In the turmoil following Donald Trump’s inauguration and his subsequent Muslim ban, I turned to my grandfather’s story for solace and for guidance. Grandpa Ben had survived Soviet Russia, two years in a German refugee camp, the Great Depression and the Korean War, and built a prosperous life for himself and his family here in New York. He had made it to America, and then he had made it in America. During that dark January, when uncertainty hung heavy over all of us, when nobody was sure just how things would turn out, I looked to my grandpa.
I looked at his life, and I knew that everything would be okay, so long as we did the right thing. I looked at him and understood that while America offers us opportunities beyond our wildest imagination, it also doesn’t guarantee us anything. For him, coming to America wasn’t a certainty. Becoming a citizen wasn’t certain. Getting into medical school, surviving a war, being accepted by a hostile society wasn’t certain. So much of what I take for granted was a privilege and a blessing for him, and without his example, I probably would never think about the advantages afforded to me and those like me in today’s America.
Grandpa Ben passed away yesterday morning, just a few months shy of his 100th birthday. And now I’m scared.
Will my kids grow up unaware of the adversity their family faced? Will they know that the America that today treats them so well was not always such a place, and that it’s incumbent on all of us to make sure we never go back to that place? Or will they be blissfully unaware?
I am privileged to have had a living, breathing reminder of that struggle so close to me for 20 years. I am privileged to have a person in my life who faced challenges I can’t comprehend so that I could live the life I do. And I can’t let that go to waste now that he’s gone.
So much of the division in our country stems from a lack of empathy. When we lack empathy for immigrants, for people of color, for the poorest among us, we fail to see how harmful our policies and norms can be. When we lack empathy for others, when we cannot put ourselves in their shoes, we allow ourselves to do terrible things we would never want done to ourselves.
My empathy is informed by my family’s experience, and while I am by no means perfect, I am a better person because of where my family has been. I don’t want to become the man who believes everything should be given to him because dammit he’s an American, always has been and always will be. I certainly don’t want any of my children to be that person. But as second-generation Americans like myself grow up, we’re faced with the reality that our North Star, our living link to a long-ago adversity, is dimming.
What can we do? We can start by telling their stories, never forgetting where we came from. We can find new stars to guide us, and perhaps the people with whom we meet and connect will one day be Grandpa Bens to their own Jacobs. We can instill in ourselves and others the knowledge that none of us are better than another, none of us are born more deserving than another, but some of us are just a few generations ahead.
Nothing will ever replace Grandpa Ben or the 99 years he lived, and that’s something I’m just going to have to live with. But as we grapple with a society that is quick to judge and quicker to condemn, it’s those stories that we must hold on to, those stories we must continue to seek out. I’m holding on to his story, and I’m not letting go.
Jacob Rubashkin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He is the Sun associate editor, and can be reached at [email protected] The Jacobin appears periodically this year.