Monday, October 4, 2021

How to Hide Your Heritage


It may seem strange to hear that someone—particularly an immigrant to America—had worked hard to hide her heritage. Now, many people try to celebrate their roots, even stretching so far as to learn how to cook favorite dishes from their ancestral homeland, or incorporate holiday traditions into their family gatherings—even if they never remembered any of their own relatives actually practicing such details.

Reaching back in time to the era in which my paternal grandparents were raising their own children—the early part of the twentieth century leading up to the first World War—times were obviously different. We all can remember from high school history classes about such negative agitation regarding immigration as the Know Nothings' reaction to arriving Irish and German Catholics in the mid 1800s, or the Immigration Restriction League's efforts, at the close of World War One, to restrict the influx of migrants from southern or eastern Europe.

It might be an eye-opening project to explore the newspaper headlines—and letters to the editors—of that era concerning the mood in New York City at the time when my grandparents were raising their own family. Whether that was the underlying pressure convincing my paternal grandfather to choose the course of action he took, I can't yet say. For whatever reason, though, he moved his family from Brooklyn to Queens by the time of the 1915 New York State census, with one small, unusual detail: the entire family was reinvented with a different surname.

In almost an instant—at least it seems so, judging from the only paperwork I could find at the time—the family of two Polish immigrants suddenly were converted into a supposedly Irish-American family. How could that be possible?

It took examining several documents—found over years of research—to understand how that could have been possible. For one thing, the only written reports I could access when I first began this research project—snail mail requests for death certificates, pre-Internet—indicated my grandfather was born in Brooklyn. Not all government documents report an untarnished version of the truth, it seems.

Now that I've had the advantage of access to several more record sets and can piece the story together, I can now guess what might have occurred. However my paternal grandfather arrived in New York, I can't tell, but it is probable that his arrival was at an age young enough to grant him the ability to learn a new language without any sign of a foreign accent. Likewise, my paternal grandmother, whose name I was eventually able to locate on passenger records, had hardly grasped the ability to speak her own native language when she arrived in New York at two years of age.

That, however, might explain how both my grandparents, as adults, could avoid detection as foreigners. But there was one other difficult detail to such a plan: my grandmother's parents both lived until the mid 1930s. For neither of those parents did the ability to speak English figure prominently in their day-to-day lives.

My grandmother's father's death in 1935 left the duty of caring for her Polish-speaking mother squarely upon my grandmother's own shoulders—she, the one who had long since re-invented herself as an Irish-American. How was she to emerge from this dilemma without implicating the family as unregistered enemy aliens as they entered yet another wartime era? The answer was simple: once again, just hide your heritage. Tomorrow, we'll glean from the family's clues just how she might have done so.

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