Born American, but in the Wrong Place
Peter W. Schramm
April 1, 2006
Peter W. Schramm served as the Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center from 1997 to 2013. Under his leadership, Ashbrook grew into a national organization, reaching teachers, students, and citizens in all 50 states. His most enduring legacy is the students who he personally challenged and inspired in the classroom to be the best human beings and citizens they can be.
Peter grew up in communist Hungary, from which he and his family escaped to America in 1956. He loved America and passionately defended her until his death in 2015.
This is Peter’s story, as recounted by him in 2006.
You can listen to Peter tell his story in his own voice using the audio player, or read it below.
My father, William Schramm, was not a mechanic or an engineer, but in post-war 1946 Hungary he somehow managed to build a car out of scrap parts. It was nothing more, really, than an engine with four wheels and a flat-bed in the back. Apart from military vehicles and Dad’s creation, cars on Hungarian streets were an extreme rarity. They just weren’t available and, even if they had been, there were no jobs and hence no money with which to purchase one. A young man in those days, my dad already had quite a few responsibilities and mouths to feed. And, of course, I was about to be born; another very hungry mouth to feed. But Dad has always had an enterprising and entrepreneurial spirit. So he built this car, and he went around combing the countryside for junk to sell or trade. We survived.
On one such excursion, he came upon a man standing in front of what appeared to be a broken down Volkswagen bug. The novelty of the situation and the look of exasperation (or maybe desperation) on the man’s face were enough to make Dad stop. The driver of the vehicle turned out to be a decommissioned U.S. officer who happened to have been born in Hungary. He was taking some time off to tour the country. Dad was able to help him get the car going again, and the man offered to pay Dad in dollars. You must understand that, at that time, a few American dollars were like bags of solid gold. But Dad was too proud to take the money—despite how much he needed it. The man was grateful, however, and he offered Dad his business card. It read, “Dr. Joseph Moser, DDS, Hermosa Beach, California.” “If you ever need anything,” the man said with real meaning, “don’t hesitate to call.” Dad did not refuse this offer. He took the card and gave it to my mother for safe-keeping. She would hold on to that card for the next ten years.
Revolution in Hungary
It is now late 1956 and I am weeks away from my tenth birthday. The Hungarian Revolution against the Russian Communists is now in full swing. According to estimates, more than 20,000 freedom fighters and 1,500 Soviet soldiers are killed within a two-week period. We—that is to say my parents, my sister (then four years old) and I—shared a small apartment on the plaza near the eastern railroad station in Budapest with my grandparents (Dad’s parents) and my uncle (Dad’s brother).
Since one of the important things the revolutionaries did was to take over this railroad station, the Soviets had placed several tanks there, and we could not leave our apartment. There was quite a lot of heavy fighting right outside of our front window. There were bodies everywhere. One was just in front of our window for more than five days. After about a week and half of this, we could finally go outside—but just for the essentials. As we walked around, I remember a grim fascination I had with the back of a Russian personnel carrier that was stacked with skeletons. It seemed that they were each covered with about two inches of black velvet. I later came to learn that these poor souls had been burned alive by a Molotov cocktail.
Apart from these horrors, there were all of the ordinary and accompanying difficulties one might expect in such circumstances—where to get clean water, food, sanitation, etc. Worse, it was clear that though the Soviets had finally pulled out of our immediate area, they were winning. The Revolution was going to fail, and they would be back. The horrors that our family had faced for so many years in Hungary—first under the Nazis and then under the Soviets—did not compare with what was ahead of us if we remained there. It was one thing to tolerate injustice when you were not accustomed to anything else. But the Revolution had stirred an almost forgotten longing in my father’s heart… hope.
Hungary had not been a pleasant place for the Schramms to live for quite a long time. Dad was born in 1922, right after an awful war in the heart of Europe. Things were hard. His father, an active participant in the 1919 Communist revolution, was hounded by the Fascists then ruling. By the time my father reached his teens, the depression hit hard, followed by World War II, or what Churchill called the second part of the thirty years’ war. World wars are unpleasant for small countries surrounded by large and ambitious ones. Hungary was no exception.
Forced to take a side, Hungary chose Germany, all the while hoping for (what they called) the West to win. My father was placed in the air artillery. He liked it there because they could pretend to shoot down American planes, all the while knowing that the B-17s were flying well out of range. They couldn’t hurt the good guys, yet they did their duty. That was as good as life got in those days. Besides, the Americans usually just flew over western Hungary on their way to Germany. They very rarely dropped their bombs in Hungary.
The only thing worth bombing in Gyor where I was born and where we lived (it had a population of about 100,000 and was just east of Austria on the road to Budapest) was a factory that had been converted to build Messerschmitt planes. It employed about 10,000 people by then, my father among them. When the Americans decided to bomb the plant—in 1944, I think—they first dropped thousands of leaflets informing people not to go to work that day because they were going to level the plant, and they didn’t want people to get hurt. They said the bombing would begin at noon.
My father believed the Americans. He didn’t go to the factory. The Germans, however, insisted that everyone go into the factory and start production. They rounded people up, including my father, at bayonet point. The Nazis explained that those who wouldn’t go in would be lined up and shot. Everyone but about a dozen people went in. The recalcitrant dozen were lined up against a factory wall. The Germans prepared a firing squad. As they were about to commence their grisly work, the American bombs started to fall. It rained fire and steel. Everyone ran away from the factory grounds, including the German soldiers lined up as a firing squad. Almost no one who had gone into the factory survived. The dozen, my father among them, survived. It was noon.
