Seventy-six years ago, on January 20, 1945 my father took the oath of citizenship.
Barely 19 years old, I imagine him sitting on a bench inside the Federal Courthouse in Fort Worth, Texas dressed in a US Army Class A Uniform waiting to be called before the clerk of the court. It was, to say the least, and improbable place for him to be.
Six years before, just days before he was to become a bar mitzvah, his synagogue was burned to the ground on Kristallnacht. That night, the apartment he shared with his parents was raided, and his father arrested and imprisoned for the crime of being a Jew. While his father had been released because of his army service in World War 1, his cousins Benno and Walter were not so lucky and were sent to Dachau. Over the course of the next year Dad witnessed his relatives, neighbors and friends subjected to unimaginable abuse, daily insults and indignities.
Like most of the Jews of Vienna, he desperately sought a way out of what was now Greater Germany. This meant listening to the rumors on the streets of which embassies were accepting visa applications and often standing on long lines only to be told that no more applications were to be given out. He watched as the Jewish Community of Vienna contracted to 60,000 from more than 290,000, as one by one his friends either departed with their families to Shanghai, South American, and the incredibly lucky to the United States. Or others like his friend Eddie or his cousin Lizzie spirited away to safety without friend or family via Kindertransport.
He spent a good part of the time begging his father to try to get out of Austria. He went as far as getting himself a Visa to Palestine through the Zionist Youth Organization. His father refused to let him use it. Wherever the consequences their family would stay together.
On September 1, 1939 the 2nd World War began with the German invasion of Poland. The Rothkopf’s search for a way out of Vienna move from urgent to desperate. Finally, in November of 1939, two months after 2nd World War had begun, their visas came through. They were going to the United States.
On his arrival in the US, his English was so deficient that they placed him, a 14-year-old boy in the 2nd grade. But he had showed them. Within the year, he would be in school with kids his own age and playing wide receiver on the Danbury Hatters, his high school football team.
3 years after arriving in this country, a waif who had been out of school for one year, with no English competency, was now attending Syracuse University.
I cannot imagine Dad did not think about Syracuse that day just because of contrasts. The year before at this time he had been clearing railroad tracks and switches from some of the 10ft of snow Syracuse receives each year of feet in temperatures as low as 7 F. That day in Ft. Worth it was nearly 60 F and sunny.
Syracuse was also in part why he was, where he was, at that moment. Among his course of study there were three Semester of ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps.) It provided him the background and education that would help qualify him for Officer Candidate School. At that point in the war, they had just opened the ranks of officers to those in the ranks who were not native-born citizens. However, to qualify you needed to first become an American citizen. When his application to OCS had been accepted in late December and a slot found for him at Artillery School in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, getting him sworn in as a citizen became a priority.
Sitting on that bench, waiting for the clerk of the court to call his name to take the oath of citizenship I have no doubt that he contemplated what the future held for him. Artillery school was not for the weak of mind or the timid. Not only did he need to complete the normal training officers receive in military and command arts but he also needed to gain a high degree of proficiency in math and ballistics. He must have also realized the inherent danger of being an artillery officer. While they may be behind the lines lobbing shells at the enemy, the enemy also knew where you were and prioritized “taking them out”. But he knew that the fight for democracy was not for the faint of heart.
In the midst of the “hurry up and wait,” I am sure Dad, who had taught himself to read by deciphering newspapers would have sought one out. I wonder if he realized then what a momentous day it was.
General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific, had fulfilled his 4-year-old promise to the people of the Philippines. He had returned.
The Battle of the Bulge, the Nazi’s final attempt to turn the tide of the Allied Invasion of Europe, had just concluded.
Soviet Forces had completed a major breakthrough in Silesia with the battlefront now at Lodz and Krakow and were now drawing ever nearer to the home of Dad’s family in Grodzisko. No doubt he wondered about the fate of his father’s sisters, who lived in the market town, which the German called Auschwitz.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was to be sworn in that day for his fourth term President of the United States.
In other words, January 20, 1945 was a big day for the U.S. and for him. But that was not something that Dad would have dwelled on.
Eventually, the clerk called him and other soldiers into the court room to take the solemn oath of citizenship. There a Federal Judge, standing behind a bench, and wearing the black robes of his office gave a stirring speech on what it was to be an American citizen. Then, he asked them to raise their right hand so they could take the oath of citizenship. According to Dad, only he and one other person in the room raised their hand initially. Apparently, the others did not know enough English to understand the Judges command which appealed to Pop’s sense of humor. Eventually though, all raised their right hands and the judge surrounded by American Flags with 48 stars, administered the oath of citizenship.
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
I have no trouble imagining what taking that oath must have meant to Pops. For most of his life he must have felt like an outsider. A person who did not belong. The land of his birth had first oppressed him, denied his humanity and eventually threatened his life. Then he became a “stranger in a strange land.” The boy who had to be placed in 2nd grade until he learned enough English. Then to many he was the kid who spoke with an accent. A foreigner viewed by some with suspicion. Now he was part of it.
