When I arrived in the United States after World War II at age 16, I was very anxious to move on with my life and not let my experiences during the Holocaust define me. I got a job in a grocery store and with help from my brother-in-law, I rented a room from a Hungarian family so I could be independent. That helped because I spoke Hungarian. My biggest problem was I did not speak or understand a word of English. So, I enrolled in night school. I was taught English, but also learned about US history and the Constitution. The teacher, Mrs. Durst, was a very nice, elderly lady who stressed how great American democracy is, that we are a country of laws. I knew about democracy because I grew up in Czechoslovakia and I went to Czech schools until the fourth grade. Then the war started and our school was closed.
My teacher observed how anxious I was to learn English and to learn about the United States, so she suggested I read the New York Times to improve my vocabulary. I read the paper, as advised, even though there were many words I did not know. In one article, there was a sentence referring to “Jim Crow” laws in the South. The teacher explained to me that they were practiced in the southern states. In the South, she told me, black people were not allowed to walk alongside a white person on the sidewalk, etc. I asked her to explain how it could be possible that President Lincoln had freed the slaves 150 years ago and that according to the Constitution “all men are created equal,” and still black people were deprived of their equality. She explained that it was a state’s rights decision. I asked her how that could be possible, and how that did not violate the person’s rights under the Constitution.
So I used this analogy: If I resided in Alabama or Georgia and wanted a passport to go overseas, where would I apply? She replied that I would be applying to Washington, DC. I pointed out that US government law supersedes states’ laws, and the states should be forbidden to pick and choose which laws they adhere to. So how was it possible for some states not to live by the laws of the country?
I also noticed that in the northern states like New York or New Jersey black people were not always treated as equals, even without Jim Crow laws being enforced. As I started reading books and other publications, I soon discovered that even the United States did not live up to the freedom it boasted about. The teacher agreed with me, but then she explained again that it was still a state’s right. At the grocery store where I worked, our customers were both whites and African Americans, and we treated everyone with respect. We tried to accommodate all of our customers’ food preferences, so we brought in vegetables from the South and many cuts of meat. Then during the Korean War, I was drafted into the army and stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia. After a month of basic training we got our first weekend pass and were allowed to go into town. Everyone was excited to go and have a beer, etc.
There were several black soldiers in our barrack. One man, Willie, was from Paterson, New Jersey, and was billeted near me. We asked him to come to town with us but he refused. No matter how much we coaxed him, he refused. So we went without him. When we got on the bus, we noticed all the black soldiers were seated in the back of the bus and we realized why Willie had refused to go to town. Even if he had come, he would not have been allowed to enter the bar with us. And yet, the merchants in town made their income from the people on the base. I encountered another incident after this. I befriended a black soldier from Alabama. One day I came back from work and he was crying. I asked him what happened and why was he so upset. He told me he had gotten orders to ship out to Korea. I asked if most of the men were going. He said, “I’m going because I’m black.” I knew some fellas who worked in personnel, so the next day I asked a friend about this and he told me it was true. He explained that many of the captains and lieutenants who made these decisions were from the South, and they did this on purpose.
As years went by, I saw progress in civil rights for both Jewish people and black people in the United States, which I thought was long overdue.
Then, in 2017, the rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was a wake-up call that meant, to me, that we had not shed the faults of the past. To see some Americans marching with swastikas was scary. I kept thinking, “How am I seeing this in the United States we feel so proud of? How can we teach others that our democracy is great?”
As a volunteer at the Museum, I speak to students all over the country and I’m always proud to see how caring they are and the ways they interact with each other. They want to learn about the Holocaust and try to understand, and that tells us that we are doing a good job teaching and educating our young. If we will resolve to get back to the values we say we believe in, we can live up to the values of our country.
©2018, Martin Weiss. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.