Commentary Magazine


Clash of Two Immigrant Generations:
Citizens and Exiles

The deep rift between the pre-and post-World War II immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe—one of the most important groups on the American ethnic scene—is here described by Bogdan Raditsa, himself from Yugoslavia (he was born in Split, Dalmatia) and a former Washington press chief for the Tito regime who chose freedom.

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The Hungarian revolt sent a new type of East European refugee to this country. At least several thousand young people among the 32,000 Hungarian refugees now over here were raised in a Communist society, and when they rebelled against it they did so with no thought of restoring pre-war Hungary. These post-Stalinist refugees are as different from the post-World War II newcomers as they are from the mass of immigrants who came here from Eastern Europe between 1890 and 1925.

Most of the new Hungarian refugees are not, however, of the post-Stalinist type. Our immigration laws, which keep out anyone who has ever belonged to a Communist organization, have condemned to Austrian and Yugoslav rather than American exile thousands of the more conscious and dynamic people whose postwar hopes led them into the Communist movement and whose profound disillusionment made them the leaders of the 1956 revolt. Had Imre Nagy, for example, been able to escape the Soviet secret police, President Eisenhower would have been able to offer him political asylum only under special and limited powers; a life-long Communist, Nagy could under no circumstances have been admitted as an immigrant under the McCarran-Walter Act. Many outstanding Hungarians have been compelled to remain in European camps as a result of such legal obstacles.

Hence the new Hungarian immigration to America is dominated by non-political people. Yet it does contain some authentic post-Stalinist refugees, mostly students. It will be interesting to see how they adjust to American life, and particularly to the two previous generations of immigrants with whom they will, unavoidably, live in closest contact.

The genuine emotion with which the new refugees were welcomed by the older immigrants from Hungary does not mean that the latter are a united group. On the contrary, they are split into two distinct generations, and the conflict between these is not only one of age: it is also a political, ideological, social, and economic split that rends almost every Hungarian American community.

Nor is the conflict confined to Americans of Hungarian origin: it is felt in almost the entire East European immigrant community of this country. That includes Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Ukrainians, Balts, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians, Rumanians—all the peoples who were under the sway of the Austrian, Russian, or Turkish empires in the 19th century, fought their way to nationhood in the 20th, and fell in turn under Nazi and Communist rule during World War II.

My own experience over the last decade has been with immigrants from Croatia, Hungary’s southern neighbor, a country whose political and cultural fate was linked with Hungary’s for a thousand years. Some time ago, at the invitation of the Croatian Peasant Societies of the Pacific Coast, I made an extensive tour of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, in the course of which I spoke to hundreds upon hundreds of Americans of Croatian origin. It was then that I became aware at first hand of the bitterness that divides the Croatians who came here as displaced persons after 1945 from the Croatian American families established in this country for four and five decades. After returning to New York, I consulted friends who had come from other East European countries—Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks—and learned that the same pattern obtained in the immigrant communities they knew. That pattern tells much about how the American experience affects and has affected different groups of immigrants at different times.

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Croatians began entering the United States in significant numbers toward the end of the last century. They came from Croatia proper, from the Dalmatian coast and the Adriatic islands, from Slavonia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, and they all came as “Austrians” because they were born under the Dual Monarchy of the Hapsburgs. From New York they moved to the mining towns of Pennsylvania, then to Chicago, slowly through the West to the new mines in Colorado, and finally to California. This transcontinental migration was strictly economic in motivation; the Croats followed the railroads and new mines. When mining towns became ghost towns, they moved on. Many died on the way. But after the first reached California and wrote their countrymen back East or in Europe about the beauty and fertility of the land, the mild climate and the good fishing, the later Croat immigrants began going directly from New York to the Pacific.

Who were these pioneers? There were some priests and a handful of educated men, but the overwhelming majority were peasants and fishermen. They had left the old Austro-Hungarian Empire primarily because of poverty. The Hapsburg officialdom and the Magyar gentry under whom they were born held the Slavic Croats in contempt. For their part, the Croats had no taste for the monarchy or for the servile Catholic hierarchy that buttressed it, and still less for the big landowners and the rising middle class, which was as authoritarian in outlook as the landowners. The emigrating Croats all needed bread, but they also sought social equality and peace.