He was home.
Part of a country that would allow him to be who he was, to live a life without persecution and fear. A nation that would allow him to achieve his dreams based on his merit and hard work. A homeland for him and the family that would soon be his.
A country, whose uniform he now wore, with the real possibility that he may soon have to make the ultimate sacrifice.
Years later, during a discussion about his Army days I asked what this moment when he became a citizen, felt like for him. He thought for a second and said “It was emotional” proving once again that members of the greatest generation were masters of understatement.
Dad valued his citizenship in ways that us native born, can never fully appreciate. Like most people in the day, Dad used to prepare his taxes by himself. I recall this not being a happy time in the household. Tax preparation required a lot of work and endless deciphering of rules and regulations that took accountants years to understand. This would leave him “growly” and my siblings and I were instructed to steer clear of him. One year when the taxes had been completed my parents sat down to sign them. Mom, expressed shock about how much money they owed. . Dad threw a fit. He proceeded to give her a lengthy and memorable lecture on why citizenship in this country was so valuable and why paying taxes was a small price to pay for that honor.
My siblings and I think of this story every year when we pay our taxes.
Dad’s last inaugural day was January 20, 2009. That day, my sister, nephew Oliver and my parents gathered together at my parents’ home and watched the first African American President inaugurated. At the time, I did not know it was also the 64th anniversary of his citizenship. My father was not the type of man to remind us of historic events in his life even when they had significant meaning to him. That is not to suggest these anniversaries meant nothing to him. He was just content to treasure them privately. I have a picture of him from that day. In it, he is in profile, watching intently the images on the television screen with a small enigmatic grin on his face.
Twelve years later, I wonder whether that smile was for the events occurring that day in Washington or from remembering the day 64 years before, in Ft. Worth, Texas when he became a citizen. Or perhaps it was that Barack Obama and he had taken the same oath, albeit years apart, to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
As a person who took his oath seriously, as a veteran who fought for his country, and a survivor of the Holocaust I have no doubt how disturbed he would have been over the events of the last four years. He had seen too much in the streets of Vienna where the power of hate and lies had taken what was arguably one of the world’s most civilized cities and turned it into a place of oppression, hate and mob rule.
The parallels between the Austria of his childhood and Donald Trump’s America are too obvious to ignore. The marginalization of citizens due to class, color, race and creed are part of the fascist playbook. . The Goebbels-esque big lies told over and over again until people believed them to be true. The cult of personality that allowed Trump to flaunt the constitution, laws and institutions of our country designed to protect the same. The slave like devotion of his followers who because they shared his political agenda were willing to rationalize his flaunting of the law, the constitution for their own political power.
He would have seen the MAGA hat and Trump flags for what they were: the American equivalent of Nazi Brown Shirts and Flags. He would have heard the decrying of Antifa and Black Lives Matter as the false flag fear mongering of Hitler and Nazi’s against Bolshevism.
He would have been horrified to see the American Kristallnacht. The attempted political coup orchestrated by Donald Trump by inciting, encouraging and empowering of the storming of the US Capital by the MAGA brown shirts.
He would have seen equivalencies between those Republicans, who in the light of Trumps attempted coup, justified their previous support of him with “how could we know” and “he did some good things” with defeated Nazi’s justifying their support of Adolph Hitler.
He would be disappointed in us. We, the descendants of the generation that saved the world, allowed a man who cared more for power than governance to ascend to the Presidency. We allowed him and his supporters to turn conservatism into fascism. To push the big lie and separate us into tribes through false equivalencies, lies and hypocrisy.
Despite all that Dad had been through, all that he has seen, he was an optimist. The planned coup by Donald Trump and his followers failed. He would hope that the heinous acts of January 7th remind us that the politics of lies, hate and division are the gateway drugs to fascism and oppression. He would tell me democracy is not for the feint hearted. The path to restoring our democracy lies in finding common ground. It does not include a blanket forgiveness for all those who supported Donald Trump, for political expediency, knowing he was a clear and present danger to this country. Forgiveness can only come when it is sincerely sought.
On January 20th, I will celebrate Joe Biden and Kamala inauguration and the power of our democracy it represents. I will embrace the spirit of reconciliation that they have requested. But I am also going to be thinking of my Dad. About the vow he made seventy-six years ago and his passion for this country that gave him safe harbor when fascism sought to destroy him. We cannot reconcile with the unapologetic who have sought to do harm to our republic through big lies, false narratives, sand bagging, gaslighting and insurrection. Our obligation as citizen’s is, as Louis Brandeis said, to expose them to the” broad light of day “as “it would purify them as the sun disinfects.” The insurrectionists and, those who empowered them in word and deed, must face our legal system and be adjudicated to the full extent of the law.
We must look inward and see where we have failed as keepers of our father’s legacy. We must realize that we, as is our democracy, are imperfect. Our obligation as humans and citizens is to do better. Not only for ourselves but to honor the sacrifices and the memories of those who came before us. Only after we complete these tasks can we achieve the promise of our constitution and form a “more perfect union.”