That “Thankful to be an American” Thing

By Lloyd Graff

I lingered in the tourist bus while everybody else filed into the structure. Then I walked down the steps and began to deliberately strip off my layers of clothing. Warm coat, sweater, white shirt, under shirt. It was dark out, snow flurrying.

I wanted to shiver before I went into the building. I looked around the fenced-in area and saw the small homes had Christmas lights. Lublin, Poland, was outside of the building. Peaceful. Then I put my shirt back on and walked into Majdanek Concentration Camp to inspect its gas chambers. It was 1999.


Every day I take a few seconds to give thanks to God, my grandparents, and I don’t know who, for being born in America. It’s Thanksgiving on Thursday, but for me every day is a day of thanks to be an American.

I do not dwell on the Holocaust everyday, but it has made its imprint on me, and I know that the Nazis did not just exterminate Jews in Majdanek. They pushed Roma, and Poles, and others they weren’t fond of into the gas chambers and ovens, too.

I was born free in America at the end of World War II. My parents were born here. Their parents were not. Somehow they got here on crowded boats, came to Chicago because they knew people or had family who had come before them. Most were young, in their teens or even younger.

A lot of them married cousins. Many were arranged marriages and worked out badly, but divorce was a foreign idea. They had big families, and almost everyone lost a sibling very young.

I had the benefit of coming from survivors. I’ve had it easy. You could be poor in America and dig your way out. Education was available if you were bright or energetic. There was a GI Bill, and of course, it helped if you were white.

But this America that I have known has had all kinds of opportunities for everybody who grabs them.

I am grateful for so many things as I prepare for Thanksgiving. Just being alive, knowing that so many things I’ve endured, like Vietnam or a heart attack, could have killed me or left me despondent.

I’m grateful to have had a 50-year love affair with my wife, remarkable children and grandchildren who like to be with me. 

But that “being an American” thing is sure a big one. Happy Thanksgiving to you all.

Question: Does America still want the huddled masses? Should we?

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7 thoughts on “That “Thankful to be an American” Thing

  1. Larron Fritz

    Thank you too you too Lloyd.

    May you be joyful in the life you live,
    blessed by the blossoms of another Spring,
    and Loved by everyone that you know.

  2. Lloyd Graff

    Emma Lazarus’ Famous Poem at the Statue of Liberty

    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!”

  3. Robert Ducanis

    The United States has always had limitations on immigration. You might question the reasons, the quotas, the countries, etc. which have changed throughout the years, but there have always been laws on immigration, fair or unfair. The US gov’t allows access to immigration hopefully as a path to citizenship, but the security net now afforded to immigrants was never in existence in the late 1800s/early 1900s when immigration exploded from western, central, and eastern European countries.

    Both my paternal and maternal grandparents came from Poland, dirt poor. I think back then they may have had to have a ‘sponsor’ or relative already in the US to be able to gain entrance. My paternal grandfather was a machinist that worked for Ansonia Brass & Copper. He died at age of 42 leaving my grandmother destitute with 9 kids to provide for. There was no government aid back then. They struggled mightily without indoor plumbing/electricity for years until one of my uncles wired the house and installed plumbing as a teenager.

    My maternal grandfather worked as a janitor at Oil Well Supply, a division of US Steel. My grandfather and grandmother had 6 kids…5 survived. Of the 5 that survived, none were able to afford college. Their offspring (includes me) went on to top undergrad and graduate universities….West Point, Air Force Academy, Michigan, MIT, Yale, Notre Dame (3) Dartmouth, Florida, Penn (2), Duke Medical School, Ohio State Medical School, Wharton MBA (2), Dartmouth Tuck MBA, Ohio State MBA, Marquette, and Case-Western (2).

    The security net that the US now provides was not available when my grandparents and millions of other immigrants came over around the turn of the century. Of course, back then, the opportunities to make your fortune may have been more extensive than they are today.

    If you want to kill some time on your Thanksgiving holiday, the attached link to 2015 Pew Research article on the history of immigration should answer a lot of your questions.

  4. Lloyd+Graff

    How do you feel about the “huddled masses” flowing across the Rio Grande today?

    Happy Thanksgiving.


  5. Robert Ducanis

    Hi Lloyd,

    We are a country based on law. If the ‘huddled masses’ by the Rio Grande, enter the USA legally, then I am OK with it. If not, the laws on the books should be enforced. Those individuals illegally entering the country should be returned to the country of their origin. Heck, I am a born & raised US citizen and I’ve been questioned and scrutinized by US Border Patrol when just returning from trips to Canada with my US passport in hand.

    I find the following clip from ‘High Plains Drifter’ to be most appropriate in these situations…

  6. tc

    The invitation to “Give me your tired, your poor”, is an invitation from Euro-America. I wonder what the invitation from the native residents of the country would look like.

    As always, great writing and the invitation to ponder.

    Thank you for sharing Lloyd

  7. J.g kreslake

    Again, I enjoy this column far more for its insight by the posed questions than the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal. Yes, I am similarly thankful for the blessings bestowed in this country, and whose grandparents came here like your parents and RD’s, did settle in Chicago and later settled in California. Educational opportunities have made a big difference, and was stressed as a tool for success. The searing experiences of the first generations left their mark, and that effort and diligence are worth it. And it helped to anglicize the family names to eek past prejudicial practices, to have experienced continuous employment with a union contract, a pension, accumulated savings, benefited from timely tutoring, and located in an aspired local.

    With some 770,000 plus covid deaths here, there should be some vacancies that can be filled by the “huddled masses”. Perhaps going forward immigration policy and practices can be improved to mitigate the problems that exist on the southern border, the refugees of our allies, the talented eager to succeed. Reasonable people can do reasonable things. If corporate america returns to america , the multiplier (economic) can work here instead of overseas and provide many more thankful thanksgivings in the future.


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