Chicago history full of immigrant success stories

By Michelle Cox
Guest columnist
Posted3/6/2017 1:00 AM
  • Michelle Cox

    Michelle Cox

Personally, I've always found the transitory waves of immigration phobia that have come and gone over the decades as puzzling, or at least odd, considering our country's, well, birth by immigrants. Unless one happens to be a pure descendent of a Native American tribe, then one is -- isn't this obvious? -- a descendant of an immigrant! So when I hear any kind of immigrant bashing, I am decidedly perplexed. We are talking about the same country, aren't we?

Chicago, city of big shoulders, has always been a particular magnet to immigrants, who gladly flooded into its many factories and packing houses over the years, each group having their heyday and as well as their day to be bashed. Hasn't everyone by now seen the old photos of shop windows with placards announcing that neither "dogs nor Irish" were allowed inside? And now they dye the Chicago River green every March 17.

Decades ago, as a young admissions director in a nursing home on the city's Northwest Side, I had the privilege of meeting many of these immigrants and hearing their often movie-quality back stories about their hardships in the old country and their fierce struggle to make it to America.

Here's just a smattering of them:

• Lidka Klimek, a Polish immigrant who was sent with her four children to a Siberian labor camp during WWII. Her husband was killed on the train journey enroute to their imprisonment. She immigrated to Chicago in 1952 to care for her grandchildren while her children worked in the city.

• Amalia Alfaro, whose family were landowners and descendants of the Spaniards in Mexico. They hid in the walls of their home when Pancho Villa would attack their village. They eventually immigrated to Chicago, where Amalia found work in various factories.

• Deidrich Mueller, a former member of the German Luftwaffe who came to Chicago to escape the horrors of the war and to begin again. He spent his life working in various tool and die factories around the city and eventually married a German woman he met here at a German bar.

• Mi-Jeong Kuk, a Korean girl who was sold into marriage by her parents to a wealthy Korean landowner when she was just fifteen. She had two children with him, both of whom immigrated to Chicago as adults and then eventually sent for her to come live with them.

• Sasha Pasternak, a Ukrainian Jew who worked as a physics professor in communist Russia and immigrated to Chicago so that his sons would have a better future. Here he worked as a janitor at Evanston Hospital.

• Mirna Claesson, who attempted to leave Croatia with her father in 1911 but was stopped by the authorities and separated from him. Later she made the journey on her own when she was just fourteen and was reunited with him in Chicago, where she found work as a seamstress.

• Mai Nakamura, daughter of Japanese immigrants, who was rounded up and taken to the Amache Camp in Colorado for Japanese-Americans for the duration of WWII, despite her stunning career as an artist working for Disney and on the set of various Hollywood films. After the war, she eventually made her way to Chicago and became a successful commercial artist.

• Evelyn Feldman, whose parents emigrated from Russia and began a "junk business," collecting scrap metal with a horse and wagon. Evelyn wrote letters to her neighbor for the duration of WWII and then married him when he returned. He later became a Chicago alderman.

• Marta Sirko, whose family fled the Ukraine in the 1930s and immigrated to Brazil. Later they made their way to Chicago where Marta worked her entire life for the Olsen Rug Factory.

The list goes on and on, each story unique in its own way and yet predictably similar--a pattern of seeking sanctuary and beginning again. All of us have come from somewhere else. Doesn't that mean something? Something obvious? It is the heart of our national identity.

I'm proud to live in Chicago, an immigrant sanctuary, city of big shoulders, with brawn enough to have absorbed us all and, I'd like to think, become the better for it.

Michelle Cox writes a blog about forgotten Chicago residents at She is also the author of the Henrietta and Inspector Howard series.

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