The war was hard on everyone and the war’s end brought little relief. When the Communists took control of the country in 1949, my parents’ little textile shop (about half the size of my living room) and everything that was in it, was taken from them. They were considered the “bourgeoisie,” and therefore dangerous to this new kind of tyranny now in control. My father was later sentenced to prison for a year for “rumor mongering” (someone claimed he called a Communist a tyrant, which he did). He got out, washed windows for awhile and made illegal whiskey. He lived, and his family survived.
In that same year, 1949, my grandfather was sentenced to ten years hard labor by the Communists for having a small American flag in his possession (much like the kind we wave at July 4th celebrations or with which we decorate the graves of our fallen heroes). Dad tried then, unsuccessfully, to persuade my mother to leave. But their ties to family and friends were too strong, and she would not hear it. At my grandfather’s “trial” they asked him why he had the flag. Was he a spy? He replied that it represented freedom better than any other symbol he knew and that he had a right to have it. When my grandfather got an early release from the labor camp in 1956, he came back to us looking like a victim of the Holocaust. Still, the first thing he wanted to know was whether we still had the flag. Of course, we did not. It had long ago been confiscated. But my father did not want to break his father’s heart so he somehow managed to secure another one. We took it out of its hiding place and at that tender age I learned the very adult lesson of the complexity of telling the truth. Seeing that flag somehow erased much of the pain and torment those years of imprisonment caused my grandfather. That flag restored in him something like hope. In my father, it also stirred up righteous anger.
Now, with the revolution failing, came the final straw for my Dad. On one of his trips out to secure some bread, a hand grenade landed next to him but, miraculously, it did not go off. The spark that should have set off that grenade set off my father instead. He came home and announced to my mother that that was it. He said he was going to leave the country whether she would come or not. Mom said, “O.K., William. We will come if Peter agrees. Ask Peter.”
My mother tells me, though I don’t remember saying this, that I told my father I would follow him to hell if he asked it of me. Fortunately for my eager spirit, hell was exactly what we were trying to escape and the opposite of what my father sought.
“But where are we going?” I asked.
“We are going to America,” my father said.
“Why America?” I prodded.
“Because, son. We were born Americans, but in the wrong place,” he replied.
My father said that as naturally as if I had asked him what was the color of the sky. It was so obvious to him why we should head for America. There was really no other option in his mind. What was obvious to him, unfortunately, took me nearly 20 years to learn. But then, I had to “un-learn” a lot of things along the way. How is it that this simple man who had none of the benefits or luxuries of freedom and so-called “education” understood this truth so deeply and so purely and expressed it so beautifully? It has something to do with the self-evidence, as Jefferson put it, of America’s principles. Of course, he hadn’t studied Jefferson or America’s Declaration of Independence, but he had come to know deep in his heart the meaning of tyranny. And he hungered for its opposite. The embodiment of those self-evident truths and of justice in America was an undeniable fact to souls suffering under oppression. And while a professor at Harvard might have scoffed at the idea of American justice in 1956 (or today, for that matter), my Dad would have scoffed at him. Such a person, Dad would say, had never suffered in a regime of true injustice. America represented to my Dad, as Lincoln put it, “the last, best hope of earth.”
I would like to be able to say that this made Dad a remarkable man for his time and his circumstance. For, in many ways, Dad truly is a wonder. But this is not one of them. He was not remarkable in this understanding. Everybody in Hungary—at least everybody who wasn’t a true believer in the Communists—thought that way. For some it was instinct. For others, it was habit or family teaching. For some it was through book learning. Indeed, most Hungarian kids at that time (myself included) had read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Last of the Mohicans, Tom Sawyer, and Huckleberry Finn. Jefferson understood this too when he penned those famous lines in the Declaration. The wonderful thing about self-evident truths, in a way, is that they don’t have to be taught. Or do they? They don’t have to be taught in the same way, for example, that we teach grammar. It isn’t an artificial order of things that we impose upon ourselves. Still, these truths must be understood. For if they are not fully understood (as they frequently are not by those who take them for granted), they are easily forgotten. Dad just never had the luxury to forget.
Journey to America
Of course, we could not tell anyone—including my grandparents and uncle—that we were leaving. To do so would have put both them and us in danger; in tyrannies you really cannot trust anyone. It was better for them that they not know where we were so they could answer honestly and convincingly when questioned. We therefore had to leave with essentially nothing. My sister and I each had a doll and a small bag of clothes. My parents had one small bag between them. And my father had seventeen dollars in his pocket in single dollar bills, which he had been hoarding for years; good as gold he always said. The trains were packed with many other people similarly outfitted. Everyone was headed for the Austrian border but we all kept our heads down and said nothing to anyone. The Russians were stopping the trains and looking for people. As young as my sister and I were, we knew what that meant. We tried to keep quiet. I remember that many people exited the train at one particular stop, and Dad shook his head. He knew what they were going to try and he knew that, in all likelihood, it wasn’t going to work for most of them. He had a different plan for us to get to the border.
