The Height Gap
Author: Burkhard Bilger
When Vincent van Gogh was thirty-one years old, in the fall of 1883, he travelled to the bleak moors of northern Holland and stayed at a tavern in the village of Stuifzand. The local countryside was hardly inhabited then—"Locus Deserta Atque ob Multos Paludes Invia," an old map called it: "A deserted and impenetrable place of many swamps"—but a few farmers and former convicts had managed to carve a living from it. They dug peat, brewed illegal gin, and placed poles across the marshes to navigate by. Any squatter who could keep his chimney smoking for a full year earned title to the land he cleared.
There is little record of what happened to van Gogh in Stuifzand—whether he got lost in the marshes or traded sketches for shots at the bar. When I visited the village, the locals mentioned him merely to illustrate an even greater national obsession: height. At the old tavern, which is now a private home, I was shown the tiny alcove where the painter probably slept. "It looks like it would fit only a child," J. W. Drukker, the current owner, told me. Then he and his wife, Joke (a common Dutch name, they explained, pronounced "Yoh-keh"), led me down the hall, to a sequence of pencil marks on a doorjamb. "My son, he is two metres," Joke told me, pointing to the topmost mark, six and a half feet from the floor. "His feet"—she held her hands about eighteen inches apart—"for waterskiing." Joke herself is six feet one, with blond tresses and shoulders like a Valkyrie. Drukker is six feet two.
The Netherlands, as any European can tell you, has become a land of giants. In a century's time, the Dutch have gone from being among the smallest people in Europe to the largest in the world. The men now average six feet one—seven inches taller than in van Gogh's day—and the women five feet eight. The national organization of tall people, Klub Lange Mensen, has considerable lobbying power. From Rotterdam to Eindhoven, ceilings have had to be lifted, furniture redesigned, lintels raised to keep foreheads from smacking them. Many hotels now offer twenty-centimetre bed extensions, and ambulances on occasion must keep their back doors open, to allow for patients' legs. "We will not go through the ceiling," the pediatrician Hans van Wieringen assured me, after summarizing national height surveys that he had coördinated. "But it is possible that we will grow another ten centimetres."
Walking along the canals of Amsterdam and Delft, I had an odd sensation of drowning—not because the crowds were so thick but because I couldn't lift my head above them. I'm five feet ten and a half—about an inch taller than the average in the United States—but, like most men I know, I tend to round the number up. Tall men, a series of studies has shown, benefit from a significant bias. They get married sooner, get promoted quicker, and earn higher wages. According to one recent study, the average six-foot worker earns a hundred and sixty-six thousand dollars more, over a thirty-year period, than his five-foot-five-inch counterpart—about eight hundred dollars more per inch per year. Short men are unlucky in politics (only five of forty-three Presidents have been shorter than average) and unluckier in love. A survey of some six thousand adolescents in the nineteen-sixties showed that the tallest boys were the first to get dates. The only ones more successful were those who got to choose their own clothes.
Like many biases, this one has a certain basis in fact. Over the past thirty years, a new breed of "anthropometric historians" has tracked how populations around the world have changed in stature. Height, they've concluded, is a kind of biological shorthand: a composite code for all the factors that make up a society's well-being. Height variations within a population are largely genetic, but height variations between populations are mostly environmental, anthropometric history suggests. If Joe is taller than Jack, it's probably because his parents are taller. But if the average Norwegian is taller than the average Nigerian it's because Norwegians live healthier lives. That's why the United Nations now uses height to monitor nutrition in developing countries. In our height lies the tale of our birth and upbringing, of our social class, daily diet, and health-care coverage. In our height lies our history.
Ifirst heard of anthropometric history from John Komlos—the pope of the field, as one of his colleagues described him. Komlos, who is a professor at the University of Munich, has the look of an Old World tailor—sharp eyes, receding hairline, bottlebrush mustache—and the scholarly instincts of a born scavenger. For twenty years, he has rummaged through archives on both sides of the Atlantic, gathering hundreds of thousands of height records in search of trends that others may have missed.
In his way, Komlos was born to do such research. He stands five inches shy of six feet, and he blames much of the gap on history. His parents were Hungarian Jews who lived in Budapest during the Second World War. In 1944, when his mother was pregnant with him, the Nazis took control of the city and the Russians were poised for a counterattack. "The bombardment started almost simultaneously with my birth," Komlos told me. (His English is perfect, aside from a few oddly flattened vowels, but he speaks with an exaggerated drawl, as if he had learned the language by watching old Westerns.) His parents managed to get to a bombed-out hospital, using fake identity papers, and to take the baby back safely to the family hideout. But there was little food, and Komlos cried incessantly. One relative told his mother to throw the baby outside, since he wasn't going to make it anyway.
