“You Americans have no idea what you have here.” That line was spoken to me in heavily accented English roughly a half century ago. It hit me hard at the time, and it has popped into my head many times since. The speaker was a Czech immigrant, who also happened to be my landlord.

A refugee from communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, he made it to Minnesota as a DP (as in displaced person) sometime after the 1948 Soviet takeover of his country. And sometime between his arrival here and our conversation he had “made it” in America.

He did so by gradually acquiring a small handful of older homes that he’d converted into apartments. In short, by the time we met he was doing quite well here. No doubt this was because this new American had come to understand very well what he had here, not to mention what could be done here.

He sold us our first house, which was just down the street from what is now George Floyd Square. In retrospect, I probably paid too much for it, in part because he had likely sized me up as one of those Americans who had little, if any, understanding of what we had here either.

More to my coming point, my landlord wasn’t the only Czech immigrant to grace my life. When I was quite young my parents opened their home to a young woman who had escaped from Czechoslovakia early in the Cold War. Marcella was relieved, delighted and grateful to be here.

A piece of the story of her escape has remained with me ever since. Untold cartons of cigarettes were her payment to whoever was arranging her escape. Caught in a train station dragnet with a suitcase full of her contraband, she managed to sweet talk her way out of being searched before boarding the train and a journey that eventually took her to central Minnesota.

Now fast forward to 1992. While teaching American history on a Fulbright in Hungary, my family took a side trip to Prague. There my daughter and I spent an unforgettable afternoon with another Czech immigrant, Joe Mestenhauser of the University of Minnesota. A longtime family friend, Dr. Mesterhauser had returned to his home country for the first time since his own escape in 1948.

He took the two of us on a walking tour of central Prague. Along the way he showed us the building where he had been held captive, while he recounted his successful exit. During our time together he confided to us that only then, four plus decades after arriving in America, did he come to realize that he truly was an American.

Far from finished, he recounted a few of his conversations with Czech students. He would tell them about the opportunities America offered. Their response was to tell him that this was nothing more than American greed in action. He shook his head as he repeated their words. Having been “brainwashed,” he concluded, it would likely be a “few generations” before such minds would become unwashed.

My Hungarian students generally had a more positive view of the United States, perhaps because my Hungarian colleagues judged that theirs had always been a “soft” version of communism.

Soft or hard, many Hungarians did leave. One who did was the late Peter Schramm of Ashland University where he headed the Ashbrook Center. Schramm was barely ten when he fled with his parents during the crushing of the Hungarian revolution of 1956. When we had occasion to meet he gave me a copy of his essay/memoir, titled “Born an American but In the Wrong Place.”

His ticket to the right place was indirectly provided by a dentist from Hermosa Beach, California. Sometime in the early 1950s his car broke down somewhere in Hungary. Who should happen to come to his rescue but Schramm’s father. The dentist offered to pay for the repair job, but his father refused. He did, however, agree to take the dentist’s card.

Now slightly fast forward to 1956 and a holding pen in Austria where the Schramm family was being quizzed by an American official. Family in America? No. Relatives in America? No again. Then his mother interjected: but we have this card. The rest is history. Peter Schramm becomes a southern Californian, a college professor, and an unabashed American patriot. Still, in many respects his serendipitous story is also the story of Joe Mestenhauser and my landlord.

Perhaps not coincidentally, this is also essentially the story of occasional Somali uber drivers and coffee shop devotees of my brief acquaintance. None of them repeated the unforgettable words of my landlord, but they might well have. Their attitude has been his attitude. Their stories are likely on their way to becoming versions of his story.

All of this leads me to a question: Why isn’t this the attitude and the story of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar? It could be. More than that, it should be. After all, hers is an incredible American success story. And yet she gives too many indications of disliking, even despising, this country—or at least half of it, while offering little sense of gratitude for it.

Who knows why? She is an American to be sure, but it’s not likely that she has ever regarded herself as an American who just happened to have been born in the wrong place.

Quite possibly she is simply a different version of those Americans about whom my Czech-American landlord lamented. Their problem—and mine—was taking America for granted. That’s not her problem. Her problem is her leftist politics, which to her is not a problem at all. But it does reduce her to being just another readily lamentable American who has no idea what we still have here.

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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.


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