Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Down Memory Lane 
      Did I tell you about when I was a dreamer—an American kid born to highly deportable parents?   Both were illicit immigrants. My mother arrived here at age 12 from Trieste with her family nearly a century ago: 1921 to be exact. For reasons still unknown to me, she never obtained what were called ‘first papers’ in those days.  
      My father, born in Dubrovnik, the pearl of the Adriatic, became a merchant seaman. He jumped ship in New York. I don’t know the year or the circumstances.    
      In the thirties, they both became communists—not a smart move for either political or practical reasons. In 1954, at the height of the McCarthy era, they both paid for that decision by being arrested and ordered deported as subversive aliens.  
     Fourteen at the time, I ended up sleeping on my grandmother’s couch and visiting my mother and father at Ellis Island on Saturdays. They were paroled after a few months and, in fact, were never deported.
Old reds. My parents, Nick and Maria Karman, circa 1945
 My father, who had become a waiter, fell dead of a heart attack in the midst of this crisis while serving lunch at the Waldorf Astoria.  My widowed mother managed to remain in America thanks only to the geopolitical rearrangements in Europe following World War I.  She had been born on a gorgeous Dalmatian island with the ugly name of Ugljan.  It was a tiny fleck of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when she came into the world. When the Habsburgs fell, Ugljan became Italian and later Yugoslav. 
      My mother and her kin were listed as Italians on the manifest of the S.S. Belvedere, the Italian liner that carried them in steerage to America.They settled in Hell’s Kitchen, just a couple of blocks from the pier where they had disembarked. 
     Jump ahead to the spring day in 1954 when I got home from high school to learn from an uncle that my parents had been arrested and ordered out of the country.  At 77, that day and the day on which my dad died remain the worst two days of my life.  
    To be sure, Uncle Sam can deport any non-citizen.  The catch is that one country or other has to be willing to take them in. My multinational mother was obliged to apply to Austria, Italy and Yugoslavia. Each passed the buck. They were not interested in adding a poor, middle-aged sewing machine lady to their respective populations. Neither were any of the other countries to which the immigration authorities made her apply. 
    Her case hung fire for years. The government finally dropped the matter in the more liberal sixties. By then my mother had retired. She was free to live out her years in the country in which she had lived since age 12.  Eventually she was even issued a green card. And though the Yugoslavs wouldn’t take her in as an immigrant, they did give her a travel document.  She used it to visit beautiful Ugljan.
She succumbed to Alzheimer’s in 1988.
    The numbing anxiety I was feeling during my teenage years about having my family’s life torn apart is what millions of American kids with paperless parents are feeling now. Today, they call them dreamers. What I recall was a nightmare.