I remember him (barely) as a thin, bald, little old man with a white mustache and a cane. As I write this, I’m looking at a photo of him in 1947, holding the hand of little Tommy Engelhardt who had just turned three that very July day. They’re on a street somewhere in Brooklyn, New York, Tommy in shorts and a T-shirt and his grandfather, Moore (that wasn’t his original name), wearing a suit and tie. It’s hard to imagine him as the young Jewish boy from the Austro-Hungarian Empire who ran away from home — somewhere in modern-day Poland — after reportedly “pulling the Rabbi’s whiskers” in a dispute. By his own account, he spent two desperate years working to scrape together the money for passage alone in the steerage of a ship from Hamburg to America and finally made it here in the early 1890s with the equivalent of a 50-cent piece in his pocket. And he was a lucky man.
He died when I was five, but sometimes I try to imagine him arriving in New York harbor and seeing that lady, the Statue of Liberty, for the first time. A century and a quarter later, I still wonder what, at that moment, he dreamed of when it came to the country that would indeed welcome him (though his life, in those early years, was — at least as family stories had it — anything but easy). How could I imagine myself as I am now (a bald little old man with a white mustache) without him, without that moment? So today, as Donald Trump does his best to keep every imaginable modern version of my grandfather out of this country and eject so many of those “Moores” now living here, I wonder about the grim cruelty of our world.
I wrote this about my grandfather early last year and, of course, it still applies:
“In other words, my grandfather was a kind of nineteenth-century equivalent of a DACA kid (though without even parents to bring him here). Like so many other immigrants of that era, he made it to the United States from a shithole part of Europe… and he was lucky… A few decades later, Jews like him, or Slavs, or Italians, or Asians of any variety — the Haitians, Salvadorans, and Nigerians of that era — would essentially be put under the early twentieth-century equivalent of Donald Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ and largely kept by law from entering the country. In those days, the analog to Trump’s bitter complaints about Muslims and others of color was: Europe was ‘making the United States a dumping ground for its undesirable nationals.’ (So said Henry Fairfield Osborn, the then-president of New York’s American Museum of Natural History, in 1925.)”
So, as I focused on today’s chilling piece by TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg on the Trumpian assault on citizenship and so much else, I couldn’t help thinking about those 16-year-olds of our moment so desperately trying to make it to this country across our southern border, often alone, and just how they’ve been “welcomed,” as well as about the future Tom Engelhardts who will never come to be, at least not here in this — as Greenberg points out — increasingly walled-in and xenophobic land.