Narratives of Perseverance: Immigrant Heritage Month
In honor of Immigrant Heritage Month, and in an attempt to lift up the contributions of a wave of immigrants who came to the United States more than 120 years ago, I offer this brief look at my Jewish ancestors’ journey to this new land. Although I have never had the experience of being a stranger in a strange land, I marvel at the bravery and sense of adventure that my great grandparents must have had to have made such a potentially perilous, utterly mystifying voyage to this new world.
My paternal grandparents, about whom I know quite little, came to this country when they were toddlers from Lithuania and Romania, both from large families where my paternal great grandfather was a blacksmith. They were very poor when they came to this country and eventually settled in Webster, Massachusetts, where my grandfather, Philip Lavine, owned a shoe store. My father, Richard Lavine, who passed away in November at the age of 89, worked at the Federal Trade Commission, after which he worked in private practice as a corporate lawyer. More importantly, to him and to me, he was an accomplished musician, playing the saxophone and clarinet, and published two novels after he retired.
My maternal great grandparents came from a community outside Riga in Latvia, on one side, and a small town in Hungary on the other. In a sadly familiar effort to downgrade the accomplishments of immigrants in their mother country, my great grandfather, Edward Martinson, had been a merchant in Europe before he came over; in New York, at Ellis Island, he was listed as a “clerk.”
My grandfather, Herman Martinson, the youngest of 9 children all born in Riga, graduated from CCNY in 1911 and from Columbia University Physicians & Surgeons Medical School in 1916, interned at Mt. Sinai and then went into the Army as a Second Lieutenant. He was sent to England at the end of 1918 when the war was ending, and then to France and Germany with the Occupation Army. He married Sylvia Eichler on October 19, 1919. Tragically, after building a thriving career as a doctor in New York City, he died on the operating table during a routine surgery in 1934, when my mother was only 10 years old. My mother, Eileen Martinson Lavine, was a journalist, a woman business owner, editor and writer, who, since officially retiring, continues to write and edit for Moment Magazine and has an astoundingly active, vibrant life in Bethesda, Maryland. She will be 91 in December.
These details of lives well lived highlight the many and vast ways that we all make sense of our lives as existing at the intersections of identities, locations, heritages, occupations and the intangible idiosyncrasies that make us who we are. To my knowledge, none of my ancestors lived as lesbians, gay men, bisexuals or transgender individuals. But they did raise my parents to be exceptionally accepting, loving, inquisitive, intelligent people who cared deeply for their children; who supported, financially and emotionally, the causes I championed throughout my life; and who welcomed the stranger, the “other”, the outsider into their homes with open arms.
Every immigrant story is unique unto itself. And, every immigrant story has in common stories of adventures in new countries; perils unknown and known. Many of those stories include humiliations at being denied the dignity of their careers as entrepreneurs, doctors, lawyers or other vocations in their mother countries only to be reduced to whatever jobs they could take when they arrive in the United States. This country is as rich and varied as it is because of these narratives of perseverance. There are countless tales of hard work rewarded and thwarted, of falling down and being picked up again by that community of friends and strangers who recognize in the particulars of each and every life a grand story of desire and hope, fear and anxiety, and of the human experience lived out loud: proud and strong. Let’s raise a glass to our immigrant ancestors, to the undocumented and heroic among us, who risk everything to better their lives and to envision a life for their children that embraces the intersections of all that we are!
by Amy Lavine, National LGBTQ Task Force Foundation Giving Manager