What the Croats of America accomplished in the past half-century is part of a larger American success story. With their fellow immigrants from Central, Eastern, and Southern Europe, they transformed the United States from an almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon country into a new type of nation—multiform, diverse, young, dynamic. At the same time they themselves were transformed. Talents and desires that had been frustrated on Austro-Hungarian soil achieved realization over here. Visiting these old immigrants today, one sees smart, modern homes with many rooms and several baths, all the latest American gadgets, new cars outside, and often swimming pools as well. If the immigrant grows fruit or grapes, he owns a few hundred acres of land and cultivates it with hired help. If he is a fisherman, he owns his own boat or boats and, in some cases, his own canneries. Unable to live by tilling Croatian soil or fishing in the Adriatic, he has made his traditional skills support him well on the rich Pacific Coast and in its fertile inland valleys.

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Though these Croats were primarily “economic” emigrants, they were not without political feelings and, like so many other immigrants, continued to be interested in the politics of their native country. Since they had been oppressed by Austrians and Magyars in their homelands, they dreamed of a union of South Slavs independent of either Austria or Hungary. Before and during World War I, political exiles from Croatia visited them and won their enthusiasm for the idea of the new state that was to be called Yugoslavia. Pacific Coast Croats largely financed the Yugoslav National Committee, the anti-Hapsburg exile organization that helped bring the new state into being. Legend has it that these Croats helped persuade Woodrow Wilson to back the Yugoslav idea, and that their votes supplied the narrow margin in California by which he was re-elected in 1916. Even today these Croatian Americans speak of Wilson with respect.

But the new Yugoslavia, far from becoming a federal democracy, turned into a narrow dictatorship dominated by the old Serbian ruling caste. The postwar travail of the Croats of Yugoslavia, which culminated in 1928 in the murder of their leader, Stephen Radich, right in the Belgrade Parliament, sadly disillusioned the American Croats. Most of the Croatian immigrants to these shores after 1918 were disappointed followers of Radich’s Peasant movement, which sought Croat home rule. The postwar situation tended at the same time to divide Croatian Americans. Some sympathized with the ultra-nationalists who favored Croat secession from Yugoslavia; others believed in a federal reorganization of the Yugoslav state; the majority, however, simply became indifferent to politics in the old country.

Hitler’s invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941 revived the American Croats’ old sympathies. The great majority opposed the Nazi-controlled Independent Croat State led by the so-called Ustashi—not only because the Ustashi declared war on the United States after Pearl Harbor but also because they carried on a vicious campaign of extermination against Serbs and Jews. American Croats became discouraged, however, when the Yugoslav resistance to Hitler was totally identified with General Draja Mikhailovich and his Serbian Chetniks; before the war, these very Chetniks had had a large hand in the persecution of the Croats. At the same time, the royal Yugoslav government-in-exile smeared Croatia as a land of collaborators and intimated that the Serbs would rule postwar Yugoslavia in the same way as they had before. Through the influence of Yugoslav diplomats—most of them Pan-Serbian—on the State Department, hundreds of American Croats were classified as enemy aliens, and many were investigated by the FBI as potential German spies. Under such pressures, American Serbs and American Croats, who had lived as good neighbors for centuries in Europe and for decades in North America, turned against one another.

This situation dissolved, however, in 1943 when the Big Three officially endorsed Tito’s National Liberation Movement, which promised a new federal Yugoslavia with autonomous republics for Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia. Tito himself was a Croat, and when Roosevelt and Churchill recognized him as an ally, American Croats felt relieved. They knew little about Tito the Communist, but they could not help but approve of Tito the Croat, who was fighting the Nazis harder than the Serb Mikhailovich. They also responded to Tito’s repudiation of the Serbian royal house, his purge of the old Serb army and government hierarchy, and his appointment of local peasants and workers to the new government. When responsible Allied leaders hailed Tito as the George Washington of the Yugoslav revolution and his program as a Yugoslav “New Deal,” not only North American Croats but Slovenes and many Serbs looked toward his regime with hope.

At the end of the war thousands of Canadian Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes sold their homes, packed up their Canadianborn children, and returned to their birthplaces to help build the new Yugoslav People’s Republic. Not nearly as many United States Croats, Serbs, and Slovenes were able to do the same, since the State Department refused exit visas to those who were American citizens—thus preventing innumerable personal tragedies. For the majority of those who returned to Yugoslavia from the Western Hemisphere became disillusioned with Tito’s new state, and, as soon as they could, sought Canadian passports and went back to the Pacific Coast.

In Vancouver, I spoke to several of these people, trying to understand why they had left Canada in the first place. One old man told me: “I somehow never felt quite at home in this country. Whenever I opened my mouth I felt people were looking down on me as a foreigner. I had work, I had a home, I had educated my children, but I was afraid of another depression, and I still felt like a foreigner. I thought that with the $30,000 I had from my savings and selling my house, I could live out my last days with my own people. I learned from bitter experience that not only my children but I myself could not adjust to the old country.”

