This bag was made by my great-grandfather, who started working for Coach back when it was a small, unknown leather company. He, his wife, and my grandfather came here illegally in the early 50s by lying about their origins—the US was taking Western Europeans at the time but not Eastern Europeans. They bought their false papers in the black market of the displaced persons camp, where they had spent a few years after the Holocaust. Being Jewish, my grandfather was smuggled outside the ghetto, where he masqueraded as the child of a Christian family; my great grandmother hid in the woods, pretending to be deaf and mute to hide her Yiddish accent; and my great grandfather was kept alive in the work camps thanks to his leather-making skills (he was forced to make boots for Nazi soldiers). They spent several years in Williamsburg without being caught, and were allowed to stay because FBI investigators reported that their neighbors had no serious complaints when interviewed and my great-grandfather had only been out of work for a week. They spent the rest of their lives in Brooklyn, where my grandparents remain.
My grandmother came to the US from the Dominican Republic when she was fourteen, speaking no english. She worked in a factory and followed in her family's scholarly footsteps. She managed to get an education, learn English, and become a professor. She married a White man who would be my grandfather. He was also a professor, and they built a life together here.
My parents both came to the US from India. My mom went to engineering school in India and decided to come to America for grad school. She didn't know how to choose a school, so she applied to the ones with the prettiest campuses. This is a picture of her at UC San Diego, where she got her Master’s degree.
The Weisbord clan sold jewelry to affluent members of Russian society for many generations. My great grandfather, Abraham, was arrested after the fall of the Crimean Peninsula to the Bolsheviks in 1920, where he actually bought Tsar Nicholas II's lover Mathilde's estate as the Red Army closed in. Many of his material possessions were seized, as were as his dachas in the Baltic and Black Seas. He was not sent to the gulag until 1925, when he was sent to Solovki, the first (and likely the least dangerous) gulag. Much of my family lived in Simferopol Crimea, and many who stayed in the region were hunted and killed during the Holocaust and Nazi occupation of the peninsula. However, my grandfather had already moved, first to Saratov and then to Moscow, where he became a professor of forte piano at the Moscow Conservatory. Throughout the turbulence moments in 20th century Russian history, many of our unique possessions were lost or sold—my dad remembers a painting of Napoleon from a Dresden gallery which was looted by the Red Army. This cup, however, was part of a silver faberge set from the 19th century, and eventually made its way across the Atlantic with my father in 1987.
This is a photograph of my mom, my aunt, my grandmother and my great grandmother (left to right). My great grandmother was born in 1918 in San German, Puerto Rico. She migrated from Puerto Rico in 1958 with her four kids. She left behind 13 siblings and some still live there though most of her family is in the New York area now. Because Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States my family did not have a hard time getting to New York. However, my great aunt, Carmen, has two birthdays, her actual birthday (12/16) and the birthday that was written on her new documentation (1/6). January 6th is Three Kings Day, an important holiday in Latino culture. My great grandmother was just that coincidental.
This is a bracelet my cousin made for my mother before she and my father left for America. She made it so that they would always remember Korea and the people they have at home. My family immigrated in 2001, but the bracelet says 2002 in the back because South Korea hosted the Winter Olympics that year.
When my grandmother was thirteen years old, her home in Dresden was bombed. Her mother (also named Clara) told her that she could only take two things, and for some reason she decided to take this beer mug with her. She carried it throughout the German countryside, then took it with her when she immigrated to America in 1956.
This is a photograph of my family when we were at my grandmother's house in Korea. We moved to New York in 2006 because my parents were seeking better jobs and an education for me. When we arrived, I began school at a lower grade level halfway through the year because I didn't speak any English. It means a lot that I get to share the immigrant experience with my parents as we still try to adjust to American ways of life even after eleven years in the country.
I picked a photograph of my grandparents and their children (my aunts and uncles) standing on the dock waiting for the boat to bring them from Morocco to America circa 1959. While this photograph doesn’t reveal the struggle that they faced once they made it to America, it is the last moment when their lives were easy. Once they arrived in America, they began living with the American Dream in the backs of their minds. My mother retells a story, which I will retell shortly here, about how hard it was to plant seeds and sprout roots.
My grandfather worked about twelve hours a day, seven days a week for his first three months in America. Upon receiving his first paycheck, he realized how challenging it would be to feed his family and begin saving for their education. When he arrived home, he sat down on the stoop and fell to tears because what he was doing would not be enough for them. However, once my uncles (his sons) were hired and began to juggle work and school, their situation soon improved. To this day, I wonder what would have happened had my grandfather decided not to leave Morocco, or had he decided to go back after struggling for the first couple of months. My situation would not be the same—I wouldn’t be set up for success in the way I am. I am incredibly thankful that they decided to come to America and that they persisted through the tremendous difficulty that they faced.
The image I am holding is one of my maternal great-grandparents once they fled to America from Russia, in order to escape the violent pogroms against the Jews. All of my mother's family are descendants from survivors of these pogroms and of the Holocaust. I chose this image because if you look closely, you can see that their family name was altered from “Klenetsky” to “Klenett” to avoid being seen as obviously Jewish. Another photo I have is of my great-grandfather, Louie, performing on the Yiddish stage. Once he escaped to America, he always loved theater, but his wife hated it, so every time they raised enough money they would start a “real” business like a chicken farm. These businesses would invariably fail and they would have to go right back to the theater to earn a living!
This house is a thatched cottage in the village of Villierstown in County Waterford, Ireland. It sits on a small lane leading to the Blackwater River, where, for centuries, the Mernins made their living as fishermen. The house was in the family for over three hundred years before being sold in the 1990s to an English carpet merchant as a vacation home. My great-grandfather, Edward Mernin, emigrated in 1922 to New York, where he worked for many years as a motorman for the 3rd Avenue elevated train company.
This is a picture of my great grandmother Euphemia, who was born in Italy in a little town outside of Naples. She came to America when she was six or seven and lived in Bay Ridge in Brooklyn through high school, where she met my great grandfather Antonio shortly after. He had a successful business importing tomato sauce from his home country of Italy at a young age, so she was able to stay at home while he worked. As is tradition, my middle name is Antonio in honor of him.
This is the record of my great grandfather Louis Cooperberg's voyage from Germany to America in 1912. He was three years old, and his family travelled from Lomza (at the time part of Russia, but now Poland). He settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to stay with his father, who had arrived earlier and worked as a clothes presser and later as a tailor. He later moved to Brooklyn. In 1920 he became a naturalized US citizen. During the Depression, he was unemployed and attempted to move to Canada. However, he was initially deported. Eventually, by April 13, 1931, he had successfully settled in Montréal.
This is a picture of my mom’s old bedroom back in England before she moved to the US. She moved from London to the US when she was fifteen because of her father’s job. She took this picture because she knew that at the time she would never be able to return to that room.
When my parents came here from Beijing twenty years ago, my mother brought these walnuts with her as a symbol of the dreams and status that she wished to achieve in America. In China, walnuts can be extremely valuable depending on the texture and color of the outer shell. Traditionally, they have been a symbol of health, longevity, and status. Twirling walnuts in the palm of one's hand is said to promote circulation while eroding the walnuts' shell so that it becomes smoother and brighter and thus more valuable.
This is a photo of my paternal grandparents on their farm in Ireland during the 1990s. My parents immigrated to America separately during the late 1980s and have raised me with a heavy emphasis on our Irish background. However, they also share an admiration for American culture, always sending American food and merchandise to their relatives back home. That is why my grandfather is pictured wearing a Mets hat, even though he had no idea what baseball was.