The Hungarian Communists took over the city in 1948, but Komlos's diet improved only slightly. During the war, his father, Herbert, had spent months in a Hungarian forced-labor battalion outside Stalingrad, returning on foot when the Russians broke the German siege, in the winter of 1943. After the war, Herbert Komlos was imprisoned again, this time by the Communists. "They trumped up some charges because they said he was middle-class," Komlos said. "He was working odd jobs at the time and had only a fourth-grade education." When the Hungarian revolution came, in 1956, Herbert supported it. A month later, when it failed, he packed up his family and fled for America.
Biologists say that we achieve our stature in three spurts: the first in infancy, the second between the ages of six and eight, the last in adolescence. Any decent diet can send us sprouting at these ages, but take away any one of forty-five or fifty essential nutrients and the body stops growing. ("Iodine deficiency alone can knock off ten centimetres and fifteen I.Q. points," one nutritionist told me.) Komlos was twelve years old when he left Hungary, and he had been malnourished most of his life. His first growth spurt had been cut short; his second was hardly more successful. But if heights have obsessed him over the last twenty years it's because of what happened next, in his adolescence.
When Komlos and his parents arrived in Chicago, in the winter of 1956, America was a land of almost mythical abundance. For more than two centuries, its people had been so healthy and so prosperous that they towered above the rest of the world—about four inches above the Dutch, for example, for most of the nineteenth century. To Komlos, raised on the black bread and thin broth of Communist Hungary, Chicago's all-you-can-eat restaurants were astonishing. "I was just amazed that these things existed," he says. But he found the restaurants not nearly as impressive as the giants who fed there.
There is a rueful tone to his nostalgia. His father arrived with no money, no English, and no marketable skills, Komlos says. For a year, he worked in a factory, making belts, for a dollar an hour. When it was clear that he would never be promoted, he quit and started his own business, making leather watchbands at home. In Hungary, there had always been a market for handmade goods, but Chicago stores were full of cheap imports. To compete with Hong Kong, Herbert Komlos had to work sixteen hours a day while his wife worked ten, and John put in twenty-five hours on the weekend. They ate better than in the old country, but only a little. "Everyone has a story like mine, if they were born with my religion in my part of the world," Komlos says. And those experiences are spelled out in their bodies.
Komlos now knows that he arrived in America at a pivotal point in its history. Over the next fifty years, by most indicators dear to economists, the country remained the richest in the world. But by another set of numbers—longevity and income inequality—it began to lag behind Northern Europe and Japan. It's this shift that fascinates Komlos, and that emerges so vividly in his height data.
One evening last winter, Komlos and I were walking by the U.S.O. office at the Philadelphia airport, when he stopped to watch a batch of Coast Guard recruits who were shipping out to Cape May, New Jersey. "Look at that," he said. "Hardly any of them is six feet tall." Komlos had to catch an 8 p.m. red-eye to Munich, but he couldn't resist taking this group's measure. Standing at a discreet distance, he slowly sized up each man as if with a pair of calipers. "Amazing," he said. "The average German soldier is a hundred and seventy-nine centimetres—about five foot ten and a half. These guys are more like me."
For centuries, he explained, governments have kept careful records of their soldiers' heights, providing a baseline against which modern populations are compared. (Records for women are much more scarce, but they tend to follow the same trends.) Looking down these rows of men, four abreast, Komlos could see the shadowy ranks of their ancestors lined up behind them, from West Point cadets and Citadel graduates to Union soldiers, Revolutionary War soldiers, and fighters in the French and Indian War.
If you were to stretch a string from the head of the earliest soldier in that row to the head of the most recent recruit, you might expect it to trace an ascending line. Humans are an ever-improving species, the old evolution charts tell us; each generation is smarter, sleeker, and taller than the last. Yet in Northern Europe over the past twelve hundred years human stature has followed a U-shaped curve: from a high around 800 A.D., to a low sometime in the seventeenth century, and back up again. Charlemagne was well over six feet; the soldiers who stormed the Bastille a millennium later averaged five feet and weighed a hundred pounds. "They didn't look like Errol Flynn and Alan Hale," the economist Robert Fogel told me. "They looked like thirteen-year-old girls."
