Media Center explores immigrants' tales

To build understanding, new website features immigrant experiences

Ingeborg Baehr Hirschhorn's immigration story did not start out like the stories of the generation before her, immigrants who came to America from grinding poverty.

She was the daughter in a well-off Jewish family, living in a comfortable home in Bamburg, Germany, in the 1930s and attending a private school. But the dark cloud of Nazism soon had the 11-year-old girl and her family fleeing for their lives. A Nazi "brown shirt" paramilitary once beat her father so badly that his eardrum ruptured.

The family fled to Chicago, Ill., in 1938. Hirschhorn spent the next 17 years until age 28 in a tiny one-bedroom apartment, sleeping on her parents' living room sofa. It was a far cry from the luxury of the family's multistory home in Germany, said her daughter, Palo Alto resident Ellen Hirschhorn Cohen.

Hirschhorn is now 85 and has Alzheimer's disease, but memories of that harrowing time remain. Her story, from trial to triumph, is posted on a new storytelling website, "Made Into America: Immigrant Stories from the Bay Area," launched by the Midpeninsula Community Media Center on May 15. The website recounts the tales of Bay Area immigrants: how they or their families got here and how they struggled and succeeded in their new homeland.

The project is funded by a grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation's Immigrant Integration program, which promotes understanding between immigrants and their receiving communities. The initiative also funds programs related to new immigrants' legal, economic and educational needs.

The Bay Area is a gold mine for immigrant tales. One-third of Bay Area residents are immigrants, nearly half of the workforce is foreign-born, and close to two-thirds of those under the age of 18 are children of immigrants, according to the Community Foundation's website.

But the relationship between new immigrants and "old" immigrants isn't always easy, said Elliot Margolies, the "Made Into America" coordinator.

"We hope to erase some of the borders between those who think of themselves as non-immigrants and immigrants, instead of 'us' versus 'them.' We thought that by inviting families throughout Silicon Valley to celebrate their own personal connections, we could develop a better way to value immigrants. What's going to make this project different is that it expands the notion of who's an immigrant. We hope that people will tap into that genealogical spirit. There is a really compelling story about our families that we really don't know," he said.

The website,, allows contributors to upload brief family stories, photographs and videos. Stories are searchable in three categories: where people came from, where they landed and the era, from before 1800 to the present.

Bart Westcott of Palo Alto posted a story about his ancestor, Stukely Westcott, a farmer from England who came to America in June 1635 and settled in Salem, Mass. Westcott was banished from Salem because he associated with Roger Williams, an advocate for separation of civil and religious authority. He joined Williams to found the Rhode Island colony.

Van Anh Tran of Stanford posted the story of her father, Tho Tran, which traces his escape from a Vietnamese "re-education" camp to his passage on a boat to Malaysia. He landed in Texas and lived in Ohio, eventually moving to California.

New immigrants also tell their stories about life in the Bay Area.

Christian Back, a student who is studying accounting and hopes to work for one of the Big Four accounting firms, discussed his experiences as a bi-racial immigrant. In a video segment, Back, who is part German and part Filipino, tells how he tried to hide being Asian due to the prejudice he encountered in Germany. He still battled prejudice after moving to San Jose with his family, he said. He tried hiding his accent after discovering being German was a disadvantage.

But in high school he began to accept himself, he said.

"I learned that I wasn't the only immigrant; I wasn't the only person with an accent out there, or that I wasn't the only multicultural person out there. That's when I noticed that this is not about the color of your skin, you know, or how you say the words, but instead it's more about the type of person that you are that matters," he said.

Margolies said immigrants' stories document important eras.

"There are quite a number of historical movements or catastrophes that underlie these stories," he added.

Thinking about her mother's experience, Cohen agreed.

"Those kinds of stories, they get washed out," she said, adding that the site offered her a chance to shed light on the consequences of human behavior that greatly changed her mother's life.

Reading and hearing immigrant stories can create a stronger sense of understanding, she said.

"These are real people. Maybe if we look at the collective of immigrants on a personal level, we can have more empathy. It's a challenging thing. It's good to try to remember," she said.

"When you know more about a person in the neighborhood, they become more than the neighbor you see take out the trash bin. They become more than the neighbor who posts on the email list. If widely used, (the website) could definitely drive a feeling of greater community," she said.

The Media Center plans to develop an intergenerational interview project in the schools, Margolies said. In September, the center will hold an immigration storytelling event.

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Like this comment
Posted by Wow
a resident of South of Midtown
on Jun 9, 2013 at 11:00 pm

Ellen sounds like such a remarkable lady. She is so right! If only every one in our community thought like her. She is right, people need to be more open minded and see why and how people got to where they are. GO ELLEN!!!

Like this comment
Posted by Ellen
a resident of Green Acres
on Jun 10, 2013 at 10:55 am

Thanks Wow! Just trying to be human :-)

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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