When we exited the train we had a fifteen mile walk ahead of us. We meandered through a large expanse of agricultural land, avoiding, as best we could, all haystacks (where Russians were known to lie in wait). We came upon nearly 200 people along the way—all doing exactly the same thing and all saying virtually nothing about it—just nodding and pushing along. I remember a particularly difficult thing we had to do was to avoid the sound of a crying child. That was a well known Russian trick. We did, however, come upon a boy whose father had been shot. He was immediately welcomed into our growing and informal group of which, it seemed, my father had become the leader. His plan had been sound.
We crossed a little bridge in the middle of the night. Someone heard the sound of German on the other side of the bridge. It was the Austrian border post! As we stepped over a line, the Austrians asked us to show them our weapons. I remember being utterly surprised to discover that every single man in our group immediately began to drop pistols, knives, etc. We had just finished an expedition of the brave.
We had entered the town of Nickelsdorf, Austria. They proceeded to move us to a big barn for the night where we slept, and slept soundly. The next morning we were moved to an Army camp near Innsbruck. For nearly a month, we were fed and housed there. Dad went out and got a job. I occupied myself in the normal pursuits that occupy 10 year-old boys. I even managed to get myself into a fight with another boy who had taken my belt. In the scuffle I ran through a plate-glass swinging door and sliced open my chin. This caused my mother to faint, and my father to have to rush me to an Austrian emergency room for treatment. As if my parents didn’t have enough problems!
Occasionally, officials from the various embassies of different countries would come by and attempt to catalogue where the refugees were planning to go and why. It was not as simple as finding a ride to the place you wanted to go, after all. Much was involved. First, they wanted to know if you had any relatives in any other country. We did not. The man from the German embassy encouraged us to settle in Germany. We would be made citizens immediately because our name was German. Dad told them we were not German. He was sure of what he wanted. But we did not, as I said, have relatives in America. The representative from the American embassy asked Dad, “Don’t you know anyone in America?” Eventually, my mother reminded my Dad that we did know someone in America. She ran back to the bunks and out of her little satchel pulled out an old and rumpled business card. This reminded Dad. “Yes,” Dad said, “I know this man.” He showed the business card of Dr. Joseph Moser, D.D.S., Hermosa Beach, California, to the man from the embassy. Dad explained that we had had no contact with him in all those intervening years. Anything could have happened to him, and it was possible that he would not have remembered his offer to help. As luck would have it, he was still where his card said he was and was willing (thank God!) to sponsor us.
California Here We Come
Within a week of contacting Dr. Moser, we were shipped off to Munich and then took a plane to New York City. We landed just before midnight on December 24th, one day after my tenth birthday. Because the plane landed for refueling in Newfoundland, the children on board were given Christmas presents. My sister got a doll, and I got a toy Army jeep. This was the extent of the presents for that Christmas, except for the freedom that we were about to enjoy. On Christmas morning we were taken to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, for processing.
One of my early and poignant impressions of America came when a number of the Hungarians at Camp Kilmer were groaning and moaning, in Hungarian of course, about the food they were served. They were particularly appalled by the cornflakes, which, in Hungary were not considered fit for human consumption. I recall that there was a soldier there who was mopping up the floors. He was quietly doing his work as the Hungarians carried on and ignored him in their typically boisterous manner. Finally, the soldier could not take it anymore, and he turned to us and said in perfect Hungarian, “If you don’t like it here, then get on a plane and go home.” A deafening silence followed the shock. Although I suspect he may have been an intelligence officer, the soldier later claimed that he had grown up in Hungary because his parents had been travelling musicians and that they had died there in a car accident. Whatever the case, his point was well taken. We were humbled by this man, and the complaining stopped—or at least leveled. We were grateful to eat our cornflakes.
A few weeks later we took a train to Los Angeles where we were met by Dr. Moser and his family. Sponsorship meant that they had to guarantee that we would never become a burden to the American people. He had to house us and feed us for awhile. Mom and Dad both got jobs right away. Dad got a job at the local newspaper lifting heavy things, and Mom cleaned houses. Soon we had a little beach shack where we lived for about a year and a half. By that time, my parents had managed to save a couple thousand dollars and were able to purchase their first restaurant. We were on our way to the American dream.
Dad came into the restaurant business because it was his impression of Americans that they seemed like nice enough people but they were lousy cooks! He bought the restaurant on Pico Boulevard for $3000 with a bank financed loan. The whole family went to work right away. We had to tear the place apart before we could open it. After it was opened, my sister and I washed dishes as Mom and Dad cooked and waited on tables. I remember that “stuffed cabbage” was one of the most popular dishes on our menu. I had been typing the menus for my parents for nearly two years before a regular customer who had been eating this dish—the most popular on the menu—for the same number of years finally pointed out to me that the menu actually read, “stuffed garbage.” Clearly, English was not our native language.
Since I didn’t speak a word of English when we arrived, I was placed in the 6th grade based solely on my math scores. There I was put into the back of the room where the teacher—a nice man, who, I am almost certain, was named Mr. Friend—assigned a red-headed and freckled boy named Jeffrey the task of teaching me how to read. I would read the words according to Hungarian phonetics. Jeffrey would correct me and try to explain what they meant. I would imitate him. After a few months of this painstaking labor, I began to understand some things. The first English sentence that I remember repetitiously saying was, “Get out of here!” This I mimicked from some kids who screamed it at me after I stole their foursquare ball, which happened daily. Somehow, without the help of advocates clamoring on my behalf for “bi-lingual” education, I managed to get on that year. My triumph came at the end of the school year when I beat the class bully—who had been beating up on me as if I were a punching-bag and was amazingly named Butch—in a fight. All the kids were applauding as they gave me a book of baseball heroes and everyone, including Butch, signed it.
