A Seattle writer mines more gold from stories of American immigrants

David Laskin's new book traces the stories of 12 American soldiers who fought for their new country during World War I, including two Congressional Medal of Honor winners. It's a fascinating lens into America's amazing ethnic diversity.
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Italian-born Doughboy Tony Pierro, 1918

David Laskin's new book traces the stories of 12 American soldiers who fought for their new country during World War I, including two Congressional Medal of Honor winners. It's a fascinating lens into America's amazing ethnic diversity.

Editor's note: Author David Laskin reads from his new book tonight (April 5), 7 pm, at the downtown Seattle library; admission free.

April 1917. The United States declared war on Germany and committed its troops to the Allied cause on the blood-soaked fields of Europe that had seen, since August 1914, the butchery of millions of young soldiers, human fodder for the fearsome arsenal of modern industrialized war: aerial bombs, heavy artillery, machine guns, tanks, and poison gas.

As the U.S. entered what became the First World War, a skeletal American military desperately needed recruits to fill its ranks and fight in France. Of the 2.5 million American soldiers who fought in the war, one in five was foreign-born. They were men like Andrew Christofferson, a Norwegian farm laborer in Montana; Meyer Epstein, a Jewish refugee from the Russian Pale who hauled scrap in New York City; Maximilian Cieminski, a Polish miner and night watchman in Michigan; and Antonio Pierro, an Italian laborer in Massachusetts.

In his vivid and carefully researched new history, The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War (Harper 2010), Seattle writer David Laskin follows the journeys of Christofferson, Epstein, Cieminski and Pierro and eight other immigrant soldiers who fought with U.S. forces in World War I.

When they embarked for war, most immigrant soldiers — conscripts and volunteers alike — lacked citizenship rights and knew little of America except for dingy ethnic ghettos or isolated towns and unskilled, grueling jobs. Some faced harassment and suspicion as nativists — the precursors of today's anti-immigrant agitators — loudly sought an end to most immigration, as a nervous government clamped down on suspected anarchists and Reds, and as credible U.S. scientists embraced eugenics, a new field devoted to achieving racial purity. Yet these foreign-born soldiers, who came to America for freedom and often to avoid compulsory military service in their home countries, fought with distinction in savage campaigns on the Western front and returned home Americans.

Laskin describes the lives of 12 men from their humble beginnings in Europe, their challenging Atlantic crossings, their struggles beginning again in America, their ethnic enclaves, to their harrowing wartime service, and, for most, their survival and return home, at times as heroes. Three of these men died in combat and two won the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Laskin's engaging chronicle is based on extensive archival research, interviews with family members, and, in two cases, interviews of veterans of the war who were both over 100 years old when he met them.

Laskin is well known for his works of narrative history. He won a Washington State Book Award as well as the 2006 Midwest Booksellers' Choice Award for The Children's Blizzard, a history of the Great Midwest Blizzard of 1888. He also won the Washington State Book Award in 2001 for Partisans: Marriage, Politics and Betrayal Among the New York Intellectuals. He has written several other notable nonfiction books on subjects ranging from history and travel to weather and nature.

Laskin will be reading from his new book on Monday (April 5) at the Central Seattle Public Library at 7 pm; on April 21 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park at 7 pm; and on April 30 at the Port Angeles Library at 7 pm.

Laskin recently discussed his new book from his home near Seattle.

Robin Lindley: Did The Long Way Home grow out of your previous work on climate and history?

Laskin: My last book, The Children's Blizzard, was about a killer storm that hit the Midwest on January 12, 1888, and killed scores of children on their way to school. It hit during a period of pioneering on the American prairie and most of the pioneers were immigrants with many from Scandinavia and Germany and German-speaking Mennonites who had lived in Russia in the Crimea.

The immigrant theme lodged in my head and it interested me how these people moved here for opportunity and freedom, and how they were affected by American climate, history, social currents, and so on. After The Children's Blizzard, I started looking into World War I because it's one of the major historic events that drew a line in the sand — the world looked different before and after this event. So much of modern politics, attitudes, art, and national boundaries stem from World War I or its aftermath.

And then, in one of those light-bulb moments, it occurred to me that I could put immigration and the Great War together and write about both. As it evolved, I realized that one out of five soldiers who served in the U.S. forces in that war was foreign-born (and( I thought I'd hit the jackpot, and that's how it started.

Lindley: Did you have relatives who fought in World War I?

Laskin: I did. My Uncle Hyman came over from the Russian Pale in 1910. He was drafted in 1917, and served with the Big Red One, the First Division. He saw his captain bleed to death after the battle of Cantigny, the first sustained American action of the war. Then Uncle Hyman was gassed at Soissons where Matej Kocak, a Slovak career Marine in the book, won the Medal of Honor. I'll write about (my uncle) in my next book.

Lindley: How did you get from the themes of immigration and World War I to tracing the experiences of the 12 veterans you follow?

Laskin: That was the hard part. I needed to find some guys to write about. The Children's Blizzard was similar in that I told the story of the storm through its impact on the lives of families. I wanted to take the same approach in this book, and I had experience finding these stories.

