Americans like to believe that this nation has been and still is a refuge for the “the homeless, tempest-tost,” where the dispossessed can find refuge and, after hard work, fulfill their dreams. The truth is complex, contradictory, and very often disappointing. But sometimes the promise of the “mighty woman with a torch” is fulfilled.
This column honors my father, Ralph Fischer, who died last week after a life that Emma Lazarus, author of the poem on the Statue of Liberty, would have found exemplary.
Born into a large, middle-class family in Poland, my father was a high school student headed toward a professional life when his world was destroyed by the German invasion of 1939. He survived the Lodz Ghetto and five years of Nazi labor and death camps – survived by fortitude, guile, bravery (reported by others, not him), and, as every survivor will attest, just luck. He was the only one of his family to leave the camps alive.
Finding no one left at home, he scrambled across Europe to Paris in search of distant kin. He settled there, balanced three factory jobs, married another survivor, and fathered a son. In 1952, my parents grabbed the chance, provided by extended kin, to come to the United States. In great measure, they sought refuge from the war clouds and lingering antisemitism of the Old World. We landed at Ellis Island as millions of the “huddled masses” had before us. Soon, a daughter, Cathy, arrived more directly.
A decade of work for my father as a presser and my mother as a seamstress in New Jersey garment factories yielded enough savings, combined with modest reparations and a family partner, to buy a small business in Los Angeles. The hardware and lumber store required yet more long hours, more physical labor, and great insecurity. A quarter-century later, my father was able to retire, American Dream fulfilled: a home, two college-educated children, enough resources to travel abroad, and the widespread affection of family and friends for his down-to-earth humor and warmheartedness. (A daughter’s recollections here.)
Sometimes the story works out just as it is supposed to, with opportunity, hard work, and luck.