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The Journey of One Immigrant
It was winter and Canada was in recession when I arrived as a new immigrant. Finding work when many Canadians were unemployed was a challenge because employers were looking for Canadians, not immigrants who may move on to someplace else. I was unemployed for five months, living in a boarding house, and had no money when I finally found work. There were no government unemployment benefits.
The work was picking strawberries, digging potatoes, painting houses and manually hauling large boxes of fragile scientific equipment in a warehouse. By the end of the first year I was sharing two rooms in an old house with another immigrant, who slept on a sofa in the small kitchen, and I had some money in the bank.
It was twelve years after the end of World War II and millions of displaced persons had immigrated to North America from Europe. In Canada they were referred to as “DPs” and I was put in that category even though I wasn’t a refugee or from Europe.
The DPs I met in Canada were educated, skilled, willing to work and happy to be there. They quickly became assimilated within the community. Many had lost their family, home, possessions, town or city but not their dignity. There was little work in Europe except clearing the rubble and rebuilding the houses and factories. The DPs sought a new life in Canada and the USA, countries with similar values, ethics, religious beliefs and morals.
Everyone’s life has turning points when you change direction, later wondering if you had taken the right path and how life may have been if you hadn’t changed course. Turning points occur because of unexpected opportunities or events, changes forced on you, a need to get away from something, or you simply were in the right or wrong place at a particular time.
The first major turning point in my life that I recall occurred after the death of my ninety-two year old grandmother when I was sixteen. My grandmother had looked after me for two years during the war while my mother was in hospital and rehabilitation for tuberculosis. I started school during that time and my grandmother made sure I went every day and wore clean underwear. She told me about her life as a poor farmer’s wife and descendant of immigrants. A year later, when my mother died suddenly at the age of forty-nine, I had lost the two people who greatly influenced my life.
A period in the Army as a conscript convinced me I didn’t want a career in the military so I immigrated to Canada to start a new life and get away from the old. It was from there, one and a half years later, I decided to go to Europe.
After a ninety-nine day, ninety-nine dollar Greyhound bus ride, exploring the USA and sleeping most nights on the bus, I departed from New York on a ship to England to begin an eight month journey through Europe and Morocco. I traveled with friends from Canada and Australia, sharing the cost of an old VW Kombi Van and a tent, staying occasionally in youth hostels.
Learning history in high school, watching movies, reading books and studying maps did not prepare me for Europe. Today, Europe is a collection of countries trying to work together for their common economic benefit as part of the European Union. In 1959, it was a Continent of separate, highly independent countries. The only things they had in common were fear of another war, distrust of the USSR and suspicion of the motives of the USA. England did not see itself as part of Europe. Russia, which occupied Eastern Europe, and the USA with its huge military presence in Germany were vying to control or influence all of Europe. I see some of those things today.
It was ten years after the Berlin blockade that ended the Four Power cooperation and the unity of Germany and Berlin. The reconstruction of Europe was well underway but the vacant blocks, ruins of old buildings and the noticeable absence of young men, were stark reminders of the ravages of war. Germany was divided into four sectors, each controlled by one of the Allied powers, USA, England, France and the USSR.
Berlin was a Four Power controlled city, 100 miles from the West German border in the middle of the Russian zone. Travel to Berlin from West Germany was difficult but once there it was easy to travel from the American, British and French zones to the Russian sector in East Berlin. Eight months before we arrived, Berlin was the scene of another major international crisis. Nikita Khrushchev had issued an ultimatum to the three western powers, giving them six months to turn West Berlin into a “demilitarized free city” or Russia would sign a peace treaty with East Germany.
We arrived in Berlin two months after the expiration of the Russian ultimatum, which marked the beginning of the long Cold War between east and west, when Russia’s intentions were still not known. It was two years before the erection of the Berlin Wall along the border of the old Soviet and Allied sectors.
