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Ideas

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syrian boy with christmas tree
Reuters/Ina Fassbender
The gift of refuge.
GIVE US YOUR TIRED

Before Polish workers knocked down a building for Trump Tower, they were refugees

Donald Morrison
By Donald Morrison

Former editor, Time Asia

I was married in the New England mill town of my bride’s family, a rough and ready mob of Polish immigrants. Their red-brick parish church looked, on the outside, like the vaguely gothic temples of my Midwestern youth. On the inside, however, the building was all Poland, with so many paintings, icons, candlesticks, statues, and incense-burners that you could barely see the altar.

Halfway down the nave was a revelation: a billboard-size painting of the Blessed Virgin hovering over a smoky battlefield while soldiers energetically slaughter each other at her feet. Dominating the teeming tableau, perhaps unintentionally, is a meticulously rendered, tripod-mounted, water-cooled machine gun, a dead ringer for the Browning M1917 I found myself firing a few months later as part of my Army basic training.

Inconveniently enough, I first encountered the painting as I walked down the aisle in a rented morning suit. I halted, transfixed with astonishment, while a low murmur rose from the pews. My about-to-be wife fidgeted in the vestibule. I suddenly realized that my future in-laws did not, as I had somehow assumed, come to America merely to make money. They were also fleeing the almost incessant mayhem that gripped Poland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

I have been thinking a lot these days about the painting my wife and I still half-jokingly call “Our Lady of the Machine Gun.” During the most recent Republican presidential debate, Marco Rubio dug up Donald Trump’s use of undocumented laborers from Poland in 1980. Rubio used the anecdote in an attempt to expose Trump’s hypocrisy, but I also considered how hard a person’s life must be to choose to abandon it. To pack up for an entirely new and uncertain future in a foreign land–even a land of promise, like America.

Meanwhile, yet another wave of immigrants is fleeing incessant mayhem, this time in the Middle East. More than a million have escaped from Syria alone. The US, which welcomed my in-laws a century ago, has agreed to accept a few thousand, amid fierce opposition from Americans worried about Islamic terrorist infiltrators and immigrants generally.

It is tempting to dismiss such fears as overblown and downright un-American. But those counter-arguments have been made forcefully in recent weeks, to little effect. The San Bernardino attack has no doubt fed the anxiety, which certain presidential candidates have chosen to fan. I look on in horror and incomprehension, as I did at that painted Polish battlefield.

I point out to skeptical friends that all Americans are immigrants—some more recent than others. (Mine came a generation or two before my wife’s). I note that immigrant families are typically hard-working, law-abiding, and eventually assimilated into American life. Indeed, my wife’s numerous siblings and cousins are now mostly doctors, lawyers, and educators, and none speaks Polish even at home. Ah, but they’re different, the nativists say; they’re Christian, they’re white. Interestingly, not many people were saying such things when the first of my wife’s family arrived. Back then, the immigrant tides from Poland, as well as Germany, Russia, Lithuania, Latvia, Italy, and even my sainted ancestors from Scotland and Ireland, were widely derided as criminals, mental defectives, carriers of disease, and religious extremists impervious to education and assimilation. We know how that turned out, and it’s likely that it will again. That’s what America does to newcomers. In turn, they enrich our economy and even our culture with their energy, passion, and exotic, foreign-born ideas.

I am reminded of that latter point every holiday season, when shopping malls and radio stations are reverberating with the sounds of Christmas—those annoying songs we tolerate for these few weeks. The best ones, I have come to believe, are Polish: Dzisiaj w Betlejem (“Today in Bethlehem”), Wsród Nocnej Ciszy (“The Silence of the Night”), Pójdźmy wszyscy do stajenki (“Let Us All to the Stable”) and dozens of others. The lyrics are uplifting, the melodies ethereal. Christmas music is perhaps Poland’s most under-rated gift to America.

You don’t hear it much at the mall or on the radio, and I rarely get my fill. That is why I am eagerly anticipating my annual Christmas pilgrimage to the church of my wedding. In the nearly half-century since that initial visit, the church interior has been stripped of its excess ornamentation and given a fresh coat or two of paint. Yet the services are still partly in Polish, and the congregation includes an impressive number of recent immigrants.

Today they come mostly in search of prosperity, not mere avoidance of death. But they still gather under “Our Lady of the Machine Gun.” The painting remains untouched, though a bit yellowed by time. I discovered recently, after years of research, that it depicts an actual event. In 1920, the army of newly communist Russia marched on Poland and was on the verge of annexing its neighbor. At the gates of Warsaw, the Blessed Virgin reportedly appeared over the battlefield, just as she does on the wall of my church, and the tide was turned. The Miracle of Warsaw, as that victory is known, did not last long. The Russians were back in a couple of decades, along with the Germans, and they turned Poland into an abattoir.

Every year there are, no doubt, a few survivors of that particular round of mayhem in the pews alongside me as I struggle, aided by a Polish hymnal, to mouth the words to my favorite Christmas carols. Together, I and those tempest-tossed refugees from my country-in-law lift our voices to salute the miracle of Christ’s birth, the Miracle of Warsaw, and the miracle of America.