The past, especially the recent past, helps us to understand the present. But it is only from the present, from the current starting point, that we can go down new paths, move in a different, perhaps even radically different, direction. All Americans are immigrants or descendents of immigrants. The historical consciousness of the American people is greatly influenced by the immigrant experience. Imagine what it was like for those millions upon millions of families to take that step, to leave their home and to risk the unknown.
For most of them not freely. For many it was a question of survival. For others it was about freedom. They wanted to decide their own fates, and wanted the same for their children. Nonetheless, the decision was very difficult. It meant leaving everything they knew, everything that gave them security. Once they left, however, the present and past of their native country would no longer be relevant. But what do human beings have other than their past and present? The unknown, insecurity and risk? Or do they have opportunity?
In such situations people have to make hard, tough decisions, about what they take with them from the past and the present. Of course all immigrant groups, including the waves of Germans who came to America, brought their language, customs and traditions. The older generations continued to speak their mother tongue. Foreign-language newspapers were published in all of the major American cities. All that they knew and brought over lasted, however, only for a certain period of time.
Ballast had to go
The everyday challenges of life in America rubbed and pulled away, layer for layer, the recent present and the past of the homeland. The immigrants took on, layer for layer, the realities of the current present in the United States, like having old skin replaced by new. It was painful. The time came in every immigrant family when the children no longer wanted, or no longer could, speak the language of the old world.
Many parents who immigrated demanded of their children that they assimilate as quickly as possible, that they forget the old language, customs and traditions. They had decided to leave their homes, towns and homelands. They refused to get stuck between two realities. To move forward demanded that they leave behind what they had known. It was time to go down a new path. The cares, worries and chores of the day left them no other choice.
That path to and in America was difficult, hard, rough. Many did not make, did not succeed. Every wave of immigrants had to fight for their future in America. Everything which weighed them down, every form of ballast, had to go. And that meant much that was associated with the homeland. For many, even for most, however, throwing overboard the ballast of the past set them free.