Michael Schmerler’s vivid memories of coming to the land of plenty.
Eight-year-old Michael Schmerler stood in the produce section of an Ohio grocery store and marveled at the seemingly endless supply of fruits and vegetables. His childhood experience reminds us all to be appreciative of all we have. “People here complain about silly things, but they have no idea how bad it can be. In Poland, we had to be at the grocer at 5:00 a.m. to grab maybe one apple. I never even saw a banana in Poland, but here there were racks of them! The pleasures of America are so bountiful.”
Michael, now in the U.S. for 60 years, solemnly recalls his family’s life in Poland. “During the war, my dad wanted his family to run away from Poland but only he and his sister did. Everyone else perished in the concentration camps. My mom fled Odessa with her family when Hitler invaded Russia.” After the war, Michael’s parents met in central Asia but didn’t stay in the area because work was hard to find. “Because my father spoke so many languages, I think they thought he was a spy and didn’t want to give him work.” Michael’s parents moved back to Poland to a city that had been so destroyed that Michael remembers playing in the rubble as a child. “I also remember my father taking me on walks through a park where gypsies frequented. My father, who was an accountant, had a reputation of wisdom, so the gypsies would ask his advice about money, or the state of things in Poland, and he would advise them.”
Michael’s parents immigrated to the U.S. to escape Poland’s anti-Semitism, not for themselves, but for Michael and his sister. “Being in Poland was difficult for Jews. My parents were called names and beaten up once when they were out for a walk. It was traumatic living there. But leaving was always about me and my sister, about giving us opportunities for a good life.”
Once in the U.S., Michael seized those opportunities with both hands. First, he was placed a grade ahead of where he had been in Poland. “The principal said, ‘What’s the point? He doesn’t even know English, so put him in the grade level for his age.’” With some support from some classmates and teachers who often stayed after school to help him with his English, he found his rhythm at school, which continued all the way through medical school. “My dad, having come to the U.S. with only 25 cents in his pocket, put me and my sister though college and graduate school, and I went through medical school. America is a blessed country. If you work hard you can achieve.”
Achievement didn’t stop with Michael. His kids’ professions include a neurologist, dentist, and social worker, and his wife is a neuropsychologist. “I think we should dream, and fulfillment can come with hard work – there are no shortcuts. If you come here with good intentions and you work hard, the opportunities are here. This is still the greatest country that civilization has ever created.”
Only once has Michael visited Poland since he left so many years ago. He and his sister were able to go inside their old home, now a law agency. Despite the remodel, Michael could still visualize where he and his father used to drag heavy coal up the stairs for heat. “I went there for the memories. I stood at the window where I remember seeing the Russian troops marching in the plaza below.”
As Michael brings his thoughts back to the U.S., he articulates the power of his immigration experience. “I’ve been blessed. I’ve been lucky. America has been good to us. America is a good place to fulfill your dreams.”