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?