In the late 1800s my great-great grandparents emigrated from Germany to the United States. They settled in West Virginia and middle Pennsylvania, eventually finding permanence in North Philadelphia, which until the 1950s was by an unspoken law divided into ethnic enclaves. My grandmother, describing to me the Philadelphia of her childhood on a restaurant napkin, recounted me that, “the Polish were on this and this block, the Italians over there, the Germans here.” While ethnic and racial separations were a fact of American life at the time, my grandmother was born in 1930, to a Lutheran father and a Catholic mother – a risqué marriage for the time, an early step in the breaking down of barriers America has accomplished over time.
My grandmother was born to hardship as the Great Depression took its toll on all Americans. Indeed, that time was a painful one the world over. Across continents and oceans in the same year my grandfather was born, the last of a line of administrators of Dutch colonial rule in Indonesia. While he may have one day grown to succeed his father, the tectonic shifts of the world had other intentions, and the Japanese quickly did away with my great grandfather. The Army of the Rising Sun interned my grandfather, his mother, and his sister in a prison camp I rarely heard about more than in passing, and when I did hear of it in detail it was only through gritted teeth.
The war came to an end, and so did colonialism. My grandfather, born in Indonesia, went for the second time in his life to Holland, his nominal motherland. There was not a sense of belonging for him in Holland, and once my grandfather finished his military service and his studies he readily went on to make a new life in the US.
My grandparents met in the early 1960s, and, my mother was born in 1966. I have always seen the term “native born” as a farce because of the reality of my grandparents’ marriage: at some point almost all of our ancestors came here, escaping wars and ghosts, to form new lives. My mother, the first and fourth generation American she is, would herself go on to marry an immigrant.
My father’s parents were born in Romania and what is now the Ukraine. As Jews, they were lucky to escape with their lives, and they left behind many family members, friends, and cherished places after the Great Fire that raged throughout Axis-controlled Europe was put out by Allied Forces. My father was born in Israel, and with a brief stint in South Africa, his family made their way to the US. Some cousins had moved here for business opportunities a few years before, and my father’s family came to the only place they
would know anyone.
“When I tell people my family history, many are shocked or, more interestingly, impressed. “Oh, wow, what a diverse background”; “Oh, how does that work?” But for me, that story has always embodied the spirit of the place I was born: Philadelphia.”
When I tell people my family history, many are shocked or, more interestingly, impressed. “Oh, wow, what a diverse background”; “Oh, how does that work?” But for me, that story has always embodied the spirit of the place I was born: Philadelphia.
The name of our great city was chosen in a spirit ahead of the time it was selected in. Situated in the midst of the various proprietary colonies along the Eastern Seaboard, founded by Quakers, a group that had endured its own persecution, the city’s name – The City of Brotherly Love – was chosen by the colony’s founder, William Penn, to convey a sense of belonging for all. Since its naming, Pennsylvania has offered a welcoming embrace to those huddled masses that would arrive for the centuries to come.
Now, four centuries since the founding of Pennsylvania, immigrants still arrive to build new lives in the City of Brotherly Love and beyond. Here many are able to leave behind old tribal loyalties, blood feuds, oppressions, and insurmountable poverty. While we all carry with us the legacies of our heritage, we share in the splendor and spirit of a place built to serve as a safe haven for all. It is here that undocumented people can become the owners of famous restaurants, share in the diverse cultures brought by its inhabitants, and form bonds with people they would have never met in “the old country”, wherever that
“While people might always find things to divide them, this city was founded on the opposite principle. Here we are all welcome.”
While people might always find things to divide them, this city was founded on the opposite principle. Here we are all welcome. The ethnic enclaves of my grandmother’s youth have disintegrated as people crossed tribal lines to marry, as her parents had in their own way done by marrying across faiths, a practical heresy in Germany at the time.
We still have work to do: addressing racial inequalities and building understanding between diverse communities. Nevertheless, across the long arc of history Philadelphia has been on the forefront of progress, from ending slavery to giving sanctuary to those who would otherwise be expelled from their new homes.
I am Jewish, German, Dutch, but most important above all else, Philadelphian. There is nothing but pride in my heart for the roots that have enmeshed in this place to grow the tree of my life. As technology proliferates the world will continue to get smaller, more integrated, and more understanding. Those are the qualities we have always enjoyed in this city, and as more people come from the world over, bringing their roots with them, the Tree of Philadelphia can only grow stronger. We have the strength of the world for we are brave to make bold changes. The world will look to us as a model for how to heal, unite, and grow.