The Education of an American
I was about high school age when we moved to Studio City and bought a bigger restaurant. Schramm’s Hungarian Restaurant was right across the street from many of the movie studios, and we catered to many actors. But it was not the lure of the film industry that prompted me to go to Hollywood High School rather than North Hollywood High School, which was just a few blocks from my house. It was their ROTC program. Hollywood High had one, and North Hollywood did not. Ironically, my last semester of ROTC was cut short because of another Hungarian student. He had just transferred in from another high school, and we were the same rank. He was determined to be Battalion commander and so we squabbled over the title. It seemed a ridiculous fight to me after awhile, and I had had my fill of it. I dropped ROTC and took an international relations class that was offered the first thing in the morning, the same time as ROTC, so that I had not yet had the opportunity to take it. I enjoyed the class; the teacher was much more serious than most.
Apart from my ROTC experience, I can remember only one other important lesson from high school. I had an English class that was taught by a poor lone woman, a spinster. No one liked her because she was serious. We scalawag students (the boys, I mean, for the girls were of a sweeter disposition), in whom the quality of mercy was strained, mocked this woman behind her back. But in class we were the mirror of all courtesy because we knew she was a serious teacher and a demanding lover of her subject. We were attentive and gave her her way. Her considerable presence demanded it.
As the class was nearing an end, after we read both Caesar and Hamlet, she told us we would have to memorize 40 lines of Shakespeare and recite them in class. I chose—unimaginatively perhaps—the lines by Hamlet that begin, “To be or not to be, that is the question;/Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,/And by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep—.” Unimaginative or not, I worked hard for many days to master these lines. The process of memorization was difficult and, when I finally got around to reading it aloud—letting my ears really hear the words, the cadence, and the rhythm—I recall a wonderful moment when the monster ignorance left me. I understood what I was reading, what I was hearing. I don’t mean that I understood the deep metaphysical meaning, but I finally understood that these were not wild and whirling words. They were beautiful, they had meaning, and I understood them. I was about 17 years old, and through learning Shakespeare, I knew that I had finally come to understand English. While I would still think in both Hungarian and English, my dreams were now in English. And Shakespeare, in and of himself, was a wonderful and magical discovery for me.
But what did I learn in school about this great country to which I had emigrated? Unfortunately, even in the early 60s (before the onslaught of “political correctness” so popular among the faculty of my generation) I am sad to report that it was nothing very serious or substantial. In some cases, it was probably even untrue. While my interests turned toward history early on, oddly, I was not very interested in American history. It was not made to seem interesting. Further, I had learned, to my surprise and against my own inclinations and perceptions, that America was an amazingly hypocritical place. I was told by a history professor that all I needed to know about Abraham Lincoln was that he was a racist. Nothing else needed to be known about him, he said. I set my sights on studying European history because it had great stories about straightforward tyrants who were unaffected by hypocrisy.
When I say I set my sights to study European history, you must understand the sense in which I mean study. I had always been a voracious reader. My ever-growing book collection was long a source of exasperation for my father and continues to this day to be one for my wife. I started accumulating books when I was in my early teens. I had always made a little money working for my parents, and instead of spending it on cars or clothes, I would buy books. There is something special about owning and reading your own books. I never liked to use libraries. Perhaps it is a natural reaction to the communist propaganda of my youth, but I think that some things just shouldn’t be shared. At least not with just anybody. I like to smell and fondle books, keep them, set them back on their shelf, sometimes to just let them fall open to where they may and read into them again. I fancied that these books became friends, and I just couldn’t bear to part with them. But my reading was done on my own because I enjoyed it. I did not think of studying as an occupation or work. I did not contemplate the possibility of or even understand what college was.
When I graduated from Hollywood High School in 1964, I was one of 740 students in my class. We had to use the Hollywood Bowl for the ceremonies because there were no facilities on campus that could accommodate that kind of crowd. I had no idea what college was all about, but many of the people I knew were going, and my grades were good enough to get in at San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge). I could commute and keep working for my parents, so I enrolled. When I started college, I just took classes that I found interesting. I really had no plan or major in mind, but eventually, I discovered, you have to pick one. So I picked political science.
I took a lot of political science classes from a professor named Noonan. He was an ordinary liberal, but he seemed like a smart guy, and I had enjoyed his classes. He was teaching all the classes having to do with European politics. I was sitting in the back of one of his classes one day while he was pontificating about French politics, or some such thing, and a woman in the class (she happened to be an Israeli woman) raised a question that referred to God. Noonan stopped cold and replied with dripping condescension, “Anyone who believes in God ought to get out of my classroom.” The woman was speechless. I was simultaneously speechless and appalled. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Was he serious? In the end, the woman and I were the only ones who left the room. She was in tears. I was burning mad. I immediately went down and changed my “major” to history.
