#FocusImmigration: The ‘So-Called’ All American Girl

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Published April 9, 2019
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The Montclarion
Abraham Kulberg and Rachel Kulberg pose in a photo with their four children. Photo courtesy of Diane Pasternack

I grew up in what I consider the average American family. My mother is from Long Island, New York, and my dad grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. All of their parents are also natural-born American citizens, and the majority of their parents were, too, except for one.

My ties to the immigrant world were already loose because no one in my immediate family was one. I remember all of the projects I was required to do in school where I would have to write a biographical sketch of a family member who immigrated to the United States. I always struggled to get that first-person perspective.

For me, that person was my great-grandfather Irving Kulberg, who was the last person in my family to immigrate to the United States from Poland in the early 1900s. Unfortunately, I never got to meet him because he passed away in 1976 when my mother was only 8 years old.

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Irving Kulberg sits in front of a car.
Photo courtesy of Diane Pasternack

I thank Grandpa Irving for two big things that make me who I am today. The first is the fact that he and his family came to the U.S. at what I consider a good time. In all honesty, it was never a good time to be an Ashkenazi Jewish immigrant in the 20th century, but they left before Adolf Hitler came.

Many people believe that anti-Semitism was made popular through Hitler’s beliefs of racial superiority, but it actually existed long before he came to power. We weren’t welcomed anywhere, just take a look at stories behind many of the holidays we celebrate, thanking God that we’re still alive today.

Taking a look back at history allows people to make connections to the reasons their distant relatives immigrated. I can’t make assumptions about what my family’s life was like in Eastern Europe and their journey to the U.S. through Ellis Island, but after learning the history of Jewish people in America in the early 1900s, life wasn’t much better for them than it was where they came from.

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A check-in document from Ellis Island dates back to June 30, 1908.
Rebecca Serviss | The Montclarion

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A zoomed-in section of the document features the name of Abe Kulberg, a relative who Irving and his family stayed with when they first moved to Brooklyn.
Rebecca Serviss | The Montclarion

Living and working conditions were terrible. Not just for Jews, but for anyone who immigrated to the U.S. with little to no money. They were living in small apartments with their entire families and working in unsafe and crowded conditions that led to major tragedies, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911, which occurred not long after my family arrived.

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Irving Kulberg and his daughter Diane dance at her wedding on Sept. 7, 1967.
Photo courtesy of Diane Pasternack

If I had to make an assumption for the reason my family, like so many others, decided to come here, it was to start the groundwork so that future generations can live their lives and not have to endure the pain and suffering they did back in Eastern Europe.

My story may seem old and outdated, but it doesn’t lessen the importance of retelling it.

I believe that everyone, if they dig deep enough, can find a connection to the immigrant world. I think that once people establish that connection, they start to empathize with those who today would do anything to be a part of this country, even if it means risking their lives.

#FocusImmigration has given all of us a chance to reconnect with our roots, no matter how deep they may stem.

For me, it is a reminder that I am forever grateful for the decision my family made in 1908. If they didn’t immigrate when they did, they could have possibly perished in the Holocaust and I wouldn’t be here today to retell their story.

I forgot to mention the second thing I thank my great-grandfather for. He passed down a gene that most people recognize me for and one that I cannot picture myself without. Irving was a ginger, who ironically married a woman named Virginia, who their grandchildren called Grandma Ginger.

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Irving Kulberg and his wife Virginia Kulberg pose.
Photo courtesy of Diane Pasternack

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