This Is How I Became An American

by Erika Sauter
Erika Sauter

My great-grandmother, Sarah, was born in Romania in 1901. She was the youngest of nine children. She grew up in poverty, uneducated and scared. She wore the same dress each day and her family survived off Latkas and broth. Some days they starved. As the First World War was approaching, they were often forced to remain in hiding as soldiers swept through the town.

When the war began in the summer of 1914, her father did everything he could to relocate his family to no avail, but he did manage to secure a single one-way ticket on a ship headed for America. The cost was $11, an unimaginable amount of money back then.

Sarah’s parents decided she should be the one to go. Being the youngest she’d be given the opportunity for safety with the expectation of carrying on family traditions and the beliefs she was raised upon.

They heard stories and believed America was a sanctuary. They told Sarah she would be able to live a flourishing life in the land of opportunity.

The day came in late 1914 when it was time for her to leave her family. They made passage to the port where the ship was leaving from. She could not bear the pain. In a breakdown of tears, she clutched onto her mother and refused to let go. They had no money to give her. She would be sailing off to a new land and a new life with nothing but the clothes she was wearing. It was that same dress.

She was 13 years old. She was a child.

A man, David Abramowitz, approached them on the dock. He, too, was traveling to America. He assured Sarah’s parents he would care for her on the journey and see to it she make it safely to America. Sarah felt comforted by this man. She hugged her parents farewell, and she and David boarded the ship. Sarah would never see or hear from her family again.

David Abramowitz was my great-grandfather.

After arriving on Ellis Island in New York, they stayed in a shelter area. They had nothing, knew no one, and knew of nowhere in America. They were given jobs. David worked in a printing press, and Sarah became a seamstress. They worked long and hard until they eventually had enough money to pay for a home of their own and leave the shelter.

They didn’t go far. They moved to the row house neighborhood in Ridgewood, Queens. Ridgewood was a prominent area for Eastern European immigrants. To this day, the neighborhood demographics are Romanian, Slavic, Polish, and Albanian.

They kept their jobs in the printing press and as a seamstress to provide for themselves and start their new life. They were now married and planned to start a family. They were living the American dream.

In 1922, Sarah gave birth to their first child, Gertrude, and in 1924, they had a second daughter, Blanche. Their daughters attended school where they learned how to speak English, a language different from Aramaic, a Hebrew dialect that was spoken by Sarah and David.

Then came the Great Depression. Before 1930, they were hardly making ends meet, but they never believed America had failed them. They knew they would somehow survive and provide for their family. They felt safe as Americans.

Then came the era of Hitler. Sarah feared for her family and missed them more than ever. She would pray for them at Temple and hoped they’d manage to escape and come to America to find her. They never did.

The years went by and their daughters grew up. Both girls married. Gertrude remained in Queens with her husband, and Blanche moved to Brooklyn with her husband.

Blanche Abramowitz was my grandmother.

She married my grandfather, Milton Salkind. Blanche was a housewife, and Milton worked for the United States Postal Service for 25 years after returning from World War II. In 1946, Blanche gave birth to a son, Benjamin, and in 1947, she gave birth to a daughter, Marlene. They raised their children in Brooklyn where Benjamin would marry, have two children, and remain living two blocks from where they was raised. Marlene married, had three children, and moved to Queens.

Marlene Salkind was my mother.

Sarah and David remained in Queens and loyal to their jobs. They were never rich, the exact opposite actually, and they never did anything truly great, but they made their contribution to America, as unimportant as a printing press and seamstress may seem. They were jobs needing to be done, and they did them. They were grateful for America, and they loved our country dearly.

I don’t have memories of my great-grandfather. I was too young when he passed away to remember, but I do have many memories of my great-grandmother.

She spoke broken English at the time she told me this story. I can remember the day vividly. She had given me a silk, pink dress with diamond-patterned fabric. It was that same dress she was wearing when she came to America. I was 12 years old.

She purchased my first bra for me when I was 13, and at 15 years old, she sat me on her lap and sang to me in Hebrew a song her mother had once sang to her. She was a tiny woman. I feared my weight would crush her.

I remember playing in the grass outside her front door with my brother when we were little. We sprayed the garden hose to cool down on a humid summer day. When we went in the house to dry off, I was hungered by the familiar smell of my great-grandmother’s homemade latkes.

I remember how hard I cried in 1989 when she passed away. She and my great-grandfather never did get ahead. She worked as a seamstress until the day she died.

Twenty years later, I would tell my own children the story of Sarah and David and how they came to America.

Generations of my family have served our great nation and fought in America’s wars — World War II, Vietnam, and Desert Storm. The bloodline of immigrants fighting for America.

We live in a much different America today than the America Sarah and David arrived to in 1914. My great-grandparents’ courage, strong will, and patriotism make me proud to be an American.

When my children reached school age, I began a tradition at the dinner table each night. I knew they would experience influences outside our home. I wanted to keep our communication open in hopes of guiding them. I wanted them to experience the good and protect them from the bad.

So it began, our tradition of going around the dinner table and taking turns sharing who we kissed that day, what we ate for lunch, one thing we learned, and one thing we’re grateful for. It was 2005 when we started doing this. My daughter was 9 and my son was 5.

Last night at dinner, when it was my turn I said, “I’m grateful America hadn’t built a wall in 1914 or passed an immigration ban because if they had I wouldn’t be an American. None of us would.”

I believe most Americans’ bloodlines originated in other countries. What would America be if not for this?

After dinner, I went up to the attic and pulled out a box with handwriting that reads, “The history of Erika.” I sat there looking through old photos of my great-grandparents. I draped my great-grandmother’s dress across my lap.

It occurred to me that I’m somewhat similar to them. I, too, had left my home to seek refuge from the cruelty and chaos of the city, just as they had left Romania. I now live in a small town with zero crime rate, where my neighbors are welcoming of us — a family who has traveled from a place they’ve never been. We’re gradually building a life here.

I sat in the attic and wondered, What will happen to America now? It breaks my heart to know it isn’t the same America Sarah and David believed in. It’s now the America I hope I can find within myself to believe in again.