In my last week column, I have described the Naturalization Ceremony of new-minted U. S. citizens at the Colonial Capitol in Williamsburg, Va.
It was a remarkable event by any measure. It provided me also with an opportunity to address the new citizens. I was asked by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution and Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, the sponsors and organizers of the Ceremony, to deliver the keynote address.
I told the new citizens:
"I am one of you. My wife and I arrived to the shores of this blessed land in 1958, as refugees from Communist Czechoslovakia.
Our ship, the queen Mary, was scheduled to pass by the statue of Liberty at dawn. We asked the steward to wake us up early. We were eager to see this symbol of what America is all about. Freedom and opportunity!
But, America has never promised to provide a life in a bed of roses. What it has promised and fulfilled is freedom and the opportunity to succeed.
I wonder, What was your first impression, of America?
When our taxi driver learned that we were immigrants, he said, "I am not taking you directly to the house of your cousin, in Queens. First, I want to show you some New York landmarks. It would give you a clue what America is. There is no charge for the tour. It's on the house."
Then he showed us the Rockefeller Center, the U. N. Headquarters, Macy's, Wall Street, and Fifth Avenue. The taxi driver, himself an immigrant from Italy, represented to us, the Americanization of a new citizen. Someone, who was proud and protective of his adopted, land. I trust you will feel the same way about America.
When I assumed the position of foreign news editor of the Hungarian Daily, the largest circulation Hungarian newspaper in the United States, my concept of the freedom of the press needed a sharp revision. As a Prague-based foreign correspondent for Hungarian newspapers, I had to weight every word I have written. Self-censorship was a way of life. Here, in America, I learned the true meaning of the freedom of the press. In my five decades of practicing journalism, I have never been told what I can or cannot write.
Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried. We, who immigrated to this country from other parts of the world, have the knowledge and the capacity to compare.
At the time of the great immigrations at the turn of the 19th century, Jews in the Old Country referred to America as "Der goldene medina," the land of gold. Today, we know that the streets of America are not "paved with gold." And we must realize that America may not fulfill all our expectations. But compared with the countries we left behind, it is still the "Goldene Medina."
My address to the new citizens intended to convey the message: America, in spite of all its shortcomings, through its history, has provided a safe haven to those who fled persecutions, and to those who were seeking economic opportunities, a better future.
But, it is a message that should resonate with all Americans on the eve of the New Year. The need to uphold the values that made this country not just magnet to immigrants, but also the envy of the world.
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.