This week I am writing about the personal history of my family’s story of “coming to America.” I recently watched a documentary about the creation of the Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor that has been welcoming immigrants and visitors to the United States since 1886. The film went into details of the idea, the artistic design, and the financing involved in this joint venture between France and the United States.
I’ve had the opportunity to sail past the statue a few times in my life and went to visit the landmark twice. When you sail to it or past it, you get a very special feeling in your heart of the friendship between the two countries that created it and what it came to mean.
For me, the first time I sailed past it was on July 1, 1949. My Belgian mother and American father, along with my brother, sister, and I were passengers on the SS Leerdam, a small ship that was a part of the Holland America Line. Of course, I can’t remember anything about that voyage since I was only five months old. But we have photographs of our family and a wonderful New York newspaper picture and caption on the day of our arrival.
My mother, Suzanne Duchesne Kaplan, kept the history of our homeland and our family alive by telling us stories, both happy and very tragic. She had been married to a wonderful man and had two children. In 1942, with World War II raging, her husband was arrested, imprisoned, and murdered in Auschwitz concentration camp.
During these war years until the end of the Nazi Occupation, my mom was a Resistance worker helping American and English airmen who were shot down, go into hiding and eventually secretly get moved to Portugal where they could be transported back to England.
At the end of March 1945, my mom met my dad at a nightclub in Brussels frequented by soldiers on two-day passes. A spark between them was ignited and he promised he would come back. So, Jack Kaplan went on to cross the Rhine River and fight in Germany until Victory in Europe on May 8, 1945.
He did get back to Brussels as soon as he could, and their romance blossomed. Eventually, he was shipped back to America and discharged from the Army. It took nearly a year for him to be able to get a visa and return to Europe. In 1947 they were able to marry, and I was born in early 1949. My dad missed the United States, and it was decided that we would pack up as much as possible and begin a new life in New Jersey.
I love my heritage and have been fortunate to travel to Belgium several times in my life getting to know my grandmother, uncle, and some cousins. I’ve been able to visit the homes of many ancestors and hear a lot of stories about life there.
Every time I’ve sailed past Lady Liberty, I’ve wondered what my mom was thinking and hoping she would find here. I think about when my dad sailed past on his way home from the war alive and reuniting with his parents and family.
I think I understand the feeling that immigrants have when they see freedom and opportunity the first time they are “Coming to America.”
I wrote a historical novel in 2013 about my family pre-WWII and post war. It includes stories of bravery by our troops and by the citizens who lost their freedom and secretly fought back. It is also a poign
ant story of loves lost and gained due to the war. It is titled It’s Been A Long, Long Time. You can find it in paperback and on Kindle from Amazon. Search by my name, Marianne Lods.