Vienna also had been a Four Power city from the end of World War II until 1955. The 1949 Orson Wells movie The Third Man, had raised my interest in Vienna and provided an (Hollywood) insight into life under the Four Powers. The Hungarian Revolution in 1956, brutally suppressed by Soviet troops, had forced more than 250,000 refugees to flee the country, most of them via the river crossing into Austria. Three years later there still were refugee camps in Austria, near the border with Hungary. We made friends with several young refugees who invited us into their camp.
Generalissimo Francisco Franco was in power in Spain, where he had been the dictator since 1939, and his authoritarian Government ruled the country with an iron fist. Franco lived in the grand Pardo Palace, outside of Madrid, while his Guardia Civil patrolled the city streets, country roads and the coastline in pairs equipped with submachine guns. They broke up any small group who had gathered to talk. The ruthless Portuguese dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, was still in power following a military coup in 1926 and he maintained tight control over Portugal. Movement across country borders throughout Europe was tightly controlled.
Morocco had become independent in 1956 and while the small Spanish-controlled international zone surrounding Tangier had been reclaimed, it was still an area of considerable tension between the new government and the French and Spanish authorities. Tangier was the center of crime, smuggling and the sale of illegal goods. We had no trouble buying papers to allow us to bring the old VW into Morocco. Casablanca was nothing like the 1942 movie and we did not find Rick’s Place, because it didn’t exist.
In the Maghreb villages, Maghrebis (Moors) and Berber horsemen performed their Fantasia (“gunpowder play”) at cultural festivals. Dressed in old costumes they charged in a line, stopping about 150 yards from the crowd, and fired their rifles into the sky to symbolize an attachment to tradition and opposition to change. I see a similar fantasy being played out today by politicians all over the world.
It was an exciting year to be in Spain. Ernest Hemingway was in the country writing for Life magazine about the mano y mano bullfights between Luis Miguel Dominguin and his brother-in-law Antonio Ordonez, two of Spain’s greatest matadors. Hemingway traveled with them across Spain to gather material for the story published in 1960 as The Dangerous Summer and we followed. I learned to drink cheap red wine from a goatskin bota, like the errant knight Don Quixote and his companion Sancho Panza. But did not become obsessed with the idea of destroying the wicked, bringing justice to the world and tilting at windmills, things we see today.
Living among the people in Western Europe and Morocco, before the tourists arrived and changed everything, was an experience beyond anything that could be learned at school. The experience changed my direction once more.
At the end of 1959, I returned to New York, determined to get serious about life and resume my education. I couldn’t immigrate to the USA as I wasn’t a refugee but I could study under a foreign student’s visa and work twenty hours a week. The friendly Immigration Department official suggested they had no way of knowing if I worked twenty hours or forty hours. He understood I needed to work to live and pay school fees.
Remembering my grandmother’s advice: “Nothing is too difficult if you try and work hard.” I walked the streets of New York until I found a job as a messenger with a foreign government. The job provided a work visa, so long as I worked for them, and later I transferred to a foreign student visa. My application for entry into Columbia University involved an entrance exam, a 3,000 word essay and an interview. I wrote about my interest in the economic development of Europe and Africa. Four years later my honors thesis was about the economic development of Appalachia.
I lived in Brooklyn above an Irish bar, bought my food at a Jewish corner store and had my hair cut by an Italian who spoke little English. We were all DPs who had come from different countries. They had disembarked at Ellis Island and I arrived in Manhattan on the SS United States with a bus ticket to Toronto, a 7-day transit visa and $25. By comparison to them and today’s immigrants, my journey was a simple one.
After six years of work and study in New York, during which time I married and our son was born, my student visa expired when I graduated. A work permit or green card was still not available, even though a major international bank offered me a job and sponsored my application. LBJ was President and a Congressman from New York wrote to him to support my application. The Immigration Department had different ideas and gave me 30 days to leave the country so I ended up where I started. I did not like the New York State wine anyway.
- Images: All of the images in this story were taken by the author, Ken Peacock.