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Twenty People Become Citizens at the American History Museum

Holocaust survivor and civil rights activist Gerda Weissmann Klein addresses new citizens at the museum's sixth naturalization ceremony

smithsonian.com

Two of the newest U.S. citizens who were naturalized on Sept. 20, 2010. Image courtesy of the American History Museum

At the National Museum of American History tomorrow morning at 11 am., a diverse group of 20 candidates from around the world will become American citizens. The museum, in conjunction with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), will be hosting a naturalization ceremony—its sixth since reopening in 2008 after being closed for renovations.

Brent Glass, the museum’s director, has been known to compare the atrium outside of the Star Spangled Banner exhibition, where the ceremony will be held, as a town square. In past ceremonies, he has invited the newly naturalized citizens to consider helping their communities to donate artifacts that relate to their own immigration experiences. After all, Glass has emphasized, “this is your country and your National Museum of American History.”

Quite fittingly, the museum and USCIS have invited a keynote speaker who has come to call the United States, her adopted country, her own. Gerda Weissmann Klein immigrated to the United States in 1946, after her liberation from three years in concentration camps in Poland and a 350-mile death march. Two years later, she became an American citizen. Her story has since been shared with millions—through her memoir All But My Life, an HBO documentary “One Survivor Remembers” and lesson kits used by hundreds of thousands of schools. And, in the process, she has become a crusader for tolerance. In 2008, she founded Citizenship Counts, a nonprofit that teaches young students about what it means to be American by having them help plan and host naturalization ceremonies in their own communities. (In part thanks to Citizenship Counts, 160 students from Oklahoma, California, New York, Texas, Washington, D.C. and the Virgin Islands will be attending.)

“I know that a lot of people have hoped and prayed for that moment. A lot of people have come from places where they, of course, did not have freedom. I can empathize with it. I know what they must feel,” says Klein, of the naturalization process. “To me, it was a homecoming, a sense of belonging. When you had no rights as a citizen as I had, and they deprive you of everything, and suddenly all this is given to you, it’s unbelievable.”

Klein received a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, this past February for revealing, as President Obama put it, “the best of who we are and who we aspire to be.”

When she talks about her “blessed life,” Klein says, “Only in America. I don’t think it could have happened in any other country.”

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