My Family’s Story Made the Immigration Debate Much More Personal.
I knew I was Eastern European.
Unfortunately for a long time, that was the extent of my knowledge about where my Dad’s family came from. He told me early on that my Grandma’s childhood was incredibly difficult. Her father was an abusive alcoholic, and she had been through a lot of things that they had never gotten in to too much detail about. It was true that her mother came up nearly every time we visited my Grandparents, particularly when it came to discussions about food. But as I thought about it I realized I had never, ever heard my Grandma talk about her father. All I knew was that her family had settled in Pennsylvania coal country.
For years and years, I avoided asking questions. Whatever my Grandma had been through was so painful that after all those years she still couldn’t bring herself to talk about her father, and I didn’t want to bring up those memories. But after taking an ancestry.com DNA test and viewing my results, it made it nearly impossible for me to ignore my questions. Those results ignited a curiosity within me that I couldn’t push back, and I knew I would never forgive myself if I missed the opportunity to learn about my family’s roots. I decided to gently touch on the subject.
It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever had with my Grandma. While it was difficult for me to see her body language shift when we talked about her father, my Grandma answered everything that she could and gave me information that I otherwise never would have been able to find out.
I learned that her Grandfather Frank Preputnik and his wife Eva had come over from a small town in Slovakia just south of the Polish border not long after their marriage. They settled in Schuylkill county, Pennsylvania where Frank took up work as a coal miner. There, my Great Grandfather Frank “Theodore” Preputnik was born on April 23rd, 1899.
At the age of four years old, my Great Grandfather watched as his father fell to his death down a coal mine shaft. Frank Preputnik, only 35, lost his life in the pursuit of the American dream and left behind a 25 year old wife and three young children, one of whom had been through the traumatic experience of seeing his father die. My Grandma firmly believes that this affected him for the rest of his life. Until I asked, my Dad and his siblings had not known this part of their family’s history.
My Great Grandfather’s life was never easy.
He followed in the path of his father and labored in the coal mines, lost his sister Mary when he was only 19, and went on a long downward spiral of alcoholism that he battled for the rest of his life. He married my Great Grandmother Anna, and they went on to have four sons and five daughters. While he provided for his family financially, their environment was far from stable. In a conversation with my Dad that he later told me about, the abuse was so bad that my Grandma said her faith is really all that got her through it.
The best thing about immigration stories in this country is that the stories do not die with the immigrants themselves, but instead live on with the struggles and successes of their families that come after them. My Great Great Grandfather passed through Ellis island and the story only begins there. As an Eastern European immigrant who spoke little if any english, he died contributing to the American economy and providing for his wife and young children. His son followed in his footsteps and while he was far from a decent person, he and his wife (also born to Eastern European immigrants) brought up families who were able to achieve the dream of living in America’s middle class.
Aside from being able to achieve the American dream, my Grandma’s older brother Michael was also a World War 2 war hero, manning the guns in front of fighter planes and earning a medal of honor for landing his plane and bringing the other men on board to safety after it ran out of gas.
My Grandma worked as a phlebotomist and raised four boys and a girl in upstate New York, while my Grandpa worked in a factory. Aunt Karen went on to be a successful Physical Therapist. Uncle Dave is an engineer for GM working on developing new more energy efficient car batteries. Uncle Tom moved to New York City after high school with 300 dollars in his pocket, and at the age of 28 went on to be editor of the Georgetown Law review and an incredibly successful business lawyer. My Dad put himself through college and went on to become the vice president of a large regional store chain while I grew up. He then became the Director of Procurement at one of the local SUNY schools.
After learning my family’s full story, the conversation surrounding immigration resonated with me even more. In the debate that’s grown increasingly toxic towards those trying to come to this country and better themselves, we cannot allow the country to forget that it was built on the backs of slaves and poor immigrants like my Great Great Grandfather, who worked tirelessly in grueling conditions and even lost their lives to make this country what it is today.
ANYONE who comes here to rebuild their lives and provide for their families should be both celebrated and protected. I am proud of my family’s story. I won’t forget my roots, and we cannot allow the story of this nation and the story of the people who built it to be erased and conveniently cast aside.