I am an immigrant! A legal immigrant!
My parents, Laszlo and Margaret Weiss, immigrated to America in 1925, and I came with them. I was 5 years old; my mother was 31, my father 36.
I was born in Budapest, Hungary, but my parents had returned to their hometown of Temesvar/Timisoara, Romania, which is in the province of Transylvania. The two names reflect the turbulent history of this city and province — Hungarian/ Romanian. Transylvania is a real place. Count Dracula and his castle are fiction, though they often get confused for reality. Since 1867, Transylvania had been a part of the Kingdom of Hungary, which was part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire.
In 1918, the Versailles Treaty ending World War I awarded the entire province of Transylvania to Romania. The population of this huge province has always historically been a mixture of Hungarians (Magyars), Romanians, Germans and Serbs. The loss of Transylvania, which was a significant part of prewar Hungary, meant the loss of 39,000 square miles (compare to Maine’s 35,385 square miles) and a diminished Hungary. Hungary was also in the throes of a Communist (red) insurgency to which there was a violent backlash, a (white) reign of terror that inevitably had a strong anti-Semitic component. So, my parents left Budapest and returned to their hometown of Timisoara. They were Hungarian and spoke Magyar, but they were also fluent in speaking and reading German but not Romanian. They fled for their lives.
Our visa to enter the United States arrived in 1925 after a wait of five years. We sailed on the Aquitania, one of the Cunard line’s trans-Atlantic steamships. The voyage took five days and we landed in New York. My father had an aunt in America who had sent us the required affidavit promising that we would not become a public burden. But this aunt lived in Seattle, and we never did get to meet her. We did not go to Ellis Island. But when we got off the ship there was no one to meet or guide us or to show us the ropes. My parents were totally unaffiliated; there was no group or organization under whose aegis we might fall.
So we were on our own, with very little money, since my parents came over on borrowed funds.
My father had taken a Berlitz course to learn basic English, so he thought he could manage. Unfortunately he could not, because, though he could read basic English, his Hungarian accent made communication well-nigh impossible.
So, how did they manage? I don’t know! How did they find their first apartment? I don’t know! But they did!
Our first apartment was a third floor, cold water flat on 62nd Street and Second Avenue in New York City. If you know New York, you know that that is now a dynamic, upscale, fashionable and desirable area. In 1925 it was a poor working class almost derelict area with the Second Avenue elevated train running down Second Avenue. You felt if you leaned out your window you could touch one of the trains roaring by. The toilet was outside in the hallway. The “kitchen” consisted of a counter, a stove, a sink and an icebox. There must have been some furniture because I remember a table in the kitchen where I had to be pinned down while my parents tried to give me an enema.
Father had to find a job; we needed money. In Europe my father had been a bookkeeper and my mother a clerk working for the streetcar company. They had a comfortable lower-middle-class life. They had family and friends. Only my parents had the courage, the spirit of adventure and perhaps the prescience to move into this new world. But the rest of the family and friends all stayed where they were.
My father’s first job in this country was in a restaurant doing whatever was required. My mother worked as a piecework operator in a curtain factory. Over the years we moved from Manhattan to Astoria to the Bronx and finally to Brooklyn.
Both my parents became fluent English speakers and gradually attained a comfortable life as members of the working class. They were both great readers. “The New York Times” was a daily staple, and my mother became something of an expert on the Civil War.
Each time he mailed a letter back to his mother, my father thanked God that it was the letter — not he — making the journey back!