The children were particularly shocked. Though they spoke Croatian, they had been born and raised in a free country; they felt like foreigners in Yugoslavia. In the schools, they could not stomach the Communist indoctrination, which pictured the United States and Canada as countries where workers starved on slave wages. There must have been thousands of classroom arguments; finally, Communist officials told the Canadian children to stay away from school if they could not accept the official teaching.

Nor could the adults live comfortably. Their Canadian dollars bad been quickly exchanged for Yugoslav currency at a highly inflated official rate. Their cars had been confiscated, with scant compensation, for the use of government officials. The jobs they received in industry, quite naturally, paid the same low wages that Yugoslav workers were getting.

When these families finally returned to Canada their stories did much to wipe out the remaining illusions about Tito among North American Croats. American and Canadian Croats now knew that Tito had liquidated not only the old reactionary elements, but also the progressive and democratic forces of the country.

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The Croatian and East European immigrant who began coming to North America after 1945 belonged in general to a different type from his predecessors. He was not a peasant or fisherman seeking economic opportunity, but a refugee from Communism with a political and intellectual background. Most of the exiles belonged to the Central European intelligentsia and were proud of it; at home before World War II, they had regarded emigrants to America as social failures. Doctors, lawyers, priests, military officers, bankers, businessmen, professors and teachers, the new arrivals were members of that middle class whose main claim to self-esteem was the leading part it had taken in the formation of the ethnic states set up in Eastern Europe and the Balkans after the collapse of the Austrian and Russian empires. To North America they brought, as their chief stock in trade, their opposition to Communism.

Their fathers and grandfathers had been liberals, but they were not. When the depression unleashed a Nazi-Communist duel for Eastern Europe, the intelligentsia became rapidly polarized between the totalitarian left and the totalitarian right. In Yugoslavia, as in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and throughout the Balkans, one section of the educated middle class looked to Berlin and Rome for aid in achieving its political, economic, or ethnic aims, while another section looked to Moscow. The two camps waged hot and cold civil war against each other throughout Eastern Europe from 1933 to 1945, splintering the small forces of the democratic center in the process. The totalitarian left, for geographical reasons as well as those of historical circumstance, won the war, and stayed where it was to establish the postwar “people’s democracies.” The totalitarian right, having lost, emigrated.

There is of course a significant number of genuine and conscious democrats, even of liberals and socialists, among the postwar emigrés. Still others, while conservative in political orientation, did not and do not condone the atrocities of the Germans and their allies. The fact remains, nonetheless, that the majority of the postwar emigrés from Eastern Europe to the U. S., even when they profess devotion to democracy, retain a basically illiberal cast of mind. They themselves will tell you, even now, that “liberalism breeds Communism.”

According to the Croatian variant of this myth, Hitler and Mussolini—or at least the Ustashi—were not war criminals but “premature anti-Communists” who were betrayed by Churchill and Roosevelt. Citing every new anti-Roosevelt book that has appeared since 1945, these emigrés are convinced that “our country was sold down the river by the Roosevelt New Dealers.” They bristle at the suggestion that the fratricidal war between the Croats and Serbs, in which they themselves played a part, did more to pave the way for Tito than any amount of Western “blunders.”

These emigrés also felt ill at ease in a democratic environment of which the older immigrant was now a smooth-fitting part. At home, they had belonged to an elite close to the sources of political power and social prestige. All too soon the emigré discovered that the title of “doctor,” the mark of distinction in the old country, carried no great weight here and was, in fact, generally identified with self-effacing physicians. “Doc” amused, rather than impressed, the old immigrants and their children. “There were plenty of doctors here before they started to come,” a Los Angeles college girl of Croatian stock told me, “but we never heard the title stressed as much as these DP’s do. They are too title-minded, and we don’t like that.”

With his deep sense of class and status, integration in American society is not easy for the emigré The skilled engineer or physician who, after long years of interne-ship, flunking license exams, washing dishes or lavatory floors, finally establishes himself in his profession, discovers that he does not enjoy the same exalted status that he would have had in the old country. I met several young Croatian doctors in the Los Angeles area who were earning $25,000 to $35,000 a year, but still felt declassed.

