My uncle Kalmann Buch was the sole member of his family to reach Ellis Island in 1903. He was just 14 when he fled his poverty-stricken native land of Galicia, at the time a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and today located in Poland. The American immigration officers anglicized his name without asking his permission, as was custom at the time, and Kalmann Buch became Charles Bush. A far cry from the future American presidents of the same name, this American uncle – although no Uncle Sam – led a modest life as a building painter in the Bronx, New York. His son ran a famous delicatessen and butcher’s shop on the Grand Concourse, which today has unfortunately disappeared into the pages of New York folklore. His neighbor was a certain Isaac Bashevis Singer, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, although locally he would never be more renowned than my delicatessen-owning cousin. When solicited for interviews by journalists from all over the world, Bashevis Singer would simply say he was easy to find: he lived next-door to the butcher. Fleeing the Nazi regime that gripped Germany 30 years later, my parents in turn tried to find refuge in the United States. They were turned away, and washed up on the shores of France.
The gates of America had closed, and only reopened – although not to everyone – in 1964. Instead of “walking up 5th Avenue” as he had dreamed, my fa- ther contented himself with strolling along the Champs-Élysées, which was hardly the worst fate for a Jewish refugee. However, he chose to join the Resis- tance in the Pyrenees Mountains from 1940 to 1944 to escape the police forces governed by Vichy and the Nazis. I have always considered it my duty to realize my father’s unfinished dream; to reach America, the promised land.
Fortunately it is possible and legal to become an American citizen without giving up one’s French nationality. This allegiance dates back to the treaty that recognized what was then called the United States of North America. This treaty was passed in 1778 between Vergennes, minister to Louis XVI and Benjamin Franklin, ambassador for the American insurgents. The Supreme Court of the United States recognized the right to dual nationality in 1974 (Afroyim v. Rusk), and the decision was upheld by the French Republic. The French then had to exercise extreme patience as they were bypassed by China, India and Africa in the name of diversity, to progressively make America like the rest of the world. What would Saint John de Crèvecœur think? In his Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1783, he was astonished to see the advent of an American “race”, born of the mélange of English, German and Swedish settlers.
My wife and I spent ten years going through administrative procedures, ten years of patiently waiting in line, helped by a lawyer who guided us like blind people feeling their way through a bureaucratic labyrinth. These ten years took us from the Visa O1, reserved for Individuals with Extraordinary Ability, to the Green Card, which is less green than we expected, to the final exam. During this exam an immigration officer asked me to cite the number of amendments in the Constitution (how many citizens know, I wonder? But then, they are already American), and my wife was asked to name the capital of the State of New York. The Naturalization Ceremony followed at the District Court in Manhattan, where Judge Paul E. Davison told us exactly what we wanted to hear: “Do not renounce your culture in any way, but enrich the United States with your contribution.” And so we became Americans, entirely, while remaining French, entirely.
There is no contradiction or conflict between our French nationality and our American citizenship, only the reciprocal enrichment born of belonging to two nations. It should be noted that France is the only major European country to never have been at war with the United States. The only quarrel we have is a shared pretention, a claim to embody universal values and a desire to spread them. But it is not a bad thing that we stand together in our defense of Human Rights, despite the fact that our actions sometimes fall short of our words. Needless to say, this rivalry inspires squabbling, although more bark than bite. The French are sometimes guilty of anti-Americanism in a show of inconsequential intellectual posturing, while American conservatives during the 2003 invasion of Iraq renamed French fries Freedom fries, the former initially popularized in the United States by Thomas Jefferson. A lovers’ tiff, perhaps?
When Judge Paul E. Davison asked me why I had chosen to add American citizenship to my French nationality, I briefly recounted my family’s odyssey, to which he replied: “So this is for your father.” He understood. French and American, the destination at the end of one journey and the first steps of a new adventure, as the mingling of cultures is the salvation of humanity. For obvious reasons, I deliberately chose the title of Joséphine Baker’s song, J’ai deux amours (mon pays et Paris), which I think is an apt choice for this article.
Article published in the February 2016 issue of France-Amérique.