Emma Lazarus called her the “Mother of exiles” who cried, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Today 40 percent of Americans claim an ancestor who immigrated past the Statue of Liberty. On the eve of her centennial in 1986, their descendants look back:
To really understand, you have to look through someone else’s eyes,” Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca says of his parents’ odyssey from tiny San Marco, Italy to America. Like 25 million people who fled or were driven from their native shores from 1885 to 1935, 12-year-old Nicola Iacocca, alone and terrified, passed under Liberty’s outstretched arm and into chaotic Ellis Island in 1902. He spoke no English and, like most hardworking immigrants, pinned his hopes on his young son (with Nicola, left), who fulfilled the dreams.
Like his two siblings, Mario Cuomo began his working life at a tender age at his father’s corner store in south Jamaica, Queens: In the photo below are Mario, 3, his mother (center), father (right) and two neighbors. Nearly 50 years later, as Governor of New York, Cuomo acknowledged his immigrant family as the source of his deepest political beliefs. A society, he declared at his inauguration in 1983, should strive for “the same obligation to senior citizens,” the same “shameless, bold patriotism, the same respect for work” that his parents, Andrea and Immaculata Cuomo, had so ably demonstrated to him.
Four decades earlier Andrea had come to America from the Mezzogiorno in southern Italy. Within a year he had saved enough money by digging sewers in Jersey City to bring over his 25-year-old wife and their first son, Frank. After teaching himself to count, Andrea bought the small store in a melting pot Italian-Black-German-Irish-Polish neighborhood of Queens. There he worked from dawn, when he made sandwiches for construction crews, until midnight, when he sold snacks to the night shift at the factory across the street. “He didn’t have time to talk to us,” says Cuomo. “But the message that got delivered was, ‘Let me tell you where I come from, how hard it was. You see the way we work. This is the reason that we’re here, to see if we can’t improve ourselves.’ ”
In 1982, nearing the end of his grueling campaign for governor, Cuomo returned to Antun’s restaurant in his “gentle” old neighborhood. “You could look out over this sea of underdog faces, all my friends, people who didn’t know anything about politics but supported us,” he remembers. “And somebody shouted, ‘We’re gonna beat ’em!’ And I said, ‘Yes we are, and don’t let anybody tell you different. Because that’s the kind of people we come from.’ And the people in Antun’s exploded. They shouted and they cried. Why? Because all the losers, all the refuse, all the people with nothing came here and built this incredible place in no time at all. It didn’t happen to their mothers or fathers or grandfathers. It happened to them. This was the American experience, and every one of them knew it.”
No matter how many years they lived here, some immigrants could never shake the fear that they might be sent back. Ed Asner’s father, Morris (above right with his brother Isaac in 1902), had been in Kansas City for 50 years when one weekend in 1944, unable to find his naturalization papers, he panicked. “His anxiety was so great that the following Monday we were at the Federal Building so he could take out new ones,” recalls Ed’s sister Eve. Morris had fled Lithuania and an uncaring stepmother in 1894. Settling in Kansas City, he scraped together enough for a pony and cart, using them to collect scrap iron to sell. “This was El Dorado to him,” says Ed. “The only things he said he liked better in the Old World were the buildings and the fruit.”
Novelist Mary (Men and Angels) Gordon visited Ellis Island last May while writing an article about the place where her grandmother Mary Gorman landed from Longford, Ireland in 1896 at 17. “All I could imagine was what a frightening, humiliating, alienating experience it must have been for those people,” says Gordon, 36 (below with her mother and grandmother). Spilled onto New York’s docks with thousands of other immigrants, Mary Gorman found work as a domestic, taught herself how to use a sewing machine and eventually became a master seamstress at Macy’s (she sewed sleeves for music-hall star Lillian Russell’s costumes). “She had nine children, raised a family on Long Island and had pigs and chickens in the backyard,” says Gordon, who is planning a novel about successive generations of immigrants, of her namesake. “Three of her children had polio, and if anybody in the neighborhood had a mother who was dying or sick, my grandmother just took those children in. She was a woman of tremendous practical charity. But she didn’t believe in talking. She was not the kind to sit by the fire and tell warm stories about the old sod.” Still, Gordon managed to inherit a fair amount of Irish nationalism. Once, young Mary was invited to visit at a friend’s house. “My grandmother had trained me to thumb my nose at the TV and make a rude noise when they played the British anthem,” recalls Gordon. “My friend’s parents were completely horrified, and I can remember them saying, ‘But we’re English.’ ”
The long voyage to America often held special terrors for children who had left family, friends and familiarity behind. In 1908 a 4-year-old English boy named Leslie Townes Hope cried, kicked and screamed as the ship he was aboard steamed into New York Harbor. “The only thing I remember about arriving at Ellis Island was being chased around the ship,” says 82-year-old Bob Hope (below left with two of his five brothers: Fred, center, and Jack). “I didn’t want to be vaccinated. One of my brothers had to nail me down until somebody could give me the shot. I was dramatic in those days.”