The situation is far more difficult for a lawyer, economist, or doctor of philosophy. And these form a large proportion of the postwar emigrés from Eastern Europe. Even when one of them manages to insure his economic welfare, the language barrier and the lack of contact with the American “ruling class” make him feel not only declassed but dépaysé as well, socially and ethnically uprooted. The collapse of his old ambition to become a leader of society poisons the otherwise satisfactory life he may have made for himself. Not only is he barred from political leadership in this country; he cannot become a labor leader either. Small wonder that he becomes bitter when he sees some of the older, originally peasant immigrants and their American-educated children making their way into politics and, to an even greater extent, into the labor movement.

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The polemics that rage from time to time in the foreign-language press reveal all the conflicts dividing the older immigrants and the new emigrés. On the one side, the older immigrant complains that the newcomers do not understand the basic principles on which this country is built. “We are all equals here,” the older immigrants say. “We own the same homes and have the same opportunities. We love our country. We are devoted to our Constitution and to our government. We are not Communists, but we are not fascists either.” Such are typical statements made by older immigrants in the Croatian-language press.

“These people who came after the war,” old immigrants told me personally, “speak only of class and national hatred. If they are Croats, they hate the Serbs. If Serbs, they say all Croats should be exterminated. If they are Ukrainians, they hate all Russians. If they are Slovaks, they detest all Czechs. They are all the same, there is no difference between them. They hate us, too, since we do not hate anybody. Not only do we Croats feel different from these DP’s; the Serbs, Ukrainians, Slovaks—all the older immigrants have the same feeling toward their own DP’s.”

“They all tell us,” another man said, “how many Communists they killed during the war. If they are Croat Ustashi, they say they killed Serbs because the Serbs were Communists. If they are Serb Chetniks, they say they killed Croats because the Croats were Communists. Hitler, Mussolini, and the rest, they tell us, were fighting Communism, and if America had followed their example, the world would be in better shape today.”

Despite their disclaimers of fascism, the emigrés generally tend to be race-conscious and often anti-Semitic, whereas anti-Semitism is virtually unknown among the older immigrants. I met one sincere young emigré who tried to persuade me that all economic and social power in this country was held by Jews, and that unless the same “precautions” were taken here as in pre-war Germany and Italy, Communism would win out in the United States. Though I pointed out, as calmly and factually as I could, the preponderance of Protestants in the administration of American industry and finance, he continued to talk on in an obsessed way, unwilling even to listen.

It is not surprising that most emigrés of this type became avid McCarthyites. Their hopes were highest when the power of the Wisconsin Senator seemed most formidable, for they expected McCarthy to bring America closer to the pre-war European order under which they had thrived. The way in which constitutional processes gradually reduced the Senator to his true proportions disappointed them deeply, and to this day they canot understand how a general in the White House could help “disarm” McCarthy in the “fight against Communism.”

The intellectuals among these emigrés have never read Tocqueville and don’t care to. Their intellectual texts are abridged editions of Charles Maurras. The Roman Catholics among them oppose Jacques Maritain and hate the liberal Catholic Commonweal as much as they do any secular liberal magazine.

Most expressions of this kind of prejudice fall on deaf ears as far as the old generation is concerned. The older immigrants are devout worshippers of Roosevelt, even when they now like Ike. Many of them saw hard-earned savings wiped out in the depression, and they attribute their present high living standard directly to the economic and social reforms of the New Deal. In this, of course, the old immigrants reflect the prevailing American experience.

And in their attitude to questions of foreign policy, too, the older immigrants reflect the America in which they have spent most of their years. For while the new emigrés demand a bellicose and aggressive policy toward Communism and ridicule the West for its “weakness,” the older immigrants would prefer to see America avoid foreign entanglements; any policy aiming to avert war seems wise to them. And, for the most part, the older Croatian immigrants do not resent the assistance the United States gives to Tito. In fact, they feel a bit proud when Yugoslavia is described in the newspapers as the pivot of southeastern Europe, and admire (as do many other Americans) the portrait of Tito as a self-made man which is drawn in Life and other mass media.

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It would be misleading to suggest that the emigrés who arrived in this country eight, ten, and twelve years ago have not changed at all since then. Material security has had its effect, as has their freedom to dissent openly from the prevailing liberal atmosphere and still go on living and working with no fear of reprisal. In five years one can become an American citizen with a television set, a car, perhaps a home of his own, certainly plenty of food and clothing. The older immigrant took twenty years to achieve this kind of living standard.