I contacted the Jewish War Veterans and put an ad in their newsletter asking for stories of people who served. And that's how I got Meyer Epstein. With an Italian-American publication through the Sons of Italy, I got Epifanio Affatato. I went through Polish newspapers and journals, and I got Max Cieminski. I got Tommaso Ottaviano because a guy I had written about in an article for Seattle Metropolitan (told me) his wife's uncle died in the Great War and he was born in Italy. His great-niece had a lot of family research that was fantastic.

I kept casting my net and reeling it in and then there were 12.

Lindley: The harsh imprisonment and torture the conscientious objectors endured in the U.S. was a surprising story. Of the four Hutterites you profile, two died in prison.

Laskin: That story grew directly out of The Children's Blizzard and the story of five Mennonite boys who froze to death near Freeman, South Dakota. In the course of my research, I was kind of adopted by the Mennonites [in] Freeman, a very warm and welcoming, history-minded community. While I was in Sioux Falls on a book promotion, a man named Hofer asked me if I knew the story about the conscientious objectors. I said I didn't, and that's how that came out.

The Hutterites and Mennonites are related sects theologically. And I was really lucky to be in touch with a lawyer, Susan Cohn, who has thrown herself into researching this story. She was really, really generous and sent me huge packets of trial transcripts and other information.

Lindley: Did you start your research with individual stories and flesh out the historical background information later?

Laskin: I always start with endless weeks of reading. In this case, I needed to get up to speed on immigration, the particular groups, their cultures, why so many immigrated at the turn of the last century, what the conditions were. Simultaneously, I solicited family stories and tracked those down.

I found early on that there were two surviving foreign-born veterans, Tony Pierro and Samuel Goldberg, so meeting with them became the number one priority of my research. I never expected to be interviewing any veterans, and I knew they weren't going to last long at that age. I flew east and saw Pierro in Boston and Goldberg in Providence, Rhode Island, and that was by far the most moving and influential part of the research.

Then I did a trip to the National Archives, which is always both agony and ecstasy. It's a treasure trove, but it's frustrating. You spend a lot of time flipping through documents you don't need, but every now and then you hit pay dirt. By the end, I was inhaling documents and reading interview notes and writing.

Lindley: Can you talk about your interviews with the centenarian World War I veterans?

Laskin: Tony Pierro (at 110 years old) was very serene and hard to reach, but he gave me a good sense of what it was come from Italy. He talked about the snakes he butchered and killing the dog — of how different and how primitive life was then.

In terms of the war, he talked about a French girl he was in love with, and about working with a horse (in the battlefield). He had done other interviews, and there was a story about how he was called a wop at boot camp. I got a sense of him as a person and also interviewed his family members that were around and they told stories about what he was like as a younger man — his fastidiousness and snappy dressing and how careful he was about his car.

Goldberg, on the other hand, had a photographic memory. I've never known anybody, certainly nobody at 106, who remembered everything in such detail. He told me about a job interview [where] they gave him a math problem, and he still remembered the exact numbers. I couldn't believe that he remembered these things.

He was very sharp and very opinionated. He had a lot of animosity toward his father, and it was very heart wrenching to hear this guy at 106 cursing out his father after all these years. He was an acerbic old man, but very colorful.

It was a blazing hot day in July. He was in an assisted living facility. I was dying and he was wearing a sweater. He was very hard of hearing, so I asked if it would be easier if I wrote down the questions, and he said, "No, no. I can't see either."

But he had all his marbles, so I got a real sense of what it was like to be a Jew in the Russian Pale of Settlement. And then the fear and fun of coming over here.

So often we reconstruct history and assume steerage must have been horrible: it smelled so bad, they were packed in like sardines, and they were seasick and poor. He said that was true, but he was a little kid, and he scampered around the ship, and some cooks took him under their wings and gave him extra food, and it was kind of a lark.

When you revisit the past, it's much more nuanced and complicated.

Lindley: The men you follow, despite the horror of their war experience, came out very proud of their service, which may not be typical for veterans.

Laskin: Yes. I was curious about that because I thought there might be more bitterness. The only bitterness I sensed was from Tommaso Ottaviano's great niece. She felt the country asked too much of her family with the sacrifice of the first-born son.

It seems to me that many people who serve their country, even reluctantly, end up feeling proud of their service. Even if they didn't agree with the rationale for the war, a special unit loyalty develops.

These were life-changing experiences that people never forget. At the time they were miserable and hungry and complaining and sometimes cynical and usually foul-mouthed; they ended up feeling this was one of the most important experiences of their lives (and) it ends up being crucial to people's identity. With the immigrant experience on top of that, they went from being treated as second-class citizens or worse, to being respected as comrades.

Lindley: Their living conditions were often abysmal in the U.S., and they faced taunting and discrimination, but the men you profile were very stoic about that experience too.

