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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Don’t forget your own history

Photos of immigrants who were among the millions to enter the United States at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954. —
Photos of immigrants who were among the millions to enter the United States at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1954. — 123RF Stock Photo

No matter how comfortable you are, how privileged, looking backwards is a valuable thing.

It’s especially valuable when there are people busy making arguments for why people here shouldn’t have to share anything.

My family, on my father’s side, has been in North America since shortly before the Russian revolution. Both my grandfather, Konstanty Wangersky, and my grandmother, Anna Kozak, came through the well-known point of entry at Ellis Island in New York City, where immigration officials changed my grandfather’s name phonetically from the Cyrillic alphabet to its American equivalent — an arbitrary spelling to say the least. But more on that later.

My grandfather found work in a shoe factory (and remember, all of this is from the oft-hazy and imperfect land of family lore), using a heavy, hot round iron to set shoe-tops into the proper shape for shoes, my grandmother worked sewing.

Eventually, they married and saved enough to buy a small mixed farming operation in Woonsocket, R.I. My father, their only child, was born in 1927, and worked his way through university to a PhD as a chemical oceanographer.

It would be tempting to call that a textbook case of working hard to reach the American dream, both for yourselves and for your offspring.

But it was also very much a case of penniless refugees fleeing their home for a chance at a better life, something that still happens today. Many people have that kind of backstory — but we handily forget that our relatives were able to escape religious and other forms of persecution when we see others trying to come here to do the same thing.

Back then, there were people who tried to close the immigration gates, just as they do now.

Would his father have survived if he hadn’t escaped Russia? No.

They turn a blind eye to what a difficult decision it must be to leave the only place you’ve ever known, even when that place is likely going to mean an early death.

My father, meeting with his doctor for a medical workup, was asked to go back through his family tree to see if there were any genetic predispositions towards diseases in the family. Problem was, as Dad put it, he couldn’t find anyone on his side of the family who had died of natural causes. Not even one. Childhood disease? Yes. Epidemics? Yes. All manner of violent deaths? Yes — everything from being cut down with a sabre to shootings to being burned alive in buildings and barns.

The village my grandfather came from was in an area that was swapped back and forth by eastern European nations, and wartime deaths were common, as were retaliatory slaughters.

But histories of cancer? Heart disease? No one survived long enough.

Our last name? In the days before the internet, wherever my father travelled, he would open the local phone book and search the Ws for potential relatives. He didn’t find anyone, not even once. On a trip to what was still then the Soviet Union, he went to the site of his father’s village, trying to find anyone his father might have known. There was no one — in fact, there was no town. It had been razed, even the graveyard, for a wheat farming collective. Everyone who had been there was either dead or long gone.

Would his father have survived if he hadn’t escaped Russia?


And back to my grandparents.

They worked hard, prospered and eventually sold the farm to land developers. They then retired to Florida, where they were always ready for hard times, caching coins and currency in out-of-the-way bolt-holes, making sure they were ready just in case heaven turned back to hell.

And one last thought.

My grandfather put salt on everything; chided for even putting salt on his ice cream, he pointed out that, in America, he was rich enough to put salt on anything he wanted to. In the Prypiackija baloty, the Belarussian Pripet Marshes, he had been too poor to have salt.

Think on that.

We are where we are, often through good luck and hard work and all the benefits of the accident of our birth. But rarely is it from our personal efforts alone, no matter how much we’d like to pretend otherwise.

Recent columns by this author

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Chicken soup as therapy

RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Staying in the fight against hate

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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