Last Thursday, during a roughly hour-long meeting, held inside of his City Hall office, I asked Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to share an experience from his past that motivates him in the present. That’s when he touched upon his family’s deep roots on the West (or ‘Vest’) Side.
‘[The dead] stared at you’
My grandfather on my mother’s side came to this country and this city 100 years ago from a [small Eastern European country bordering Romania and Ukraine] called Moldova. He was 13 years old, didn’t speak a word of English. He came by himself to meet a third cousin he didn’t know.
When he got to Chicago, he met my grandmother [during] an Eastern European dance in the old Jewish community that was then called the ‘Vest Side,’ which was Douglas Park and Lawndale. That’s where my mother grew up until they moved to Albany Park. My grandfather and grandmother for years lived with us.
My grandfather was a big guy — six-foot-three, former boxer, meat cutter, truck driver. I got my dad’s side of the family [laughter]. My grandfather was somebody who firmly believed that this city gave him a chance. And I believe it gave me a chance.
When I was growing up, my mother and my father hung on the wall the passports of my grandmother and my two great aunts and the purses they brought with them to America. And there were pictures from my father’s family and my mother’s family of relatives who never made it to America.
So, when you were watching TV or just hanging out in the family room, your relatives who died in the Holocaust or the pogroms stared at you. Let me tell you, nothing is subtle in a Jewish family [laughter]. And it was my parents’ way of saying, “If you’re lucky and you got to this great country, you have to give something back.” That’s what’s driven me in my life.