By Catherine McCarthy
Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!’ cries she
With silent lips. ‘Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
-Emma Lazarus, The New Colossus, 1883
On October 28, 1886, President Grover Cleveland unveiled what would become the quintessential symbol of freedom recognized around the world: the Statue of Liberty. Seventeen years later, Emma Lazarus’s poem would be inscribed in a plaque at the base of the statue, becoming America’s invitation to the oppressed and downtrodden of the world to come and start anew.
As quoted in the New York Times, statue historian Barry Moreno explains “It was,” he recalled, “built to pay tribute to the United States of America, the Declaration of Independence, American democracy, and democracy throughout the world. It honored the end of slavery, honored the end of all sorts of tyranny and also friendship between France and America.”Only later, “letters were written home, word of mouth, taught people that you would see this wonderful goddess in New York Harbor when you arrived in America to welcome you.”
My grandfather, Petr, was one of the huddled masses, gazing upon this symbol of hope as he arrived at Ellis Island after being liberated by Allied troops from a German “re-education camp” during World War I. As a young teen in the Ukraine, he and his friend had been captured by Austro-Hungarian troops when they wandered away from their village, curious to see the battle raging not far from their homes. They were sent to a camp where young men like them were trained to be returned and act as spies for the Central Powers. But before their plans could be put in action, Allied troops advanced on the camp and liberated my grandfather and the others who had been stolen from their homes.
As the Allied troops interviewed the boys to find where they were from, they were surprised to hear my grandfather say, “Rhode Island”. My grandfather had been born on American soil, just prior to his parents returning to the Ukraine, and he misinterpreted their question as where he was born. Because the war still raged in the Ukraine, and because he was an American citizen, my grandfather was put on a ship to America.
He arrived on American soil virtually penniless, and because he was a citizen, he was not eligible for the assistance that was provided to new immigrants. He immediately sought work, and became a window washer on skyscrapers. I can still remember visiting him and my grandmother and playing with the red wax pencils he used to mark the windows that they washed. But what I remember the most was my grandfather’s fierce belief in the privilege of living in America. To not live in fear. To have the opportunity to dream of endless possibilities, and to have the chance to see them realized. He knew what it meant to not have hope. When he said we lived in the “greatest country in the world”, he meant it, heart and soul.
Over the years, I have heard many stories from those who fled from the horrors of World War II, the purges of Stalin, the Holocaust. Some stories I wish I could erase from my memory, so disturbing in their description on how we can dehumanize our fellow man. But each and every one of those tales reinforces that no matter what our current troubles in America, we don’t have to fear the knock in the night, that guns will be placed in the hands of our 8 year sons with instructions to kill people different from them, or that we’ll have to hear the wailing of infants dying of starvation.
As we celebrate our troops returning from Iraq this holiday season, we must remember that there are always those still “yearning to breathe free”. In Afghanistan, the Sudan, Somalia, North Korea. That our enduring belief that men deserve to live free threatens those who seek to control and degrade others, and that our brave men and women of the United States Military stand watch every day around the world to send the message that we are not afraid, and that we stand ready to welcome and support those who desire to live free.
Happy 125th Birthday to the Statue of Liberty. May you always be a source of hope for our sisters and brothers who suffer and dream of a better world.