Laskin: I think a part of that is economics. If this country didn't fulfill its promise to these immigrants and they started out as unemployed or never rose, like the American slaves who were brought here unwillingly and whose lot did not improve, the (story) would be very different. Meyer Epstein was a plumber and his kids were white-collar workers. Everybody I wrote about went from blue collar to white collar, and part of their pride and loyalty is that America delivered.

If the war hadn't happened and the country immediately sank into depression and didn't recover, and the families were worse off, I suspect there would be a very different outcome — and I never would have written this book. But the families recovered, even with the Depression, and people were able to prosper, and that cemented the bonds of loyalty.

Some of those bonds began oddly with the fact that they were drafted and forced to fight for a country where they did not have full citizenship rights. They couldn't vote. They were expected to do their duty, but didn'ꀙt have the same rights as other people, and yet somehow, doing their duty turned them into Americans. And the Immigration Act was amended so that soldiers on active duty became citizens instantly. A similar law went into effect recently. So there was a reward for their service.

Lindley: What do think about today's immigration debate?

Laskin: This is a nation of immigrants, and every generation goes through something similar with new immigrants (and some saying) they're not like the old immigrants: they're dangerous or they're not going to assimilate or they're not American.

But part of the beauty and the power of this country is how open it has been, and so much of our energy and national character comes from our openness. Having written this book, I admire immigrants and how quickly families assimilate if given half a chance.

The stuff you read online, like the Southwest is becoming a province of Mexico, is the same as what they were saying in the time I'm writing about with the Jews, Italians, and Poles taking over New York and you couldn't hear English spoken and they were cooking strange things and selling goods from push carts.

Lindley: You describe a growing eugenics movement in the US that was seeking to "improve" or "purify" an American race along with a strain of anti-immigrant nativism. And Hitler adopted eugenics a couple decades later as a German national policy.

Laskin: This was horrifying and we can't whitewash it, but (American eugenicist) Madison Grant and his ilk weren't saying that immigrants should be exterminated or even sent back, but felt they were polluting the "Great Race."

Part of what I had fun with in the book was juxtaposing those theories with Matej Kocak and Sam Dreben, these career soldiers who were as brave and skilled at war as any tall, Nordic men who Grant said were the only true warriors, and that made it clear it was a bunch of hooey.

Yes, it is was alarming how mainstream (eugenics) was. It grew out of fear of the other, which is still going on. Nowadays we're too politically correct or timid to come out with theories like that, but there's a fear that immigrants will change something essential about the American character and we'll turn into a foreign country.

Lindley: That war is almost quaint with its huge military campaigns rather than wholesale slaughter of civilians as in more recent wars.

Laskin: There weren't a lot of civilian casualties, aside from the Rape of Belgium at the beginning. Nowadays, terrorism targets civilians, and in World War II civilians were targeted in many ways with concentration camps and bombings and so on. World War I was very different.

Lindley: What would you like readers to take away from your book about World War I and how the experience resounds today as we fight two wars?

Laskin: The U.S. was intensely involved in (World War I) for the last six months. The war in some ways barely registered in the U.S., and it gets dismissed. But those six months were just as intense as the previous three years in terms of the extent of the violence and the number of soldiers killed and wounded. To dismiss it is wrong.

And the country was traumatized and it was our entry to a world stage that we've remained on. The atrocities were a cliché, but when you see film clips or read about the effects of poison gas or what it was like when your company was machine gunned, and what it felt like to be in the trenches, it's riveting. The idea of "war is hell" is most vivid for me in the Civil War at Gettysburg and the American wilderness, and in World War I.

The hell in the current wars is more a constant anxiety of snipers and suicide bombers. So much of the wars is in cities with a sense of the unknown. In France in the trenches in 1918, there was no cover, but in cities there is too much cover and, when you walk down a street in a Baghdad neighborhood, there's a constant sense of fear you'll be shot. Each war has its particular conditions and horror associated with it.

Lindley: You vividly evoke the war and what the often poorly trained U.S. troops faced. And the war continued with the same intensity, with many killed even on the last morning of November 11, 1918, until the very end at 11 am.

Laskin: Yes. Many officers knew it was going to end and yet they pushed ahead to the last second. It's so bizarre. Why not say it's the end, so let it go earlier. Their entire mission is to push ahead, and then it ends, and then what? That was part of the November 11 madness. All they did was pursue the war, and then the war ends.

Lindley: That mentality may capture the whole war as generals on both sides ordered frontal assaults on heavily fortified positions, and soldiers were slaughtered, day in and day out. What surprised you in writing this book?

Laskin: One surprise was that there wasn't much resistance from (most) family members. It surprised me that the relatives of these downtrodden immigrants didn't say, "Hell no. We won't help you."

The duration of the memories and persistence of the pride was also surprising. I talked with children, grandchildren, and great-nephews and great-nieces, and they're still honoring these ancestors. They were still fresh in their minds.

It's unusual, and my sense is that it was wrapped up in the Americanization of these families. It was a period of transition and intense change and engagement in their new country, and [these memories] were enshrined in the family archives and remained present.

I felt very privileged to work on the book.


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