Joe’s Journal

Our immigrants

Ramblings from an old scribbler
Wed, 05/12/2021 - 7:15am

Stories about immigrants seem to fill our newspapers and TV screens.

They tell of refugees trying to enter the USA after walking thousands of miles to escape violence, poverty, oppression and famine.

Some of our friends oppose their efforts because they violate our immigration laws. Others say they are criminals, dopers, or carriers of dread diseases. They speak foreign tongues, too. Keep them out, they demand.

Here in our corner of the world, we recently lost a pair of neighbors, both immigrants who arrived on our shores after experiencing oppression, violence and fear. And they helped make our nation and our community a better place to live.

I am referring to Paul Bokros and Florence Rosenberg.

Paul, a longtime summer resident of Barters Island, was one of the 983 Jewish refugees we let into America during World War II.

Born in Yugoslavia, now Serbia, his father, a successful businessman, hustled his family out of town when the Nazis arrived. They sneaked into southern Italy, becoming refugees scrounging for food. As American and Allied armies pushed up the Italian boot, somehow, his father got the family booked on an Army transport ship. The first thing Paul noticed was the chow hall where there was a line of food he didn’t know existed, including eggs and pancakes.

In an interview with me, he talked about the three-week voyage. Tears slid down his cheeks when he recalled seeing the Statue of Liberty.

The refugees were sent to Oswego, New York, and housed in old Army barracks.

At the local high school, Paul was mentored by an industrial arts teacher who introduced him to electronics. That led to job tinkering with electronic gadgets, a stint in the USAF as an electronic instructor, a college physics degree, and a long career in the U.S. defense industry. He retired as a vice president with General Dynamics and director of the F-16 electronics systems.

“Only a foreign-born can truly understand the nature of the trunk of the tree on which he’s grafted. Only a foreign-born can truly appreciate what America is,” he said.

Paul Bokros said he was never a Yugoslavian-American.“I am a United States American.”

Florence Pené-Rosenberg was just a girl when the Nazis arrived in Paris.

In 2018, she told me how she stood on the seventh-floor balcony watching the German army march into town.

She remembered watching as friends and neighbors were arrested and sent to their doom. She ducked and hid in shelters as Allied bombers targeted the auto manufacturing factory a few blocks away from her home. She saw Germans cheer as they shot down British planes.

She remembers spending a lot of time in her school’s chapel, hoping and praying that her family would survive.

“It worked. We survived,” she said.

Germans ordered her dad, a public works official, to help them maintain roads, but after Allied forces landed in Normandy, he escaped and joined the resistance. Germans sent two soldiers to live in their apartment, hoping to arrest him if he came home.

As Allied forces moved closer to Paris, the Germans got nervous and left the family alone. Her mother then dyed one of the baby’s diapers red and another blue and hung those diapers along with a white one over the balcony to represent a French flag.

“The Germans saw that and started shooting at our balcony, so mother took them down,” she said.

On Aug. 23, the Allies ensured the Free French Army was the first to march into Paris.

“We heard about it and, the next day, we crossed the Seine and greeted them. We climbed on the tanks, and, my God, did they get kissed that day.”

The next day, the American troops marched into Paris and paraded in the Place de la Concorde. “We cheered them and were fascinated by the Jeeps,” she said. It was the first time she had ever heard the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

After the war, she was educated, came to America on a scholarship, married, raised a family and retired to Boothbay Harbor where she became a beloved member of our community and a faithful volunteer.

During a two-hour interview, this quiet woman with the engaging smile and hint of a French accent had tears in her eyes as she shared the feelings of joy as she told of the liberation of Paris and her deep love for the country that freed her native land.

“I still cry every time I listen to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” she said.

Both of our late neighbors, both immigrants, made important contributions to the nation that accepted and adopted them.

May they both rest in peace.