At a loss for words, these were the words that became my voice today. Maybe nobody will read this, and many will not agree with me, but I needed to post this blog today. It is not about wildlife, nor about gardening, but a personal reflection that needed to be said.
January 9, 2016
Both my grandparents came to the United States to avoid genocide on Jews. This wasn’t the genocide of Hitler’s Nazi Germany. These were the pogroms of the late 1800s and early 1900s in Russia and Eastern Europe.
My father grew up in Danbury, Connecticut where his father worked in a hat factory. Danbury was a hat factory center, and immigrants could obtain low-paying jobs working with dangerous chemicals, like the mercury used to stiffen hat brims. Although Danbury was a small town of many immigrants, mostly Italians, there were few Jews and much anti-Semitism. Being a Jew in a Gentile town, he had no friends. I remember my father telling me how he wanted to play stickball with the other boys in the neighborhood, but they only let him be the water boy, calling him names like ‘Jew-Boy’.
My grandmother on my mother’s side came to the United States from Poland when she was only thirteen, around the late 1890’s, probably on a boat by herself, and then the rest of her large family followed in early 1900. It wasn’t until 1939 that she became a naturalized citizen. Although she worked for years, she never learned to read.
My parents met and married in the 1930s, living in New York City. After the war they moved to Los Angeles where my father started his own business. My father’s last name was Brownstein. My father had not forgotten his earlier struggles with anti-Semitism, and since there were few Jews in California, my parents decided to shorten their last name to Brown, hoping to make it easier on their children in school, and in their new business career.
My parents never forgot where they came from and how hard it was for people to get a leg up. They slowly built a garment manufacturing company from scratch in the downtown Los Angeles area. They hired people of all colors and races including Latinos, African-Americans, Europeans, and whites. Most of their employees with managerial positions were Black women. During the lunch hour, my parent’s office door was always open. Employees would come in, sit down and talk about whatever they wanted. Many times my parents gave loans to employees to help them buy a first home, or bring a family member in legally from Mexico. I remember my mother telling me that if I needed something, to write to my local Congressman. She wrote many letters of requests for visas for her Mexican employees. Their employees, fiercely loyal, stayed for twenty, sometimes more than thirty, years.
My father sold his business at the age of 75, and the New York company which bought him out immediately changed the work customs. There was no longer a lunchtime open door policy. Managers brought in from New York did not mingle with the factory workers. For the first time, the employees unionized. Three years after my father sold his business, which he’d owned for over thirty years, the business went bankrupt. I think it was the biggest heartache for my father. My father died at age 86. Even though it had been over ten years since he retired, 100 former employees came to his funeral, many giving emotional speeches.
My mother used to tell me that “I learned a lot from my employees”. By the time I was six years old, my father had about 100 employees. I remember fondly the times I went to my parent’s factory, racing all around like a happy kid and visiting my adult friends that were of all races and creeds. My parents won an award for one of the first integrated factories in Los Angeles.
Today, with Donald Trump winning the Presidency, after a campaign dominated by hate speech directed at immigrants, people of color, and Muslims, I am thinking about my grandparents and the country they came to in which to escape genocide. I am thinking about what my parents must have gone through as Jews to create a better life for their children, a life that was free of prejudice and where we could worship as we pleased without hatred or bigotry. I am thinking of how my parents gave a hand-up to so many people, how they never forgot their own roots and struggles. This is the America I know. And this is the America they taught me about.
One thing is certain, we cannot allow the hatred and bigotry that this man, now our President, has stirred up, to fester and take over what America stands for at its core. Truly, I am at a loss for words. Maybe that is why all I can think of on this dark day are the hopes and dreams of my parents and grandparents, and what they envisioned for their children. My generation is the beneficiaries of the work of people like my grandparents, parents, and so many others. Let us continue to fight the good fight.
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