people from Eastern Europe in the early years of the twentieth century. My father’s parents came to this country from Romania. My mother’s mother was from Hungary. My mother’s father was from Czechoslovakia. They were all young – under twenty-five. They were all Jewish. And at some point, each of them individually made the decision to leave everything they knew and loved behind to take a chance on the “New World”.
I never knew my father’s parents – they died before I was born. The stories about them are all from their life together after they met in Pittsburgh. Those stories are colorful, textured, and delightful thumbnail sketches of the people they portray.
But I did know my mother’s parents. Some of the stories have been passed down to me directly by my grandmother. Some of them come to me from my mother. The history of my grandmother and grandfather before they came to the United States are epic. They depict the horrors that motivated people to make the terrifying leap of faith, boarding a steamer and traveling in steerage across the Atlantic to a country they have never seen where the language, the customs, and even the food is totally foreign to them.
I will give you a sample – the same story I found myself retelling last night. My grandmother grew up in a tiny town in Hungary called Rozhehegye (Rose hedge). It was close to the Danube River, just across from Vienna, Austria. (My grandmother attended secretarial school in Vienna, taking a ferry across the Danube every day. She spoke fluent German, as well as Hungarian, Russian, and Czech).
When Grandma was a little girl, the Russians invaded and occupied Hungary. Among many of the rules they instituted, they decreed that Hungarians should no longer speak Hungarian, but were compelled to speak Russian only (at least in public). Grandma was walking to school alongside her best friend, and naturally, they were chattering away in Hungarian. A couple of Russian soldiers appeared and, having overheard the conversation, shouted, “No Hungarian! Speak Russian!” My grandmother’s friend, being a spunky little girl shouted back, “I am Hungarian! I speak Hungarian!” One of the soldiers simply lifted his rifle and shot the little girl dead – right in front of my Grandma.
There are many other stories about my grandmother and grandfather’s experiences in Europe. But this one, perhaps more than any other, speaks to me personally. It is emblematic of what brought them to their new home. In fact, I would venture to say that it is emblematic of what brought many, many immigrants to this country. That brave little girl’s spirit lived on in my grandmother and probably helped her to make that horrendous crossing to Ellis Island.
My grandparents (all four of them) learned English. I am told that they rarely lapsed into their native languages or even Yiddish except when they were fighting and didn’t want the children to know what they were saying. They worked hard at their new language and became fluent early on. But the important thing was that they spoke English by choice. Not by force. That’s why they loved this country so much. My grandmother would have proudly stated, “I am American. I speak American”.
© 2005, Robin Munson