A year earlier, Hope’s stonemason father, William Hope, had come to Cleveland, where he had been commissioned to build a church. He wrote his wife, Avis, “It’s gorgeous, and America’s the place to come.” So he sent for his wife and their six sons, who were stunned by their father’s creation. “The church was so beautiful that when we saw it we changed our religion from Episcopalian to Presbyterian,” says Hope, who adds, with understatement, “I’ve had great luck here.”
” ‘The children come first.’ It was her epitaph,” says 59-year-old child psychologist Lee Salk of his steel-willed immigrant mother, Dora. If sheer strength of nurturing could propel children to prominence, Dora Salk (above with husband Daniel and their sons) was a maternal wonder woman. Her first son, Jonas (left), would discover a polio vaccine; her second son, Herman (right), a veterinarian, would devote himself to helping preserve livestock in the Third World; and her youngest, Lee (center), would become a child-rearing expert like his mother.
When she arrived in America at age 12 in 1901, Dora Press had known little but hardship. Her father had come to America from a village near Minsk to prepare the way for his wife and eight children. His family’s departure became a desperate matter when rioters overran Minsk in a pogrom against Jews. “My mother described the horsemen burning the village,” says Lee Salk. “Her mother dressed two or three of the sons as girls because all males were being conscripted. Then she hid all the children under hay in wagons. Border guards, who suspected escapes, took pitchforks and dug them into the hay.” Luckily the guards missed, and the Press family survived to make the three-week voyage to New York in the bowels of a passenger ship. “She told us about the smell, the crying babies, the sick people with no medicine,” says Salk. “The crew would open the hatch from above and the first-class passengers would look down as if these people were animals and throw bread and scraps of food to them. But whatever they went through, she couldn’t have cared less. It was bringing the future, her dreams.”
Young Dora Press labored in a sweatshop on New York’s Lower East Side for 11 years before marrying an American, Daniel Salk, who was in the garment business. After that she devoted herself to her sons, whose education was the prized goal. “She would repeat over and over to us, ‘No matter what you have in life, it can be destroyed. But what you know can never be taken from you.’ ” Years later, when his brother’s discovery of the polio vaccine was announced, Lee called up his mother. “I said to her, ‘You must be so excited; Jonas’ portrait is on the cover of TIME.’ And she said, ‘Too bad it didn’t show him smiling.’ No matter what the achievement, she always liked to see her children happy.”
In 1885 Joseph Steinem, a wealthy brewer from Toledo, Ohio, traveled to Germany in search of a bride. He found one: Pauline Perlmutter, 19, who disapproved of drinking and agreed to marry on the condition that he sell his brewery. He did, becoming a realtor.
Gloria Steinem remembers visiting Grandmother Pauline, a neat, stout woman with Oriental carpets on the floor of her home and a clock ticking on the mantelpiece. After bearing Gloria’s father and three other sons, Pauline founded the first vocational school in Toledo and was the first woman on the local school board. Ironically it was only a few years ago, when a feminist scholar sent a monograph she had written on Pauline, that Steinem discovered that her grandmother had also been a suffragist.
The other side of Gloria’s family arrived in even more dramatic fashion. In 1854 Theodore Nuneviller, her maternal great-grandfather, was aboard the New Era, bound from Bremerhaven to New York, when it broke up in a storm off New Jersey. Nuneviller lashed himself to the mast and was saved.
Gloria says she has only belatedly appreciated her forebears’ experiences: “When I saw the movie America, America by Elia Kazan about his immigrant uncle, it made me understand the incredible insecurity of having to start life all over again in a new land. That we are such a diverse people trying to live together is what I treasure most about this country.”