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  • Robert Farago

An American Immigrants Story

Peter Farago's journey to The Land of the Free

My father grew-up in Oradea, a medium-sized Romanian city with a significant Jewish community. As a boy, an American barber cut his hair. The man’s name, how he came to live in Oradea… lost in the mists of time. But his impact on my father’s imagination was profound.

He introduced young Peter Farago to English, one of seven languages he eventually mastered. More importantly, he filled my father’s shorn head with stories about the beauty, freedom and opportunity in a far away land called The United States.

As my father entered his teens, the dark clouds of antisemitism gathered over Oradea’s Jewish community. Jewish newspapers and publications were banned. Jewish sports organizations and clubs were disbanded. Jews were excluded from higher education, restaurants, clubs and any aspect of communal civic life.

Going to school, my father was forced to wear the Star of David on his sleeve – and beaten for the privilege. His education, his brothers’ careers, his father’s business, his mother’s ability to feed or clothe her family – it all disappeared.

In the summer of 1942, all male Jews in Oradea of military age were ordered to report for forced labor. My father and his two older brothers said goodbye to their parents and left the city to provide slave labor for the Nazi war machine.

On March 19th, 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary. On May 3rd, 1944, authorities interned Oradea’s 27k Jews in two ghettos. They were denied food, water and sanitation. The wealthier Jews were tortured to reveal their “hidden riches.”

Beginning May 23, Oradea’s Jewish ghettos were emptied. Residents were crowded into trains, transported to Auschwitz concentration camp and murdered. My father’s parents, my grandparents, among them.

All of Oradea’s Jews perished, save the “lucky ones” sent to labor camps before the extermination campaign, who somehow managed to survive.

Like my father and his brothers. Unlike his parents and virtually everyone Peter Farago knew growing up. Including the barber. But not his stories…

Even before worst came to worst, before Peter Farago was beaten and starved and denied shelter from winter’s murderous cold, those boyhood tales of The Land of the Free gave my father one life goal: to become an American.

After the war, my father applied his language skills to Jewish relief efforts. In fact, he smuggled Jews into Israel. Even as he secretly shepherded a trainload of Dutch orphans into kibbutzim (for example), America was his goal.

You may be surprised to learn that my father married an American woman for his Green Card and eventual citizenship. I sure was.

I didn’t learn the truth about Peter Farago’s American immigration until his death, when a Hungarian friend (I’d never heard of) called to remind me what a great man my father was. “I knew your father’s first wife,” he said.

OK then… Also OK: how my father loved his adopted country.

There was no doubt in Peter Farago’s mind that the United States was the best country in the world, bar none. “In no other country in the world could I have made this life for me and you,” he’d tell me.

My father didn’t see America through rose-colored glasses. He wrestled with anti-semitism in education, business and within the general culture. He was a student of our nation’s checkered past, and lived through the violent social upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s.

Through it all, he supported and defended his adopted country deeply and completely. Despite its faults.

My father repaid America by the sweat of his brow, building a successful business from the ground up. NEPTCO added to the strength and vitality of the economy. Giving other immigrants their shot at a better life, for them and their children.

While there’s no denying the fact that Peter Farago gamed the immigration system, I think it’s safe to say he was a “good immigrant.” Like tens of millions of grateful others before him.

Recently, I’ve been wondering what Peter Farago would have made of the millions of illegal immigrants pouring over our porous southern border.

He wouldn’t have questioned their motivation, nor withheld respect for their resolve. He would have welcomed these immigrants – via a controlled, orderly process that screens them for danger and teaches the ones who qualify to be law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.

Here’s my reasoning…

Peter Farago taught me not to let kindness blind me to the evil that hides in the hearts of men. And the fact that evil men like to hide in a herd.

If I ever forget it, I remember the advice he shared with my entire middle school during his talk about the Holocaust. “Keep your friends close,” he said with a wry smile. “And your enemies far, far away.”

In some ways, Peter Farago’s boyhood barber was the closest friend my father ever had. Or maybe the best. But I owe that man a debt of gratitude I can never repay. God rest his soul.


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