What does “The New Colossus” mean to you?

For me, whenever I hear the poem, I am immediately reminded of my grandparents, hard working, blue collar, Americans, so proud they could afford to buy books and dolls for their only grandchild, a little girl who had the education that had not been available to them, or their forebears.

One of the most significant objects held in the collections of the AJHS is Emma Lazarus’s handwritten notebook, an object that never fails to produce a heartfelt emotional response in me. The first time I held it, I had to hold back tears, as the meaning and value of the object in my hands became clear to me. This happens to me with many AJHS objects, for that is the power of primary sources- they resonate. The first time I heard the kids who have submitted to the AJHS poetry contest speak their words, their versions of “The New Colossus”, I found myself again on the verge of tears. But I was also reciting in my own mind, for the first time in over 35 years, the words to Emma Lazarus’s iconic poem, and this made me reflect on what that poem meant to me a long time ago. 

 

My paternal grandfather worked on the NYC Ferry System for over 30 years; it was hard, hot, work. While he primarily worked on the Staten Island Ferry, he occasionally worked on the ferry that went to The Statue of Liberty.  On some of those instances, he would come back with a doll, a little collectible doll dressed in a costume; I had at least 7-8, but my memory has dulled a bit over time. Every summer when I visited my grandparents in Queens, there were two things I looked forward to with great anticipation, two things that we did not have in our small Michigan town where I spent most of the year- those two things were the Mr. Softee Ice Cream truck, and my collection of dolls in international costumes. 

 

My grandfather, George, was the youngest of many children, born at a time when people went into the workforce at a young age. Although he could read and write, he was not far from his family’s immigrant past and his career path was blue-collar from the start. His education ended at the eighth grade level, and by the age of 24 he was supporting both of his parents.  His father worked as a machinist in the shipyard, which explained his choice of vocation. I was a voracious reader, even as a young child, and when I would visit over the summer I would sit on the porch with my grandparents, and often read aloud to them from the books my grandmother Theresa ( the child of immigrants, but from Italy, who both came to America early in their lives) had collected for me. We would sit on the porch of their little bungalow in Ozone Park, and eat Mr. Softee ice cream from the truck that came around twice a day; a chocolate cone for my grandfather, a vanilla cone for my grandmother, and a monster sundae for me. Even the dog, Prince, got a vanilla cup.  But I also had a minor talent for memorization, and could easily remember poems and passages from these books, which my grandparents delighted in me parroting back to them. And so, we would have our ice cream, and I would read or recite for them, on hot summer nights in Queens. 

 

And I would play with my collection of international dolls, so pretty in their fancy costumes. I remember one from Holland, and one from Greece very clearly. My favorite one was Norway, a country I couldn’t picture in my mind but could find on a map- her costume was blue and white, and trimmed with fake fur. All of the dolls came with a little tag on the wrist, which told you their country of origin but also displayed the words to “The New Colossus”.

And one day, I decided to memorize the poem, so I could recite it to my grandparents, lines I still remember to this day. And they were so proud that I could recite that poem from memory; as people who had likely grown up with stories of their families living in poverty in foreign lands, that poem held a significance that I did not realize at that time, but I certainly understand now. For me, whenever I hear the poem, I am immediately reminded of my grandparents, hard working, blue collar, Americans, so proud they could afford to buy books and dolls for their only grandchild, a little girl who had the education that had not been available to them, or their forebears. And every time I recite the poem in my mind, I am back on that porch, a little girl with her collection of international dolls, who memorized that poem to make her grandparents happy. That’s what “The New Colossus” means to me- the promise of what America can be, and what that has meant to my family.

 

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AJHS Temporarily Closed

In support of New York City's efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the American Jewish Historical Society will be temporarily closed. The health and safety of The American Jewish Historical Society’s staff and visitors is our top priority, and we are continuing to closely monitor the evolving COVID-19 Situation.  During this time all in person events will be cancelled or postponed, and the library and other facilities of the five partner organizations will be closed to the public. 

Our building is closed, but our staff, and the stories we work to preserve and share, continue to be here for you.  The stories from our archives will continue to be accessible through our online catalogue, new virtual program offerings, and and digital platforms. Please check social media for ongoing updates and virtual offerings.