The New Colossus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Emma Lazarus, November 2, 1883
I can only imagine what my grandmother felt when she first saw Lady Liberty as her ship entered New York Harbor on a spring day in1920. I don’t know if she ever read Emma Lazarus’ words; she couldn’t read English yet, although she was fluent in Yiddish, Polish, and German. But whether or not she ever read these words, she felt them every time she was confronted with anything marvelous and new in her adopted, much-loved, country. “Ay, America!” she’d exclaim, with wonder and appreciation.
Immigrants have very seldom been given the welcome promised by the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. Each new wave of people has been greeted by prejudice and suspicion, admitted grudgingly. And each new wave of immigrants has contributed mightily to this country. Every person in the United States today is an immigrant, unless they’re descended from Native Americans. Yet as each group of people arrives, many of those who came earlier forget that their ancestors or they themselves were once in need of a safe harbor—safe from wars, poverty, tyranny. Lots of us remember, though, as we must. Maybe someday we can make Ms. Lazarus’ words a fact for everyone who still looks to America as a beacon of light to the future.
As I work on revising and polishing, Riva’s Journey, my Grandma’s story of leaving Europe to make a new life for herself and her children in America, I gain fresh appreciation of her incredible courage and determination. America didn’t exactly welcome her, but they let her in.