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WORLD FOCUS: Becoming an American

January 5, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts. The second part will be published Jan. 13)


Apparently, because of the tumult of the 2016 election, quite a few local residents asked me recently why did my wife and I decide to settle in the United States and become American citizens after our 1954 escape from communist Czechoslovakia.

After all, before coming to the U.S. in 1958, we lived for extended periods of time in Sweden, Switzerland, France and Great Britain. As refugees from a communist country, we could have asked for asylum and eventually become citizens.

All those countries had a democratic systems of governance, were free and prosperous. But our experience of living there suggested it would be very difficult to feel at home there and be accepted as full-fledged citizens.

My study of American history and culture convinced me that newcomers to American shores have a much better chance to be absorbed into the fabric of the nation's life and eventually, turned into American patriots. In addition, the social and economic opportunities America offered have been far superior to anything that Europe could offer.

Our first experience proved to be a good omen. When we arrived on the ocean liner Queen Mary in the Port of New York, a representative of the organization New Americans waited there for us. She hailed a cab and told the driver to take us to my cousin's home, in the borough of Queens. When the driver learned that we were new immigrants, he said, "My parents were immigrants from Italy. I won't take you to your cousin's house directly. First, I will show you the sights of New York. No charge for it." He took us to the Rockefeller Center, to Macy's, down Fifth Avenue and other places.

A few days after our arrival, my wife Jaroslava, with very limited knowledge of English, had to take the subway to go for her first job interview. She applied for a job as a custom jewelry designer. To get to the right place in Manhattan, my cousin wrote down the address on a piece of paper. She instructed my wife to let a fellow subway passenger see it. Indeed, she was helped to get to her destination, all the way. And she got the job.

When I was hired as the foreign news editor of the largest Hungarian-language newspaper in the U.S., Szabatsag, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio, it took me some time to get used to the practices of the free press. During my almost 10 years of serving as foreign correspondent in Prague under a communist regime, I had to weigh every word I put on paper. Now I was free and duty-bound to investigate, question and report on everything of public interest. No one ever censored what I wrote.

I remember an episode that illustrated to me the freedom of the press as practiced in America. Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy came to Cleveland to secure the votes of large blocks of citizens who had family ties to Eastern Europe, now under Soviet domination. They wanted a commitment from the presidential candidates, Kennedy and Richard Nixon, to push back the Iron Curtain.

In an interview, I asked Kennedy whether he was ready to make such a promise.

"I will do all I can to gain freedom to the people imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain," he said. "But, we have to realize, using military means is equivalent to starting World War III. It is not what America wants."

He directed me to his surrogate, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut to give fuller explanation. Kennedy won the trust of the Ohio voters, giving him the presidency.


Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a seasonal Lake Placid resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," a compilation of his selected columns.



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