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Czech Village, USA

Today's NY Times profiles the Cedar Rapids neighborhood known as "Czech Village," which was severely damaged during recent floods and is now struggling to "restore a connection with a country few of its residents have visited, a language that fewer speak, and a culture that has already grown increasingly foreign." Czech Village is a splendid microcosm of the perpetual American tension between assimilation and fidelity to familial ancestry.

Little Italy in Manhattan has now been nearly eclipsed by the expansion of China Town, just as my grandfather's Italian community in Ohio has increasingly blended into the surrounding environment. While Italians may lament the fading of a distinct community, it has been the cost of economic and social equality. Having acquired the America dream, Italians are now at leisure to pursue and reclaim their heritage. That's the beauty of America.

As a land of immigrants, America is a truly unique nation in the world. While adamantly holding to a number of fundamental beliefs, America has accommodated (more or less tolerantly) every culture and people on the face of the earth. I applaud the Czechs for their commitment to heritage - may they enjoy the best of both worlds.

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Yet, having known some of the first generation immigrants in my own family, I have often wondered if the better part of familial piety is more to be found in the continued pursuit of the AMERICAN dream as--after all--that dream was the deepest wish of their hearts. And, of course, it is usually only partially realized by that first generation. When I think of my great-grandfather (who was my dearest relation until his death when I was in high school) I do not think of Austria or of Austrian things (but for a few endearing phrases and songs of affection he would say or sing to me in German). His experience of the old country was not a romantic one, nor one he was sorry to have behind him. He spoke, mainly, with relief of having escaped it. And yet, I think he was not bitter about the old place--he just looked upon it as limited and limiting and was happy to have a more human experience here. His affection was for the place that gave him an opportunity to rise. His joy was in watching each succeeding generation of his family rising up to their own best measure and in taking part of that himself--as best he could.

I remember many conversations in which I would try to get him to tell me about the old country and our "heritage" as people today are pleased to call it. He might recount a story or two--almost never an overly fond memory about Austria. But if I persisted, he would tell me that he wanted to tell me something else. He wanted to tell me about my real "heritage." And thus he would usually begin a story of his adventures courting of my great-grandmother. (And he had many of those!)

Though he worked long hours for over 50 years doing heavy work in a steel mill and had the painful varicose veins and strong arms to prove it (even into his eighties he could arm wrestle and win against most men who were but a fraction of his age) he did not complain about this work being beneath him. He had a fine and subtle mind and was so naturally gifted in mathematics that his first job (upon completion only of the 6th grade and until he realized he could make more at the steel mill) was as a bank teller in the days when bank tellers had to know how to calculate in their heads. With the proper education and better opportunities, he might have taken on any number of challenging and intellectually satisfying careers. A lesser man might have been bitter about an unlucky fate. But his great advantage over lesser men (and men born later than him with similar "disadvantages") was that he had memories of a worse place. He may not have had every advantage of the privileged upper class (a.k.a., families who had been here longer) here, but he had the freedom to acquire them for his family. THAT pursuit was what he considered to be his heritage.

And so I think he might have laughed a somewhat derisive laugh at the notion--as my children are taught in that well-intentioned but misguided way at their school whenever "cultural awareness days" roll around--that there is anything worthy of being reclaimed in the fact that they have ancestors of Austrian lineage. Those things did not define my great-grandfather and they do not define me or my children, either. What does endure--I hope--is that same heritage of freedom-loving self-respect which propelled him to be the best man he could be in the circumstances he felt free to make for himself. I hope they have that and a sense, as he did, that the circumstances of our fathers do not have to be preserved or maintained so much as do the worthy aspects of their character. THAT, I think, is the American Heritage.

If my children rise to be even half as great in soul as my great-grandfather was, but with all the advantages they have over him in material circumstance and opportunity, their great-grandchilden will have NO RICHER a heritage to inherit . . . but they will have what my great-grandfather intended and worked to achieve for his family all his natural days.

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