Throughout these years, partly out of my experience and partly out of genuine curiosity, I maintained an interest in American politics. I was active in standard Republican Party politics. I campaigned for Barry Goldwater in 1964. The anti-Communist positions of the GOP were a natural draw for my family and me. We didn’t think the Democrats fully appreciated the enemy. But my politics beyond that, obviously, were not well developed. As a result of my activism in the Young Republicans, I attended a few seminars for something called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. They provided an opportunity for students from colleges all around the country to meet and study with some of the leading conservative professors. It was in 1965 at one of these summer seminars that I first met Harry V. Jaffa. He was teaching a class on Shakespeare, and a fellow named Martin Diamond was teaching a class on The Federalist. At about the same time, I came across the first edition of the journal Intercollegiate Review and the still-young National Review. Similarly, I came into contact with students and teachers from Claremont, who were (and are) among the most serious souls I had ever had the pleasure to meet. One of the first was Bill Allen. I met him at an ISI seminar in the Summer of 1966, and we became friends. We both worked on getting Ronald Reagan elected governor of California, although he had a more serious position in the campaign than I. I began to see that it was, in many ways, more interesting and important to think about politics as those in Claremont were doing than to be active in politics as I had been. I endeavored, in my own way, to do just that. But it never occurred to me that I would join them in Claremont in any formal way. I thought that what they were doing out there was so important and so elevated that it was in many ways beyond me.
But I spent a lot of time hanging around in Claremont, though I was still enrolled at Northridge. You must understand—I didn’t know what graduate school was nor did I even understand the concept of graduating from college. I just liked reading and studying and talking with people who did the same. I was a free man without a plan.
Now in the midst of all of this, the 1960s are in full swing. My father and I had clear views on matters—particularly as they related to Freedom vs. Tyranny, America vs. the Communists and the necessity of the Vietnam War. We both were in favor of the war. The demonstrations made us angry. The chanting, in particular, was offensive. No matter what they were saying, when left-wing groups would get together and chant, it always sounded like “Sieg Heil!” to us. I remember being especially angry when they started spelling America with a “k,” as if it were a fascist country. I have clear memories of my parents really thinking that the country was falling apart. My Dad, especially, thought that the Americans were not fighting an intelligent or manly enough war in Vietnam—that they were nickel-and-diming it instead of going in like they meant to win. It was pretty clear after some time that I was not going to be drafted, but I joined the National Guard anyway. There were fights and demonstrations and even bombings going on at school. Still, it is hard for people of our background to lose our sense of humor. I remember one incident when Dad and I were watching the news on TV and some American pilot had been shot down after doing something that my father considered particularly stupid. He was convinced that if the Americans lost the war it would be because of the kind of stupidity that comes from approaching tyrants with too soft a hammer. We continued watching this and as my father was insulting the manhood and intelligence of all natural born Americans they proceeded to interview this pilot. They asked him how he got himself into this situation and as he took off his helmet and began to speak I had a great laugh at my father’s expense… the pilot spoke in the thickest possible Hungarian accent! That was the last time my dad insulted the general manhood and intelligence of Americans!
The Ugly European
In 1968 (four years after entering college so, theoretically, when I should have graduated) I decided to go to Germany to learn German. Why? I just thought it would be an interesting thing to do. Remember, I am a free man without a plan.
I lived in Munich. This was my first trip to Europe since leaving it at age ten. Although my reason for going was to learn German, my reason for staying was to learn something about Europeans, their habits and their ways, and their rich history. In the end, I learned a great deal about how Europeans see America, and therefore learned much about why I love Americans. But above all, I learned much about Europeans and why I was no longer one of them.
What I learned then has remained true, and helps explain some of the recent disagreements over Iraq specifically, and American foreign policy generally. Certainly the French, for example, have geopolitical reasons of the highest sort for wanting to break the American monopoly of power in the world. But there is something even more important at work here—certain different dispositions, different intellectual and moral habits. Many Europeans, as I observed for the first time on my visit in 1968, note our power and wealth, but have contempt for (what they see as) our ignorance. These two things combine into resentment, and that resentment is fed by a deep well of continental philosophy, a view of the world that Americans don’t share. This seemed and seems to me to be the crux of the matter.
Well, it was a tough and lonely year in Germany. At age twenty-two I enrolled at the University of Munich to better my German (and to sit in on some philosophy seminars). Since I had only about seventy-five bucks in my pocket when I arrived, I needed a job. I got one through the only friend I had there. His name was Tibor Tollas, and he was a Hungarian poet-in-exile. He had become a friend of the family because he always ate at our restaurant while he was in Los Angeles. Tibor only had two fingers on each hand. The Nazis had cut off the ones on his left hand. He lost the fingers on his right hand to the Communists, partly because of his views and partly, they said, for the sake of symmetry. But Mr. Tollas took care of me, and I was able to stay.
The job he got for me was ridiculously difficult. I worked twelve-hour days, six days a week, and was paid seventy-five cents an hour. But this paid for my room in a pension (two bucks a day), and I got to eat for nothing since I worked at the main market in Munich unpacking bananas from freight cars. The bananas were free, and the owner only charged fifteen cents for soft drinks or a beer.
The job wasn’t legal, of course. They called it “black” labor; it was off the record, I was paid in cash. I was hired only because I didn’t tell them I was an American student; they never would have hired me had they known. I told them I was a Hungarian refugee. They were willing to help. My fellow laborers were bums, German bums (we would call them homeless now). Although they smelled awful, drank too much and slept on park benches, I liked them. I became especially fond of them when I finally figured out what they were humming as we worked. They were singing and humming American songs, old songs, like “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”
After a few weeks of working with them I got to know them well enough to ask them how it was that they were singing American songs. Well, it turned out that they had been soldiers in World War II and were among the first Germans captured by the Americans. They were sent to a prisoner of war camp in Texas. They lived out the whole war in Texas, they learned English and liked our songs. And because this was an American prisoner of war camp, they were able to leave the camp, get jobs in town and get acquainted with real Americans. All four of them said it was the best experience of their lives. They loved Americans, they said.
