“YOU CAME TO ASSIMILATE”
by Sharon Rondeau
Our interviewee, who is in her 80s, said that the events unfolded “in the early 1920s,” beginning on a Norwegian ship on which her father was working.
“My father had no intention of coming to America,” she told us. “He was working on board a Norwegian ship and became very, very sick. They couldn’t help him there and ended up leaving him in a hospital in California.
“When he got out, he made his way to New York City, where his two sisters had legally immigrated some years before.”
She was not sure as to which method her father, who was then 19, traveled across the United States.
“After staying with his sisters for a time, he was awestruck by what he saw: opportunity and potential not found anywhere else in the world,” she said. “After that, my father decided that he wanted to stay in America. He knew he needed to do it the right way, so he left New York and went to Canada, where he was able to get all of his documents together. He reentered the United States legally and settled in Bay Ridge, New York, where he started a fuel-oil company.”
According to Wikipedia, Bay Ridge now has a large “Arab” community. However, the same source reports:
This area used to be highly Norwegian. Its Nordic heritage is still apparent in the neighborhood. For instance, there is an annual Norwegian Constitution Day Parade, also known as the Syttende Mai Parade, featuring hundreds of people in folk dress who parade down Third Avenue. It ends in Leif Ericson Park, named for the Viking explorer, where “Miss Norway” is crowned near the statue of Leif Ericson. The statue was donated by Crown Prince Olav, Prince of Norway, on behalf of the nation of Norway in 1939. There is also a Norwegian gifts-and-groceries store.
The Post & Email asked, “Did your father know English at the time?” to which she responded, “He knew a little bit from Norway, because I believe they taught it in the schools. But running a business and doing everyday things in a new language was not easy. He learned to speak and read English very well, but he never learned to write it. I recall that when a bill needed to be paid, he would say, ‘You write it out and I’ll sign it.'”
The woman he married was also of Norwegian descent, although a U.S. citizen.
“Did you and your siblings learn Norwegian?” we asked her, to which she responded, “No. My father was adamant that this was America, and in America you spoke English. So he didn’t allow us to learn or speak Norwegian at home. That is one of my great regrets.”
She said that her father changed both his first and last names to make it easier for Americans to pronounce and recognize. “Although he chose a Norwegian name, it was much easier to say and remember than his original name,” she said.
Of her impression of immigration today and at the time her father arrived in the U.S., our interviewee said, “When people came over then, they weren’t coming to get this or that government benefit. You came to work, to use your skills, to build a better life. There was no government assistance, and you came to assimilate into the new culture and learn the language. It didn’t matter where you came from; this was America.”
She also related that her father became very politically aware and active. “On one occasion, he was at a gathering which Nelson Rockefeller attended,” she said, “and he waved his finger at Rockefeller and said, ‘It’s men like you who are going to be the death of this country.”
“He raised all of us to be independent,” she told us, “and to think for ourselves. He didn’t trust the government to do anything for anyone. When I was younger I wasn’t particularly interested in politics, but as I got older, I understood what he meant.”