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March 30th, 2017

Insight

It could've been today

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Sept.17, 2015

 It could've been today

BOSTON, Feb. 10, 1921 -- There was nothing unusual about her. She was just one more of the millions desperate to make it into America before the gates would begin to swing shut with the first immigration quotas in 1924. Just one more passenger in steerage, her face blends in with all the others in the blurry old photograph, easy to overlook unless you're trying to find her. It's a face indistinguishable from those of all the others who left Eastern and Southern Europe for the Golden Land at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th.

She was a country girl traveling alone to the New World with not much more than the clothes on her back. But if you look closely at the picture, you can see, above the high cheekbones, in her eyes, in her look of absolute determination, the great treasure she was bringing with her to this country.

Those eyes are full of hope. And resolve. If hope failed, and there were times when it surely would, then resolve would not. But even if it did, God would not. If she didn't fulfill the American dream, then her children would, or her grandchildren, or their children. For this was America, tomorrow's country, not yesterday's. What mattered here was not who you were, but what you -- or your children -- would be. Every woman on that ship of sisters -- in Yiddish, her shiffshvesters, shared the same dream. She fit right in.

For that matter, she would fit right in with all those trying to claw their way across Europe today, fleeing the poverty and persecution they know all too well. But what do we know of America who only America know?

Only 19, Sarah Ackerman had grown up in the middle of what would become a raging battlefield till she didn't know who would show up on any given morning -- German, Russian, even Polish troops on rare occasion. She preferred the Germans, who were always correct, leaving scrip in payment for what they confiscated -- even if it was worthless. My mother was always one to appreciate a gesture. Besides, there might be some eligible Jewish boys in the German detachments in those days.

But then, after peace was declared, but only officially, came the German Freikorps, Russians red and white, and freebooters of every ideology or none. Then the only commanding officer in sight was General Chaos.

All the young girl who would become my mother knew was that she had to get out, head west, reach a port and find a ship to America. America! The way she would say the word itself, it sounded like a song, a prayer, a benediction. And nobody better say anything bad about America, not in her presence. She always had a gift for gratitude, my mother did, and America had taken her in. She never forgot that.

First she'd hopped a freight to Warsaw, where she would remember standing in front of the American embassy hour after hour, day after day, trying to get a visa. As each rumor came down the long line -- they were taking only families, or only single women, or only applicants with a trade -- she would use the rubber heels on her shoes to erase anything on her application that might keep her out. Finally through the line, precious visa in hand, she hitched a ride to Danzig, now Gdansk, to begin her stormy passage across the Atlantic.

That was my mother, all right. Despite her diminutive height -- barely five feet tall -- she always carried herself like a field marshal. And wasn't about to let anybody or anything keep her out of the Promised Land.

Boston, like the rest of America, has changed considerably since my mother managed to reach the Port of Boston that February 10th, a date still celebrated in my family. But much about the city remains familiar to a regular visitor over the years. Like the wistful pause in the air these last days of Indian summer as the leaves and Red Sox prepare to fall. The Sox have already assumed their customary place in the American League cellar. And the tourists still crowd Freedom Trail, following in the footsteps of the Patriots of '76.

It's good to see that some things don't change, and that includes the local press. The feisty little Boston Herald, its tabloid verve renewed daily, still comes as a relief and refreshment after the incorrigibly respectable Globe, whose editorials have all the punch of cold soup. It's like reading a day-old copy of the New York Times, and its platitudes were none too fresh to begin with.

With no baseball stars to celebrate this dismal season, the sports pages must make do with young comers like the Sox' Xander Bogaerts, who's been enjoying a hitting streak. But that's about it. Which may explain why all the state's politicians have joined the crusade to vindicate Tom Brady, the over-inflated hero of the under-inflated football scandal. (Free Tom Brady! T-shirts are everywhere.) In a heroless age, we must celebrate any we can find, invent or imagine. The press, aka The Beast, must be fed daily.

But there is no shortage of things to celebrate this Labor Day weekend in Boston; the whole family has gathered here for the bar mitzvah of Sarah Ackerman Greenberg's great-grandson, for America continues to be bountiful. And today has brought us all back to the same port she finally got to in 1921. The voyage continues.

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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