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Randi Kreiss

Coming to America, from Ukraine


My grandfather Morris Brownstein fled the Russian Ukraine in 1912. We don’t know how he managed to travel from Russia to Antwerp, Belgium, but his name is on the passenger manifesto of the SS Zeeland, which left Belgium for the long crossing of the Atlantic to the U.S. He was 15 years old and he was alone.

What we do know is that he made his way to Brownsville, Brooklyn, became apprenticed to a tailor and found and married a second cousin named Anna.

In 1924 he applied for naturalization, was granted citizenship and was as proud of being a “yankee” as anyone who ever escaped oppression and found freedom on our shores.

I’m thinking about my grandfather today, and my Ukrainian heritage, because that long-troubled country is in the news, front and center. Compelling evidence has emerged that President Trump has used the fragility of Ukraine to pressure its leaders into investigating his political opponents. In a craven effort to co-opt a country in desperate need of American support, the president leaned in. His own words reveal his base immorality and his disregard for the oath he took to uphold the Constitution. “I would like you to do us a favor, though,” he said to the president of Ukraine, before offering military supplies.

My grandfather’s story is a rebuke to the Trump presidency.

For his first decade in America, Morris lived in Brownsville, specifically 422 Hopkinson Ave., where houses now sell for $500,000 and up. He lived in a tenement, probably without running water, possibly with dozens of other new arrivals.

According to Wikipedia, Brownsville was predominantly Jewish from the 1880s to the 1950s. An estimated 25,000 people lived there in 1900. Many of the buildings were grossly overcrowded, with up to eight families living in some two-family houses. Unpaved roads were used as open sewers.

In the early 20th century, the vast majority of Brownsville residents were immigrants. By 1920, when Grandpa Morris was living there, more than 80,000 of the area’s 100,000 inhabitants were Russian Jews, and Brownsville was known as “Little Jerusalem.” In the 1930s it was considered the most densely populated district in all of Brooklyn. It was also considered to have the highest density of Jews of any place in the United States through the 1950s.

Today, 107 years after Morris landed in his very own promised land, all that he came to love in America is being threatened from within by the machinations of our president.

Ukraine is a sovereign nation that is pulled between the magnetic poles of the West and Putin’s Russia. Historically, it has always been an uneasy homeland for Jewish people, from ancient persecutions to the pogroms of the last century. Still, if the burgeoning nation has a chance to escape the grasp of Russia and build on Western values, it would be a good thing. It follows that Trump’s insistence on co-opting the country for his political needs is reprehensible. He must be stopped. We owe that not just to our children and grandchildren, but to all who came first, who risked their lives to become Americans.

I believe that if a 15-year-old boy can travel across Europe, book passage on a ship and make a new beginning in a new world, then those of us who have reaped America’s bounty can find the resources to save this country from bad actors.

When Grandpa Morris signed his naturalization papers, his pledge was: “It is my bona fide intention to absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

Morris held himself to a higher standard than does our president. He was a better citizen, a better American, grateful to this country for blessings he never could have imagined as a child in war-torn Ukraine.

Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.