Reclaiming what it means to be an American with big plans

Reclaiming what it means to be an American with big plans

Menachem Rosensaft
Menachem Rosensaft

NEW YORK — I was born in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany in 1948.  I am the son of two Polish Jews who survived the Nazi death and concentration camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.  I was stateless for the first 14 years of my life and settled in the United States with my parents at the age of 10 after we had lived in Switzerland for eight years.

One of the unique qualities of this country, I always believed, was that from the day I became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1962, I have been as much an American as anyone whose family has lived here for generations.  The same is true for so many others of us who have come to the United States from foreign shores “yearning to breathe free.”

As a child in Montreux, Switzerland, I knew that I was, if not a stranger, certainly an outsider.  My Swiss classmates belonged.  I did not and never would.  This was a simple, incontrovertible reality. 

This is not to say that the New York City of my adolescence was free of discrimination — far from it.  There were buildings on Fifth and Park avenues that did not let in Jews. African-Americans lived in their own neighborhoods, and not by choice.

But still, my new home was light years away from the largely homogeneous Switzerland.  While WASP grandees named Harriman and Rockefeller occupied the governorship of New York, Jacob K. Javits, a liberal Jewish Republican who had grown up on the Lower East Side was one of New York’s U.S. senators, and another liberal Republican Jewish politician, Louis Lefkowitz, was the New York state attorney general.  Across town, an African-American, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., was an influential member of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

This was at the outset of the civil rights movement, before the women’s rights revolution, and before what was supposed to be the crumbling of the remaining walls of intolerance and bigotry.

It is depressingly disconcerting, therefore, to hear the cacophony of voices from the political right accusing the president of the United States of not being “American,” of being somehow foreign.  U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) comes to mind.  He said earlier this year that “in his heart,” President Obama is “not an American. He’s just not an American.”  Rush Limbaugh echoes these sentiments when he brays that President Obama “hates this country.”    

Every time the patriotism of President Obama or a member of his administration is put into question, we turn the clock back to the McCarthy era.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are among the very few on their side of the ideological divide who are willing to publicly repudiate reprehensible attacks on the “other” by the likes of Limbaugh and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).  When President Obama is publicly derided as a “monster” at a Republican campaign rally, it is woefully inadequate for Gov. Romney to say only that, “That’s not a term I would use.”  

All of which brings me back to my own experience of becoming an American.  My parents sent me to the Ethical Culture-Fieldston Schools in New York City.  There, I discovered that being truly American meant to be inclusive, to be tolerant of other backgrounds, of other views.

Addressing the student body at the 1997 Founder’s Day, Dr. Matthew Ies Spetter, the longtime head of Fieldston’s Ethics Department, recalled that the school’s original mission was “the care for human beings; their dignity; their chance to build better lives. Those are still our ideals, seeking to build justice and to affirm hope. …  People have to meet each other with openness so that they can seek what is the best in themselves and thereby they create something that is sacred, that is holy.”

Our teachers at Fieldston imbued us with an appreciation of ethical behavior:

• History Department chair John A. Scott was an English-born, Oxford-educated scholar who received both a Purple Heart and U.S. citizenship while serving in the Army during World War II.  He became an early activist in the civil rights movement.

• Frances Grant, who taught us Latin, was the first African-American woman admitted to Phi Beta Kappa at Radcliffe College.  She also completed the New York Times crossword puzzle every day in pen.

• English teacher Irwin Kafka had previously been a member of the New York Police Department.

• My Spanish teacher, Magda Woss, fled to the United States from Vienna after Hitler’s 1938 annexation of Austria.

• English teacher Ida Shimanouchi, a Japanese American, was “relocated” to an internment camp following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

• Dr. Spetter, a member of the Dutch underground during World War II, survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

As far as I and, I daresay, most of my classmates were concerned, these and our other teachers collectively embodied what it meant to be “American.”  They taught us, in words and by example, to respect those who are different from ourselves, and they helped to shape our moral and political consciousness. 

Sixty-two years ago, at the height of McCarthyism, Republican Sen. Margaret Chase of Maine declared, “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism.”

The tolerance and fundamental decency my elementary and high school teachers taught us epitomize “the basic principles of Americanism” to which Sen. Smith referred.  The politicians and commentators who vilify President Obama as not being sufficiently “American” pervert the very meaning of the term. 

(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)