I wanted to know what it was they liked about Americans. They thought that Americans were direct and honest. They looked you square between the eyes and told you what they thought. The Americans laughed a lot, often loudly. Their view of life was not tragic, they were not filled with the passionate anxiety of Europeans. Americans had no angst. They didn’t spend their time regretting the past; they thought anything was possible. Give a man an opportunity, he’ll take it, and fulfill what ambitions he had. My German friends called this “practical freedom.” These Americans lived as free men should live. They were modest, never overbearing, gave no quarter to flim-flam, and they were very generous. Although these men were soldiers for a country that America was at war with, the Americans never said they disliked Germans. “They did keep asking us, however, how we could have gotten ourselves a leader like the one we had. It started us thinking,” they said.
Everybody in America seemed young, they said. They had a liveliness about them, a kind of wide-eyed-adolescence, as if they had never experienced disappointment and defeat, and there was no reason to think they ever would. They were energetic and full of vigor. They thought that people should have the opportunity to excel in something. These Americans moved through the world as if there was no one trying to hinder their progress, their ambition, their way in the world. The Germans said that they were struck by the fact that the children seemed to look mature men in the eyes, as if they were their equals.
We talked about these matters in my halting German. And after a while, I felt morally compelled to tell them that I was really an American and that I spoke English. Well, you should have seen the hurrahs and the cheers! They were delighted and quickly revealed that their English was much better than my German. From then on, we spoke only English.
Over the years, and on other trips, much was added to these impressions. Although none denied what my homeless friends understood to be the American character, they added some not so subtle mixes to that opinion. What had been described as virtues now became vices. Many Frenchmen I met argued that Americans are money grubbing, all they are interested in is making money. The country is full of an endless commercial bustle. As a result Americans work too hard, and have no proper understanding of leisure. Their culture is minimal and only their manners are lower. They are unsophisticated and unlearned. They know little about their own history, and nothing about the history of others. They have never suffered, so they lack depth. That may explain why they have no great literature and are not in love with museums, as Europeans are.
I remember one man who couldn’t possibly understand how all these people of different backgrounds and colors could live together as something like citizens; he wondered how it was possible. He concluded—because he never understood its cause, the idea, the electric cord, as Lincoln called it, that was the real basis of American patriotism—that it was not possible in the end, that it was only a question of time before the place fell apart. Not enough ties of blood, not enough common history, he said.
In the end I came to learn that what held together all the critical opinions about America was the spirit of resentment and envy. We were big and powerful and thought we were special. We claimed to establish a Novus Ordo Seclorum (see the Great Seal of the United States on the back of the dollar bill), as if we had reinvented the world. We scoffed at the old and tired ways of the mother continent. We were like children who weren’t able to appreciate the sober and cultured ways of the parents. These European parents were jealous of their energetic and ambitious children. The child became too powerful, too wealthy, too ambitious. The more the child was able and willing to help the parents out, the more resentful the parents became. And yet, the parents were forced to admit to themselves that there was something especially interesting and appealing in these exuberant youths, their liveliness and their straight-shooting ways. And yet again, these youngsters had to be kept in check by their betters.
Over the years I began to see the philosophical basis of this European way of thinking and why they disliked our ways. They attempted to prove that all philosophical questions and human life can be reduced to the deep Grundproblemen (fundamental problems) and then to nihilistic despair, because in becoming fully enlightened, the Europeans freed themselves from all illusions about good and evil, and right and wrong. But we Americans don’t think this, and we can’t feel the despair. How could we, we simple-minded and practical folk, understand the depth of the human condition? We Americans insist on holding to the connection between freedom and justice, courage and moderation. As a result, we can’t take the Europeans as seriously as they take themselves. We think that they are participants in a pseudo-sophisticated and endless coffee-house chatter leading nowhere except to the will to power and gulags and concentration camps. We, on the other hand, think that equality and liberty have ethical and political implications; we are willing to fight to make men free. We are still optimists who laugh too loudly, and we still think, along with Mark Twain, that against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.
I had spent a lot of time with Germans and East Europeans and didn’t talk to an American for the first four months or so. By early spring, I became terribly homesick. Think about the word “homesickness.” It is an illness brought about by being away from home. I repeat, an illness. I had never been this ill before. The physical effects were something like seasickness; my head was sick and my whole heart faint. I wasn’t missing the pretty Southern California coastline, you understand, or big cars or hamburgers. I was missing Americans, a certain kind of people with certain qualities I liked and was at home with. I missed my people.
At the first sign of the illness, I began almost instinctively keeping my eyes open for Americans. I didn’t see any. As the illness progressed, I started consciously searching for Americans. I went to places where (I thought) they were likely to be. Alas, they were not. I kept at it. I pressed hard. But nothing. Things got so bad that I was unable to sleep. I would wake in the middle of the night and prowl the city with my eyes wide open. Nothing. I got into the habit of going to the main railroad station in the middle of the night (it was one of the few places open all night). I would sit and drink coffee and talk to whoever was there; mostly Germans of questionable character drinking much too much beer. Sometimes we would talk about America; but no Americans.
