When asked if the story—her story—depicted in the recently published memoir and ode to the immigrant experience, Immigrant Dreams, created in her a feeling of solidarity and connection to the immigrants of today, Barbara Goldowsky responds, "Absolutely."
Ms. Goldowsky's personal narrative takes us from Dachau, Germany, where she was born, to Alsace-Lorraine, where her family lived between 1941 and 1945, and then back to Dachau as World War Two and Hitler’s dictatorship were about to end. After emigration to the United States in 1950, Goldowsky’s young adulthood was spent with already-settled family in Chicago. She attended public schools and junior college and then studied at the University of Chicago where she became interested in creative writing and literature, inspired by the Beat poets published by The Chicago Review. Later, while raising a family and living on Long Island, New York in the 1980s she was able to build the writing career that had germinated many years before.
In recalling her youth in war-torn and then liberated Dachau, a town most known for the infamous concentration camp located on its outskirts, Ms. Goldowsky describes "a charming medieval town" that was an artists' colony for decades, evident in the streets named after painters and writers. About 11 miles from Munich, which contained an artists' colony of its own, Dachau was within the American Zone of occupation following the war.
At the gymnasium (academic high school) she attended in Munich, English language instruction was offered and Goldowsky learned the basics of grammar and vocabulary. After arriving in Chicago, she was able to spearhead her family's effort to learn the language. Her mother did not speak English and her younger brother had barely learned to read and write in German when the family arrived in the U.S.
This learning helped, but didn't insulate her from the difficulties of acclimating to American life when she, aged 14, her brother, aged 8, and her single mother moved to Chicago, sponsored by her aunt and uncle.
The author's high school in Chicago had a newspaper, but she didn't join out of a reticence to express herself in a native setting in her new language. She soon, though, became enamored of journalism and newspapers by reading The Chicago Tribune, which her uncle subscribed to and "was always there," she remembers. "I was very up on the news."
Her next step was, in Ms. Goldowsky's words, "another immigrant dream fulfilled", when she received a scholarship, "thanks to a very perceptive and wonderful journalism teacher" at her junior college. The scholarship, a foreign concept to her, provided an education her family could not have otherwise afforded.
Majoring in political science with the aim of becoming a news reporter, she attended the University of Chicago, and continued her discovery of American and British literature which had started as a young adult. Although she was familiar with all of Grimm’s fairy tales, American children’s literature was still foreign to her. “I had to catch up with Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn,” she recalls. When she moved on to reading the poetry of T.S. Eliot, she encountered a language that, she termed, was "so rich."
"I'm not sure I put it in words for myself, but I really enjoyed reading in English," the author of Immigrant Dreams says. Of Eliot's works, she says, "I understood maybe half, but I saw the cadences and the beauty of it."
At her university's bookstore, she picked up a copy of the school literary magazine, The Chicago Review, and started reading contemporary writers such as Allen Ginsberg and the Beats. She found the courage to walk into the magazine's offices and obtain a position as a staff member in the late 1950s.
Just like that, she was "plunged into the Beat revolution". Without question this was an eye-opening experience, especially for a new immigrant learning the ropes of her new country's language and literature.
She acknowledges this and observes that it was "a real education" because "the language was changing." This was thanks to authors like William S. Burroughs, whom The Chicago Review wanted to publish but ran into difficulty with the university’s administration due to the controversial nature of his writings.
Her firsthand account of this era, which saw her and other editors resign from the school magazine to found their own countercultural journal, is detailed in a piece she wrote for The Chicago Review in 2019, a memoir entitled Beat Poets and Zen Buddhists on the Midway.
Returning to why Ms. Goldowsky has written this memoir, Immigrant Dreams, now, she tells me a story about her late husband.
As she's gotten to be a grandmother, her family has told her "Oh, you've had such an interesting life. You should write all that up!" When she reflected on it, she thought her story would be nice for her family to read, but didn't think it would benefit a wider public.
"But then came the election of 2016. “And shortly after, we began to see this poisonous climate of hatred against immigrants. The Muslim ban; parents tried to hold on the their children as they were dragged away [at the U.S.-Mexico border]."
"One day," she says "I walked past the photo of my late husband that hangs in my room," explaining that she always says hi to him there.
"I suddenly heard what he would say. In my mind, he would have said, 'Okay, you have a problem. So, state the problem, look at it and, then, don't sit there—do something!”
"So his mantra was take action."
As a result, Ms. Goldowsky said she saw what action she could take, and that was to write. She began to cull the autobiographical essays she had started to write on Long Island, all the while thinking of herself and her brother coming over in 1950 and how different their story would have been had it happened now.
She wondered aloud to me how things would have been different if she and her family had been people of color, unable to integrate more easily into a predominantly white society once they learned English.
But still she thought, "You know, that's what I can do. I can write."
And Immigrant Dreams was born.
Article written by Andrew Palmacci for NewYorkinFrench on September 6, 2020
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