Varieties of immigrant stories

[Contributor: Ben Kooiman]

Immigration is a very complex topic that is composed of many uncertainties regarding why people decide to move. The census can only tell us so much – it doesn’t give us any information about things like immigration routes, personal experience, the outcome and the emotions involved, and the reasons that lead a family or a group of people to collectively emigrate to a new land. This is where immigrant stories come into play.

These stories fill in the blanks that the census leaves out allowing the reader to obtain a more comprehensive view on a specific immigration story. Since there were a lot of people in Weld County in 1920 from Germany, I went looking for an oral history from somebody who had moved from Germany.

I didn’t come across anyone who had immigrated before 1920, but in the Boulder Public Library’s Maria Rogers Oral History Collection I found the interesting story of a man named William Safran who was born in Dresden, Germany in 1930 and was forced by the Nazis into a concentration camp; he moved to the United States after the war. This story got me interested in other Jewish immigration stories, and I found an oral history of a man named Aghajan Nassimi in the New York Public Library’s American Jewish Committee Oral History Collection. Nassimi’s story was very different from Safran’s: he was born in Russia, lived in Iran for a long time, then in various places in Europe, and finally in the United States. Together these stories show the variety of ways in which people end up in the United States, as well as tell us something of the often circuitous routes that people took.

William Safran’s story

Safran begins by explaining how his parents were not German born but has father was a native to Romania and his mother to Poland. He grew up in an orthodox Jewish family which made his childhood full of restrictions because of the fact that Hitler came to power in 1933. He explains that he was not allowed in public schools because he was a Jew but that he did get to attend the Jewish School.

His family was composed of six members: father and mother, his two older brothers, his younger sister, and himself. This perhaps shows the strength of the impulse toward life – there would be lots of hardships to face when raising a Jewish child in Nazi Germany. During Nazi rule, the family was deported from Dresden, Germany to Riga, Latvia because of their religion. Once there, he was shipped to a forced labor camp near Riga and then to the concentration camp in Stutthof, which was just outside Poland. Safan tells us that this is where is father and one of his brothers died (his other older brother already made it to safety in Palestine and they did not meet up together until 1957 in Paris, France.)

In Stutthof he was separated from his mother and sister, and after the camp was liberated he was sent first to Lodz and then put into an orphanage near Lodz without knowing where they were. In the Jewish Center in Lodz, though, he ran into a nurse who had met them, though, and she told him that they were alive and helped him find them (which was not at all easy.) He found his mother and sister finally, and had to tell them the news about his father and brother.

He and his family wanted to get out of Europe – “Most of the Jews were trying to get out of Europe, because Europe had become a very large cemetery,” as he put it in the oral history interview. They had the desire to move to Palestine but the first visa that they were granted was to the United States. He arrived in New York City in December 13, 1946 and was picked up by some relatives in Manhattan.

Aghajan Nassimi’s story

Though the Holocaust was of course unique in its horror, Nazi Germany isn’t the only place from which Jewish people have had to flee. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pogroms in Russia and official anti-Semitic policies made life very difficult for Jewish people, and although the new Soviet regime in 1917 canceled some of the legal discriminations, it also seized synagogues and Jewish property, again prompting emigration.

Nassimi was born in Samarkand, Russia on January 15, 1915. He was the second child of five, with an older sister and two younger brothers and a younger sister. When he was seven, he and his family moved to Meshed, Iran. Why they ended up precisely there isn’t clear – they had no family in Iran, but Nassimi says that Iran was close and it was easy to go there. Nor is why exactly they left, though he says that his father was a textile merchant, and probably being a Jewish businessman was not particularly attractive in Soviet Russia.

Nassimi was raised to be educated in strictly business because it was nearly impossible to become anything other than a businessman in Iran being a Jewish immigrant. After spending nine years in Meshed, he then moved alone to Teheran, Iran, in 1931 in hopes of finding a better career in a bigger town, and because life in Meshed was very oppressive for a Jew – indeed, Nassimi says that he “was at all time in danger for my life in Meshed against Jews” but that in Teheran “it was a little better.” When he had established himself, he decided to bring his family over to live with him by year three.

He then goes on to describe how it wasn’t just his immediate family who moved to Iran. He had his cousins, aunts, and uncles that all moved over, and they all lived in close proximity with each other. But life in Teheran was not easy either: he recounts that Jews could not become doctors or politicians (though he would have wanted to go into politics), and that throughout this whole time in Iran, he “had headaches from Muslim [because] I am Jewish. I cannot make bigger, make free.” Especially after he married and had kids, he didn’t want his kids to have to go through the struggles that he did and wanted to provide a happy, safe, and successful life for his family, and so eventually he decided to move to Europe. He spent six months in Italy, three in Switzerland, three in London, and then went to Germany, where he saw that “we can make better business” with the business contacts he had established there while living in Iran. He settled in Hamburg, where he lived for the next four decades, raising four children and bringing up a profitable business.

When it came time for his children to pursue further education one of his sons decided to go to America, and at the conclusion of his studies he did not want to return. Aghajan and he decided to open up a second business in the States and run it themselves, having the rest of the family focusing on the one in Germany. It hadn’t been Aghajan’s plan to stay, only to get his son set up in business, but his wife liked New York and they had a lot of family there, so they ended up staying.

***

As Safran’s and Nassimi’s stories show, the process of migration is complex and affected by both push factors (factors in the country where the immigrant lived before, factors that make him or her want to leave – like religious persecution and discrimination in Safran’s and Nassimi’s case) and pull factors (like having family in the country one is immigrating to, or seeing business opportunities there.) And sometimes the only way to achieve one’s dreams is through immigration.