One night—very late, it must have been 3 A.M., I was heading home from the station, turned a corner and was thunderstruck. There was a man walking in front of me, going in the direction I was going. There was no one else on the street. My eyes focused on his back for a second and, within another second, I was running toward the man because I realized—in a kind of insight—that this was an American man walking. I came to an abrupt stop on his left side, panting, and blurted out something like, “Please, I am an American, I need to talk with you. Please. Would you mind if I walked with you a bit?” Needless to say the man was surprised. But he recovered his composure quickly enough and was magnanimous enough to allow me to walk and talk with him. The conversation was not about the mysteries of things, or the latest political news, or gilded butterflies, or tales of American grandness. No, it was about his hometown of St. Louis, and the virtues of the Cardinals, and why the National League was superior to the American (being a Yankee fan, I disputed this). It was about small things. But that was enough, and with each step and each sentence of the conversation, I felt the contagion leave my soul and began to regain my health. Oh, how wonderful it was, to be healthy again! I wanted to hang my cap on the horns of the moon! An hour later we parted company; he had, in his own way, understood that he had given me a gift. I was whole again. I was happy.
The next day (in daylight) I was walking down the street and noticed three men walking a few yards in front of me (they happened to be black), so I saddled up to them and was prepared to say hello, expecting a howdy in return, when I heard them speaking in Hungarian! I was shocked, but decided to talk to them (at first in German, they spoke no English) and discovered they were from Ghana, studying law (amazingly enough!) in Budapest, and were in Munich playing the tourist. Their Hungarian, by the way, was flawless. So we parted company, and as I let them walk on, I looked at them walking from behind. I realized they couldn’t possibly have been Americans, and wondered why I hadn’t seen that before. They walked as if they were not at home in the city or in the world, as if the sky would fall in on them at any time, as if there was a thundercloud above them instead of a shining sun, as if they were afraid to displease the gods.
From then on, whenever I felt a touch of the illness grab my soul, I would venture into a crowd, keep my eyes open and look for men who stood tall, walked with purpose, were unafraid, and even had a kind of jocularity in their walk. Even if I didn’t talk with them, it was good enough just to know that they were around and, whenever necessary, I could talk with them and be at home.
Before actually going home, however, I felt compelled to at least try and visit my aging grandmother in Hungary. My poet friend, Tibor Tollas, had a one-way ticket to Budapest on the Orient Express, and he gave it to me. I, of course, paid no thought to the logistics of this plan beyond securing the ticket. As usual, I had almost no money. Never mind that this was a one-way ticket and I had no plan to get back. This was 1968! The Russians were moving into Czechoslovakia, and there was no love lost between Americans (particularly former Hungarian Americans) and eastern European communist aparatchiks. Of course, I had a passport, but I knew nothing about the need or procedure for securing visas to visit Communist countries. So I just boarded the train with my ticket, and off I went.
The train, of course, was magnificent, and it was almost worth what would happen to me just to be able to ride it. But inevitably, I was thrown off the train when it became clear that I did not have the proper papers to proceed. The Orient Express made an unscheduled stop, about ten miles before the Hungarian border, just to throw me off the train! They explained that I would be arrested as soon as the train entered Hungary because I didn’t have a visa. I found myself in the middle of some cornfields and started walking. I found a cab to take me to the border, where I could get a visa. He charged me about fifty dollars. I had about twenty bucks left. Walking into the Hungarian border station was a shock to my now fully Americanized sensibilities. There were guard towers and all the Hungarian soldiers were carrying machine guns. They were unpleasant. They did not believe me when I said that I merely wanted to visit my grandmother. They stripped me and went through my things, asked many questions about what I studied and with whom. Of course, they also did not believe that I was in Munich merely to learn German. They assumed that a larger game was afoot. Hours later I was ready to re-start my journey. The trouble is I had no way to get to Gyor: there were no buses, no taxis, no train. I thought about it for a while and as I realized I would have to walk the twenty or so miles, I spotted a couple getting into their car with Canadian license plates on it. They were about to drive to Budapest. I explained my predicament, and since Gyor was on the way, I hitched a ride. I arrived in Gyor in the late evening, having been dropped off at the center of town. I was able to get directions to my grandmother’s place, and walked the few blocks. I remembered the building as I approached it, walked in, found her apartment, and knocked on the door. My grandmother, I should mention, had no idea that I was coming. She opened the door and almost fainted. After she recovered, she looked me up and down (I wasn’t exactly in my Sunday best at this point!) and said: “Oh, My Lord, you have become an American gentleman.” Grandma may not have been right about the gentleman part—at least not in those days—but she was right about the essentials. I had become an American.
The Re-Education of an American
When I returned to California, I continued with my studies at Northridge. I also continued to hang out in Claremont when I could. I still did not know, in the sense that we expect students today to know, what it was that I was doing with myself. Perhaps that was best. I was just taking both life’s and the college’s lessons as they came. But I was to have a rude awakening.
It was probably about October of 1970 (so six years after I had entered college) when I went to the Registrar’s office to register for the Spring semester. I was told that I could not register. “But why not?” I asked. Was my bill not paid, did I have over-due library books? What was going on? No, I was told, I could not register because I had over 200 credits and 3 majors. I had to graduate. I was finished. I was speechless. I am not embarrassed to say that I actually cried. It took nearly half an hour for the poor woman working there to explain to me the full meaning of what she was saying. I could not get my mind around the concept that I had to finish school. I perked up when she said that what I would have to do is enter graduate school. This meant I could continue to study. But I had no real concept of what graduate school was.
