In 1888, The Story of a Parentless Dreamer from Shithole Europe

Street children huddle over a grate for warmth on Mulberry Street in 1895. (Image: Jacob A. Riis/Getty Images)

In 1888, The Story of a Parentless Dreamer from Shithole Europe

The story of my grandfather is as good a place to start as any

More than three decades ago, my aunt Hilda wrote an account of her father's voyage to and life in America for my daughter to read "someday." She began it this way: "Your great grandfather, Moore Engelhardt, a boy of 16, arrived in New York from Europe in March 1888. It was during the famous blizzard and after a sea voyage of about 30 days. He had no money. He often said that he had a German 50 cent piece in his pocket when he landed. His trip had to be in the cheapest part of the ship -- way down below in steerage. Poor boy, I'm sure he was seasick a good deal of the time. Since he was alone, he sort of attached himself to a family of a lot of children and, for the first few months in America, I imagine he slept behind the stove in somebody's kitchen.

History--specifically, the history of nativism and racism--is only repeating itself in this not-so-new century of ours. "I don't know the whole story of his trip from somewhere near Lemberg in Poland to Hamburg where he boarded the ship, but from the few things he told me about it I gathered that it wasn't easy. He worked at anything he could find to earn money for the trip, saving every penny he didn't need for daily living. I do know that it took him two years. His last job was as a scribe for a lawyer in Hamburg. There were no typewriters, but he had beautiful handwriting, almost as perfect as printing.

"The reason for his trip to America at the early age of 16, besides the stories he had heard about gold in the streets of New York, was, as he told it, a strange one..."

In other words, my grandfather was a kind of nineteenth-century equivalent of a DACA kid (though without even parents to bring him here since he ran away from home). Like so many other immigrants of that era, he made it to the United States from a shithole part of Europe--of, to be exact, the Austro-Hungarian Empire--and he was lucky. He spent the rest of his life in Brooklyn, New York. A few decades later, Jews like him, or Slavs, or Italians, or Asians of any variety--the Haitians, Salvadorans, and Nigerians of that era -- would essentially be put under the early twentieth-century equivalent of Donald Trump's "Muslim ban" and largely kept by law from entering the country. In those days, the analog to Trump's bitter complaints about Muslims and others of color was: Europe was "making the United States a dumping ground for its undesirable nationals." (So said Henry Fairfield Osborn, the then-president of New York's American Museum of Natural History, in 1925.)

So history--specifically, the history of nativism and racism--is only repeating itself in this not-so-new century of ours. Back then, northern European immigrants were favored by that same law, so no one should have blinked when Donald Trump, who (like me) grew up at a time when those bans of 1924 were still in place, extolled Norwegians as the dream immigrants he wants to come here.

It wasn't just racist but absurd for him to suggest that anyone from a country that regularly turns up at the top of the list of the "happiest" nations on Earth would have a driving urge to emigrate to our not-so-New World for a not-so-new life in a plutocrat-strong America with its 1% elections and ever widening inequalities of wealth. Still, for just a little while give reality a pass and let the wondrous Ann Jones, author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America's Wars--the Untold Story, take you in "The Norwegian Menace" to a planet in a galaxy far, far away and allow you to imagine what this country might actually be like if it were overwhelmed by Norwegian immigrants.

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