THE BLOG
11/27/2015 04:12 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2016

On Thanksgiving, I'm Thankful My Ancestors Left Europe, and That America Took Them In

"I've got something I'd like to say." That's what I usually offer up as a preamble, as I try to get the attention of my kids and other family members gathered around the Thanksgiving table. It usually takes a couple of attempts, but once we're all on the same page, I offer words of thanks for my ancestors. I talk about how brave they must have been to leave the communities of their birth -- which were at least familiar despite the hardship, discrimination, and all-too-common violence they faced -- and come to a land where they didn't speak the language, didn't know the culture, and in many cases didn't know a soul.

In this offering, I mention the family names of the people who came and the places they came from. We've done quite a bit of genealogical research -- on my side and my wife's side of the family -- and are lucky to have as much information as we do. My goal is to give my kids a sense of who their ancestors were, and what they went through to give us a chance to have the life we do. One branch of my father's family came from Vilnius, now the capital of Lithuania; another from Riga, Latvia's capital; another from Minsk, capital of Belarus; and the last from Odessa, now in Ukraine. Growing up, I had learned that all my father's ancestors were "Russian." It turns out none of them came from places that are now in that country.

The story is similar on my mother's side. One branch was supposedly Austrian; they came from Skole in Ukraine. The other was Hungarian, and came from Sighet (Elie Wiesel's hometown), in Transylvania, now a province of Romania. During my Thanksgiving meal talk, I also thank my wife's family, who came from Vienna, Poland and Russia. In reality, the primary point of identification in terms of culture and identity for pretty much all these people was not the country of origin on their passport, but the fact that they were members of the Jewish people, irrespective of any particular level of religiosity.

In addition to being Jews, the family ancestors I'll be acknowledging were also, of course, Americans. And that's the other part of the thanks I'll give on the holiday. I'm thankful that my ancestors had a place to go, that they could become Americans and make a life here. The last of them got in just under the wire, arriving a few months after the First World War and only a couple of years before a series of immigration "reforms" severely limited the number of immigrants this country accepted from outside the British Isles and north-west Europe. My wife's grandmother's family got out of Poland in 1937 -- and only because the youngest child had been born here (long story), one of the oldest living "anchor babies," I'd surmise. Very few Jews were able to find refuge here at that point and immediately afterward -- during the years when they needed it most.

I make sure my kids know about these restrictions on immigration, as well as the fact that Asians had almost no chance to emigrate and become citizens until the early 1950s. We also talk about how -- although their ancestors and other Jewish immigrants certainly didn't have it easy -- they at least had opportunities that America denied to the large numbers of African Americans and American Indians who had arrived long before our family. America didn't treat everyone living here equally, either on paper or in practice. Certainly, we've still got room for improvement on that front as well, to say the least, although we have come a long way thanks to those heroes who fought and bled to get us as far as we have come. This year, my family will also discuss the plight of today's refugees -- from Syria and elsewhere -- who are so desperate to come here, or at least someplace safe where they too can make a new home.

Thanksgiving -- at least in the form we celebrate it in this country -- is an American invention, and also a holiday about each of our relationships to America. It means different things to different people, depending to a good degree on how one's ancestors were treated. For me, America is my home, the only one I've got. It is the place that made my life and that of my family possible.

We are living in a time when, once again, demagogues are playing on our deepest fears to argue against taking in people fleeing their homelands, just as was the case in 1939. I am truly grateful for what America did for me -- taking in my ancestors when they needed a place to go. I know there are many others who may end up not being so fortunate. They are the ones we have to fight for now.