“The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest toss’d to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Inscription on the Statue of Liberty

In honor of an Independence Day being celebrated amidst the horrors of deportations, Trump’s Muslim ban, and the prospect of a Mexican wall, I thought I’d mention some of the people who’ve come here and made this country great.

My favorites:


Most people know her as the gorgeous actress who starred in movies like ECSTACY, ALGIERS, and SAMSON AND DELILAH and who was dubbed “the most beautiful woman in the world.” But she was a heck of a lot more than that. She was a gifted inventor, a spy for our side in World War II, and a passionate American patriot.

Married to an Austrian arms manufacturer, she attended many Nazi conferences and high-level meetings, looking like eye-candy but actually listening to and absorbing every word she heard. She then escaped out a window with the help of a maid, and fled to Paris, London, and finally the United States, where she reported everything she remembered to the federal authorities.

Hedy then set to prove her devotion to her new country by designing a radio guidance system for Allied torpedoes which would be protected from enemy jamming and offering it to the U.S. government. It employed the concepts of frequency hopping and spread spectrum and was too advanced for World War II technology to be able to build it, but twenty years later it became the foundation of cellphones, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.

Hedy also offered to go to work for the government full-time as an inventor, but they told her she was more valuable as a war-bond seller. She definitely was. She raised more money touring the country and selling kisses than any other Hollywood star, including a record-smashing seven million dollars she raised for the war effort in one night.


Israel Isidore Baline came to America in 1893. His family like so many others, was fleeing the Tsar’s Jewish pogroms. (Others who did the same thing include Sophie Tucker, Louie B. Mayer, Al Jolson, and George and Ira Gershwin.) Five-year-old Isidore had only one memory of Russia, that of “lying on a blanket by the side of the road, watching his house burn to the ground.” And at first it didn’t look like the US would be any better. He and his brother and five sisters were put in a pen at Ellis Island till they were declared disease-free and their admission was approved.

Once uncaged, Irving set out to earn money by selling newspapers, singing in a saloon, and finally writing songs. And what songs! Here’s a short list:

Alexander’s Ragtime Band
A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody
Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better
Blue Skies
How Deep is the Ocean
Puttin’ on the Ritz
We’re Havin’ a Heat Wave
Let’s Face the Music and Dance
You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun
Dancing Cheek to Cheek
Isn’t This a Lovely Day
I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm
What’ll I Do?
Doin’ What Comes Naturally
Easter Parade
Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails

And that doesn’t even include his three greatest hits–

There’s No Business Like Show Business
White Christmas
and God Bless America
–which Irving said was “not just a song, but an expression of my feelings toward the country to which I owe what I have and what I am.”

Irving’s songs have been sung by everyone from Fred Astaire to Elvis Presley, from Bob Dylan to Ethel Waters, Cher, and Willie Nelson. When fellow composer Jerome Kern was asked to describe Berlin’s place in American music, he said, “Irving Berlin has no PLACE in American music–he IS American music.”


This group of Italian, Hungarian, German, and Austrian physicists who fled from Europe and Hitler’s hatred of (and determination to exterminate) the Jews, were invaluable to the Manhattan Project and the race to beat Hitler in building an atomic bomb.

Einstein jump-started the project with his letter to President Roosevelt about the threat of a German atomic bomb, Leo Szilard came up with the idea of nuclear chain reaction, Enrico Fermi built the first successful nuclear pile, and Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls designed the detonation mechanism.

Without them, the war would have been much longer and bloodier, and the thought of Hitler with his hands on the atomic bomb first doesn’t even bear thinking about.

And last but not least:


Carnegie’s family came to United States from Scotland, fleeing not political persecution, but economic hard times. Once here, Andrew worked as a bobbin boy in a cotton mill and then a telegraph messenger boy. He rose to become a steel tycoon and one of the richest men in America, but it’s what he did with his wealth that makes him exceptional.

He firmly believed that “the man who dies rich, dies disgraced,” and said, “I would as soon leave my son a curse as the almighty dollar,” and he devoted the last years of his life to getting rid of that wealth in productive ways. He founded Carnegie-Mellon University and the Carnegie Foundations for the Advancement of Teaching and for International Peace.

But his most important accomplishment was the building and endowing of nearly three thousand public libraries, many of them in small-towns which would otherwise have had no access to books at all. Those libraries formed the basis of today’s public library system and are still in operation all over the country, from Pittsburgh to little mountain towns in Colorado and hamlets in the Midwest, an amazing legacy of literature.

“There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library,” Carnegie wrote, “this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest

Walter Cronkite wrote of Irving Berlin that he “helped write the story of this country, capturing the best of who we are and the dreams that shape our lives.”

That could be said of everyone on this list. These refugees and immigrants not only contributed to America. They ARE America.

Connie Willis

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