I remember going to consult with Chris Flannery, who by then had already become a friend. We were students together at Northridge, and he was waiting for me in front of the library. Chris also frequented Claremont with me and knew Bill Allen and a few other of the guys. It was decided that the thing I should do—since neither one of us knew what to do about this preposterous situation—was to consult Bill Allen. I immediately called him and within weeks it was arranged through Bill and Professor Jaffa that I would enter the Claremont Graduate School.
So there I was in Claremont, studying these important things with all of these guys who seemed smarter than me. Then it hit me. Why had I put all of this effort into studying so much of European history and politics? There was nothing wrong with it, in itself. But these most important questions—What is freedom? What is justice? What is equality? —these were not answered in the history books I had been devouring. These were questions tackled by men like Jefferson, Madison, Washington and Lincoln and contemplated before by men like Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and many others. This is where I could get a true education. So I started anew.
I took classes on Plato’s Phaedo, the American Founding, Lincoln, and Shakespeare’s politics. I was no longer studying things out of historical curiosity, but, rather, looking into the very cause of things. Life seemed to be in full swing: trying to figure out Greek grammar in the morning, the idea of consent and equality in the afternoon, with maybe a little basketball in the evening. I started making friends with American minds, and American statesmen. No longer were they introduced to us students as personifications of the Marxist oberbau, or their teachings as the result of bad potty training. We met them on their own terms, let them persuade us, if they could, of their meaning and purposes, and we would talk with them. These conversations were on-going and fluid, never ending arguments with fine minds of men who acted well in the world. It was an intoxicating education, made ever more pleasant because it took place with friends. It was here that I met Tom Silver, Tom West, Jeff Wallin, Ken Masugi, Larry Arnn, and others, who were not only smart and hard working, but partisans of America and the things for which the country stood. We fed off one another’s hunger, cajoled one another, pushed one another, and always moved one another toward what was beautiful and good and true. It was here that I started understanding what my father had always understood. It was here that I began to see what it meant to try to establish a Novus Ordo Seclorum. I began to see that all governments previous to ours had been established on accident and force, and now these American Founders insisted on establishing one on universal principles applicable to all men at all times, one established on reflection and choice. In America, human beings could prove to the world that they had the capacity to govern themselves. The Founders, according to Lincoln, proclaimed equality and freedom to “the whole world of men.” It was here that I came to understand what Lincoln meant by the Declaration of Independence being the “electric cord” that linked all of us together, as though we were “blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh, of the men who wrote that Declaration.” This is what it meant to be an American, and it wasn’t all that far from being a man.
I am told that before I was born, my mother went to see a fortune-teller, and the old woman told my mother that she would have a son and that he would grow up to be a soldier in a foreign land. I have been content to be a student in a land that was once foreign to me but is now my home in a sense that is much deeper than Hungary ever could have been my home. These days I continue my life as a student of America. The difference is that now a university pays me to study rather than collecting payment from me. I am in the ironic position, here at this Midwestern liberal arts college in central Ohio, of teaching native Americans (I mean native-born Americans, not American Indians) how to think about their country. How odd it seems, and yet how perfectly American, that they should need me, a Hungarian immigrant, to teach them.
I suppose that I should no longer be surprised by the dismal education of students in high school. But I continually receive fresh reminders of just how bad it is. One of the things I do here in my capacity as Director of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of political science at Ashland University is to interview prospective applicants to our program. Now our program is intense, and we take only the best students, and they are, in comparison to their peers, quite accomplished and well read. But this really means nothing. Most of them have read nothing but mediocre textbooks. They come in with a lot of silly prejudices about America—though perhaps (since this is the Midwest) some good habits and some sensible opinions; mostly due to their upbringing. And these are the best of the students. I meet many more of the other kind—students who, like me at that age, have no idea of what they are doing with themselves and certainly have no civic perspective.
The United States was the first nation in the world to construct an elaborate system of public schools. All the founders understood that republican government demanded that the citizens be educated. Citizens have to choose their representatives wisely, they have to learn to become independent, to be able to earn a living. And they have to be taught self-control. They have to have the habits of mind and heart that are necessary for self-government. These native Americans need teachers. And I have become one of those teachers. Call it a repayment of a debt; call it honoring my father and mother for seeing things rightly and thereby giving me a chance to be in the right place and my children a chance to be born in the right place. Call it what you will. But what I do with these American natives is I teach them about American politics and American history. I start with a simple thing about their country and themselves. I tell them that they are the fortunate of the earth, among the blessed of all times and places. I tell them this as an obvious and an incontrovertible thing. And their blessing, their great good fortune, lies in the nation into which they were born. I tell them not only that their country, the United States of America, is the most powerful and the most prosperous country on earth, but also that it is the most free and the most just. Then I tell them how and why this is so.
That is, I teach them about the principles from which these blessings of liberty flow. I invite them to consider whether they can have any greater honor than to pass undiminished to their children and their grandchildren this great inheritance of freedom. And then we talk for a few years about how they might best go about doing that. And this is the beginning and the end of what I have learned and of what I teach both as an American citizen and a human being.
Peter W. Schramm was Executive Director of the Ashbrook Center from 1997 to 2013 and Professor of Political Science at Ashland University.