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My Great-Grandfather Came To This Country With Nothing But $10 In His Pocket, $300,000 In His Bank Account, And A Dream

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Ralph Ernst

When I stop and think about all the strides my family has made since my great-grandfather Wenzel immigrated to America, I can’t help but be filled with pride. It all began with that brave first step Great-Grandpa took when he left his native Austria, not knowing what the future held in store. Things weren’t easy for him, no sir! A great many hardships awaited him when he arrived in this country with only $10 in his pocket, $300,000 in his bank account, and a dream.

Yet it was a sacrifice he was willing to make to ensure his kids would have an even better life than he already had himself.

Wenzel was only 17 when he secured one-way passage for himself aboard a steamship to Ellis Island, leaving behind the only home he had ever known. When I first heard the tale of his voyage, I could hardly imagine how difficult it must have been for him, all alone there in his first-class cabin as the foul stench of steerage passengers wafted up to his sitting room. At one point, so the story goes, the ship’s galley ran out of filet mignon, forcing him to subsist on 8-ounce rib eye steaks for the rest of the trip. But somehow Great-Grandpa made due, enduring the entire week-long journey without a single manservant at his disposal.

Who could have guessed this wide-eyed kid from Austria, who spoke hardly a word of English, would become a successful businessman in America? When he first set foot in this country, he didn’t know a soul. Think how lonely he must have felt among those teeming masses of immigrants, considering he was forced to rely on a full-time hired translator just to communicate with anyone! He managed to endure the adversity. With nothing but the shirt on his back and letters of introduction to a few prominent industrialists who were willing to help him get started in any line of work he might wish to pursue, he persevered.

It just goes to show, the American dream can be achieved by anyone with grit, determination, a large sum of money wired to a J.P. Morgan & Co. account in New York by a wealthy relative, and a little bit of patience.

According to family lore, Wenzel spent long hours toiling in Lower East Side tenements—where there was no running water, ventilation was inadequate, and roaches outnumbered people—just to collect all the rent he was owed. At the end of the day, his only escape from this wretched poverty was to take his private carriage back uptown to the sprawling mansion where he lived with his growing family and his butler, maid, chef, coachman, and page boy. Many decades later, when I assumed control of our family’s real estate interests and tore down those miserable tenements to put up luxury condos, I felt a special connection to my great-grandfather, knowing his struggle had been validated.

Like many immigrants, Wenzel faced his share of persecution. There were few labor laws back then, and the working conditions were incredibly dangerous in the factories he operated. When textile workers began striking, it nearly wiped out his manufacturing concerns. Ironically, this was exactly the kind of mistreatment he had come to America to avoid. At the time, he could only afford to buy a handful of small-time politicians, hardly enough to face down a union with. But thanks to the tight-knit community of powerful men to which he belonged, he was able to find a judge who ordered his employees to get back to work or face termination, and my great-grandfather lived to fight another day.

Nowadays, I have grandkids of my own, and I try to pass on to them the same lessons that came down to me from Great-Grandpa Wenzel: Don’t cry and blame other people when you can’t get the best table at a restaurant. Don’t ever ask for a handout from the government, unless it’s a subsidy for a business you own, and then make sure to have a lobbyist do the asking for you. Don’t worry too much about what other people think of you, because our family owns enough news outlets to keep embarrassing stuff out of the press. But do make sure you work hard, ask your dad for a seven-figure loan when you need one, and enjoy life!

I’ll always be thankful for these lessons. They taught me the true value of a million dollars.

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