Gradually, the idea of a triumphant return to the old country is fading. Most emigrés realize that the old order suffered a mortal blow with the war; the events in Poland and Hungary have since made it plain to all that the end of Communism, no matter how it comes about, will not bring back pre-1939 conditions. Only a tiny minority still want to return—mainly old professional politicians and diplomats who have not entered the mainstream of American life but remain active in the various exile committees and propaganda agencies in New York and Washington. Most of the DP’s now settled throughout the land have long ago abandoned hopes of returning. But this does not mean that they do not still feel separated and alienated from the America around them, and do not continue to huddle insecurely in their segregated little communities.

These communities generally center around a church or ethnic organization, often directly transplanted from the old country. The social attitudes by which these communities are inspired are quite different from their native American or older immigrant equivalents. It has been, quite naturally, the more liberal and venturesome spirits among the emigrés who find it easiest to leave these enclaves and plunge into the American world at large. As a result, the reactionaries have with the years become even more dominant in the emigré communities. And as the more moderate DP’s move out among their fellow Americans, the hard-core emigrés who are unable or unwilling to do so become even more bitter and fanatical.

There is a very real danger in this process. For these emigré enclaves—whether church, ethnic, or fraternal organizations—are largely responsible for sponsoring and harboring the newest arrivals from Eastern Europe. The latter may not share their prejudices at first, but are liable to absorb them with sufficient exposure. On the West Coast I spoke with many young men in their teens or twenties who had escaped fairly recently from Yugoslavia. They had been non-political youngsters originally, who came West in search of freedom and opportunity much as the older immigrants had. Yet they felt obliged now to parrot fascist slogans in which they only half believed in order to please their elders. At the same time, many of the children of the early postwar emigrés told me they felt torn between the beliefs of their parents and those of their American schoolmates and teachers.

Many of the new Hungarian refugees have already been consigned to the care of these die-hard emigré groups—a bitter irony when one recalls the democratic aspirations of the Hungarian revolution that brought them here. New Yonkers last November witnessed a scene which symbolized both the irony and the problem: when Anna Kethly, the old Hungarian Social Democrat, rose to address a Madison Square Garden rally for the freedom fighters, she was coarsely booed by organized right-wing and fascist emigrés, and the chairman had to plead for her right to speak. Yet the refugees of the revolution in which she and her ideals played so large a part may have to turn to these very same emigrés for aid in settling here.

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New restlessness in Eastern Europe remains a distinct possibility. If East Germans, attracted in part by the example of democratic West Berlin, flee and are admitted into the U.S., will they be turned over to those organized Sudeten Germans already in this country who once played such a large part in Hitler’s march to war? The examples can be multiplied for other areas of Central and Eastern Europe. The danger is that the present open-door policy will not help revitalize the country with an infusion of blood from live and alert immigrants filled with respect and affection for our democratic framework, but will, instead, spread the old poisons of Europe among the American community at large.

The answer is not to close our doors; it is to open them still wider. America’s responsibility for these new arrivals should not end in New York harbor. Surely their education and their Americanization should not be left to chance. Our country has been generous in giving a handful of East European leaders the opportunity to enjoy a life of repose and freedom from economic worry. We have been, perhaps, too generous in nurturing, with the aid of these old politicians, hopes in East Europe itself which we have never intended to support with concrete deeds. Far greater generosity, and energy, is required for the new task at hand.

Our government, our religious organizations, universities, and burgeoning foundations must lead the way. There is a vast educational effort required—far greater than the emergency program for the tiny groups of Hungarian college students who landed here. Not only young men who may arrive in 1957 and 1958, but old emigrés who arrived in 1955, and even in 1945, should be brought into direct and sustained contact with American organizations and institutions. More concretely: lawyers’ associations should map out programs to retrain, absorb, and integrate emigré lawyers. Teachers, scholars and journalists certainly have much to gain from helping their emigré counterparts understand and contribute to, American life. The national shortage of engineers and technicians makes it virtually mandatory that we bring semi-trained emigré technicians out of isolation and into the factory and the factory-training programs. Emigré labor leaders, regardless of their past politics, must be exposed to the workings of American trade-unionism and given a part to play in it. Even the emigré politician may be helped, for if he is young enough and not an unregenerate totalitarian, he may find more genuine scope for his talents in the local affairs of a small American community than he has so far found lobbying in Washington and writing angry letters to the New York Times.

Much as we like to console ourselves with our immigrant traditions, the pattern of immigration has changed. The postwar emigré is different, and the post-Stalinist refugee is a completely new quantity. Neither is quite in harmony with American democracy. If anyone doubts that, just let him ask the older East European immigrants who have been helping build America over the last half-century and more.

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