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Immigrants Seeking a Common Ground

April 23, 1986|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | Times Staff Writer

Why do people leave their country? What do they experience? How can we help? We want to understand.

With those thoughts, the extraordinary performance of a group of Jewish immigrants who fled Europe a long time ago and a group of Guatemalans and Salvadorans more recently arrived from their homelands began at Fairfax High School on Sunday afternoon.

About 800 people, the majority of them Jewish or Central American immigrants like the people on the stage, came to try to understand each other and their common experience.

Theatrical Experience

"From Ellis Island to El Norte: Different Borders; Common Ground" was a kind of theatrical experience seldom seen, where audience and performers are so much a part of one common culture and experience that the drama frequently spills off the stage.

The Ellis Island Band played klezmer, the soulful, jazzy music that developed among wandering Jewish musicians of East Europe; the group, Sabia, played and sang Central American songs, some of them relating directly to the refugee experience. The audience stamped and clapped at times. They provided their own running commentary and memories to the people next to them. The babies squalled. The toddlers ran. The old people called out, "Speak up. We can't hear you," to the flustered boy in front of the non-working mike.

Benefit Event

New Jewish Agenda, the Guatemala Information Center and the Comite El Salvador, three organizations with similar, non-interventionist positions regarding Central America, put on the event as a benefit for the Sanctuary Movement, although at $5 and $3 per ticket, the consciousness-raising aspects of the afternoon were at least as important.

As narrator Ed Asner, "son of Morry and Lizzie--Russian and Lithuanian Jews," reminded them, the day "was not about our differences but about the common ground between us."

Catholic, Jew; cheap, lazy; job stealer, money-grubber; beaner, beanie; ugly, smelly . ... Again and again they recited similar slurs, drawing parallels between the 2.5 million Jews who came here from Europe between 1886 and 1924 and the 1 million Central Americans who have arrived since the late 1970s. The most distinct difference that afternoon was that most of the Central Americans did not use their last names, a reminder that many of them are not here legally.

Asner spelled it out clearly, reminding people of the Jews fleeing the Holocaust before and during World War II who were denied entry to the United States, until a "handful" were permitted temporarily in 1944.

"Scholars agree that, were it not for U.S. policies, hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Jews could have been saved. And international laws were passed saying that never again should governments forbid refugees safe haven or persecute those who offer sanctuary.

"Today those laws are forgotten or ignored, while governments rain death on Central America."

"We left in a hurry. Everyone was in a panic. I remember one woman was carrying two large jars of jam. Everyone was trying to carry their most precious possessions. We knew we'd never come back," Manya Bender recalled of the day she left the Ukraine with her mother during the Russian Revolution, hoping to reach her father who had gone to the United States and been cut off from them when war broke out. They ran, she said, feeling "the uncertainty of our survival--'Are we sure the place we are running to is more secure?' "

Growing Annoyance

Bender told her story with much detail, to the growing annoyance of her peers, those in the audience who knew her and knew her experience, their experience too well. To the dismay of the rest of those assembled they began clapping impatiently and calling out "That's enough." "Too much detail--stupid things." "OK, let's go." "All right, so you came to America. We want to hear about El Salvador."

It amounted to "get the hook" and Bender bravely fended them off for a few moments, then hastily brought her memories to America.

"These are personal histories," Asner chastened the audience. "Please have the patience and kindness to listen."

Terrible Pogrom

"Shtetl life is no more and there is a great yearning left in me for that kind of life," said Isador Ziferstein after telling of leaving the village in the Ukraine, the land where his people had lived for 1,000 years, during a pogrom so terrible that only now at age 76 has he begun to permit himself to recall the nights and days of June 15 and 16, 1919.

Jewish and Central American performers re-enacted the border crossings, the nighttime wandering and running through forests and countryside; the guides who ripped them off, taking their money and valuables at gunpoint, the fear of detection by the authorities. It was impossible to keep the Jewish and Central American stories straight.

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