Sink or Swim in America
Opening chapter of my upcoming book about the immigrant experience in America:
“Come on, swim to me!”
Water clogged my ears and I could barely hear my father, who had thrown me into the middle of Labe (Elbe) River in Czechoslovakia. Although I was nine years old, I had not learned to swim and now I was terrified of sinking to the bottom and never resurfacing. Having spent much of the Second World War hiding from the Nazis, I had not had opportunities to participate in waterside recreation. But now the war was over, and my parents and I were catching up on life.
Our German shepherd, Alma, jumped into the water next to me, and I imitated her by paddling furiously with all fours against the current. Ever so slowly, we advanced toward shore. Finally, triumph! Papa wrapped his muscular arms around me and squeezed me against his chest while Alma barked happily.
“You’re a swimmer now,” my father said, a smile spreading on his handsome face. “Not only that—you’re a brave boy.”
I could not have been prouder of myself. My war-hero father who had only recently returned from more than five years of fighting against the Germans, just complimented me!
Following a couple of happy post-war years, we escaped just two weeks after the Communist take-over of the Czechoslovak government. The Soviet quislings had declared my father an enemy of the state for having fought with the western Allies and both my parents for being “bourgeois capitalists.” We evaded armed border guards and—for a terrifying three hours—stumbled through a dark forest into the US Zone of Germany, carrying our remaining worldly possessions inside three suitcases and a bundle of blankets. Once on the safe side of the Iron Curtain, we spent fifteen months in refugee camps while awaiting visas to enter the United States.
On May 30, 1949, Papa and I stood on the deck of an American Liberty ship, two of several hundred immigrants staring out at a beautiful lady standing on a pedestal, wearing a flowing robe and spiked crown, holding a book in her left hand and a torch in her raised right hand.
“That’s the Statue of Liberty,” Papa said solemnly. “Remember this moment for the rest of your life. That lady is a symbol of everything your mother and I want for you in America—happiness and freedom to be whatever you want to be.”
“Do you remember how I taught you to swim after the war?” Papa asked in Czech after a long pause, as the New York skyline emerged from the morning mist. “We waded into the river and then I threw you into the middle. You had two choices: sink and drown or figure out how to swim back to me. You learned fast and you were brave. Life in America is going to be a lot like that. You’re going to be thrown into the river and will have to swim in order to survive.”
I was thrown into the metaphorical stream much sooner than I anticipated.
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