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“You don’t want to go in the pool, there’s a Hunky in there!” The comment was directed at a young girl by a group of boys nearby. The young Hunky in the pool was my father. The term Hunky was an ethnic slur aimed at Hungarians. Technically, my father was Russian and Polish, but the term was often used pejoratively towards anyone of Eastern European descent. You see, at the turn of the Nineteenth Century, the industrial revolution was in full stride and immigrants rushed in to fill the many factory jobs that promised them a better future. These immigrants, having made the daring break from the life they had always known, took whatever jobs they could find at whatever wages were offered. I think the first thing taught about a capitalist economy is the law of supply and demand: the greater the supply is of something in respect to its demand, the cheaper the cost. The result of such a massive influx of desperate workers into the job market must have severely cut the bargaining power of the workers that were already living in this country. The initial success of industrialization promised American workers a better life. But that promise was unkept when a new wave of foreigners took what people here thought was theirs. Ad to that the language and cultural barriers, and animosity inevitably arose. Ghettos sprang up around the nation, where people who spoke the same language, ate the same food, and worshipped in the same way tended to congregate. It is only natural that the new Americans were anxious to integrate, and I suppose it was only natural that the “Native” Americans were less than hospitable to them. I understand that, and I think my father did too. And yet the incident at the pool stayed with him, and he felt the need to tell me about it some fifty years after the event.
When I was growing up, Polish jokes were told quite often, much more than dumb blonde jokes are now. It never bothered me, nor did it bother my father, who was one of the first to pick up “The Official Dumb Polack Book”. The success of this book was followed by a sequel, followed by “The Official Dumb Polack/Dumb Italian Book, followed by the Dumb White Folks/Black Folks book. I’m not sure how far this went on, but I do remember the Irish being included at some point. I would often tell Polack jokes myself. If someone got insulted, I had as my defense my Polish heritage. But there were always some who took offense despite our shared ethnicity. After arguing my position, I would defer to their sensibilities.
Since early in my life I have been a collector. Comic books were not things to be looked at and then discarded, but part of an ever expanding whole. So it was with stamps and coins, always trying to add a new country to my collection. And so it was with friends, I have to confess. I would always ask a new found friend their nationality, hoping to add to my collection. A unique ethnicity added a little something to the particular person’s persona, added a little something to my perception of the world. So I swear to you that there was no racial malice when I did what I did. I don’t know my exact age, but I do remember I was in grade school, probably 8 or 9 years old. Children of that age sometimes flirt by exchanging insults, and this is what I was doing when I called Evelyn Lugo a Puerto Rican Pig. I didn’t know the meaning of the word alliterative at that age, but that’s what I was going for. When she quickly took offense to what I said, I immediately assumed it was the word pig that set her off. I tried to explain it away, tried to explain to her that she should not take that attitude with me, but it was to no avail. In an instant, it seemed that she had grown in maturity, as though I were talking to someone far older than myself. I truly did not understand the offense, but I understood that she was genuinely offended. Although I don’t blame myself now for my lack of understanding at that young age, I do blame a society that made a little girl grow up too soon. And as a member of that society, I recognize my responsibility to that young girl on a playground so long ago. Like my father before me, I understand and forgive, but it has stayed with me.
Perhaps need and greed shall always be with us. As long as they are, people will point fingers at those who speak, look, and act differently from ourselves. Ethnicity and nationality will be convenient diversions to the real problems of this world. But I am optimistic in this respect. I am reminded of something my older brother told me. In World War II, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union caused over 20 million deaths in the U.S.S.R. But in the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Leningrad, the song Traumerei (Dreaming) is played continuously 24 hours a day. It is intentional that a song by a German composer is played here, a reminder that there is no ill-will towards the German people. I have tried to find a clip of it on YouTube, but there is nothing really suitable. I did, however, come upon this. Here is Vladimir Horowitz, a Jewish-Russian, playing Traumerei before a crowd in Russia in 1979. Many in the audience are of an age that indicates that they had survived the most brutal war that has ever plagued mankind. On many faces can be seen tears, but no anger or outrage. It will forever stay with them, yet they can forgive.