Fogel, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1993, is the man most responsible for Komlos's interest in height. In the fall of 1982, when Komlos was working on a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Chicago (he had earlier earned a Ph.D. in history there), Fogel gave a lecture on stature that Komlos attended. Most historians, if they thought about height at all, tended to assume that it was tied to income. The more people earn, the better they eat; the better they eat, the taller they grow. "Men grow taller and faster the wealthier their country," the French hygienist and statistician Louis-René Villermé wrote in 1829. "In other words, misery . . . produces short people."
Fogel knew it wasn't that simple. In 1974, he and Stanley Engerman published an exhaustive study of slave economics entitled "Time on the Cross." Historians had long insisted that slavery was not only inhuman; it was bad business—hungry, brutalized workers made the poorest of farmers. Fogel and Engerman found nearly the opposite to be true: Southern plantations were almost thirty-five per cent more efficient than Northern farms, their analysis showed. Slavery was a cruel and inhuman system, but more so psychologically than physically: to get the most work from their slaves, planters fed and housed them nearly as well as free Northern farmers could feed and house themselves.
"Time on the Cross" was greeted with uncommon fury in academia—one reviewer consigned it "to the outermost ring of the scholar's hell." Yet each point that critics blew apart left a scattering of uncomfortable facts behind it. The most dramatic example came from a graduate student of Fogel's, Richard Steckel, who is now at Ohio State. Steckel decided to verify his mentor's claims by looking at the slaves' body measurements. He went through more than ten thousand slave manifests—shipboard records kept by traders in the colonies—until he had the heights of some fifty thousand slaves; then he averaged them out by age and sex. The results were startling: adult slaves, Steckel found, were nearly as tall as free whites, and three to five inches taller than the average Africans of the time.
The height study both redeemed and rebuked "Time on the Cross." Although the adult slaves were clearly well fed, the children were extremely small and malnourished. (To eat, apparently, they had to be old enough to work.) But Fogel was more than willing to stand corrected. This wasn't just another data set, he realized. Height records offered a new angle on history, and they were readily available. Measurements of French military conscripts date back to 1716, and anthropologists have collected much older skeletal measurements. "There are millions of these data lying around and nobody is looking at them," Komlos remembers Fogel suggesting at the lecture. All that was needed was a few good graduate students to gather them up.
"It sounded hopeless," Komlos told me. "To study the history of human height with no funding and no real support in the field. It sounded very hopeless." Anthropometric historians need tens of thousands of measurements to gauge height trends—enough to factor out the effects of age, sex, and, above all, DNA. Finding and tabulating those heights requires grants, research assistants, and—ideally—tenure. Yet to most economists the whole endeavor sounded suspiciously like quackery, if not something worse: phrenologists and Nazi scientists, too, had laid great store in body measurements.
"There were belly laughs at first," Richard Steckel remembers. "The economists hadn't worked in developing countries and they hadn't studied the historical data on height. Most of them came from privileged backgrounds, where most differences in height are genetic. So the knee-jerk reaction was 'This is ridiculous. It's a monumental waste of resources.' " Among some social scientists, height research was well established. In the early nineteen-fifties, Nevin Scrimshaw, who set up the International Nutrition Foundation, in Boston, had studied child development throughout the Third World. Every bout of diarrhea or measles, he found, can bump a child off his growth curve. Every period of good nutrition can nudge him back on track. Most economists and historians ignored these short-term trends, however, while public-health workers ignored the long term. "And the two sides didn't talk to each other," Steckel says.
Anthropometric history was largely a field of two in those years: Steckel and Komlos, with other graduate students conducting studies here and there and Fogel orchestrating from the wings. Steckel, after his work on slaves, went on to Union soldiers and Native Americans. (The men of the northern Cheyenne, he found, were the tallest people in the world in the late nineteenth century: well nourished on bison and berries, and wandering clear of disease on the high plains, they averaged nearly five feet ten.) Then he enlisted anthropologists to gather bone measurements dating back ten thousand years. In both Europe and the Americas, he discovered, humans grew shorter as their cities grew larger. The more people clustered together, the more pest-ridden and poorly fed they became. Heights also fell in synch with global temperatures, which reached a nadir during the Little Ice Age of the seventeenth century.
While Steckel worked backward in time, Komlos worked forward, tracing American and European heights from the seventeenth century on. He was a "modern-day gypsy" at first, he says, moving from archive to archive without tenure or steady funding, wheedling librarians and hiring indifferent research assistants. At the University of Vienna, he tabulated the heights of a hundred and forty thousand Austrian soldiers and their children. At the National Archives in Washington, he studied forty-one hundred and eighty West Point graduates. For thirteen years, he gathered and analyzed the heights of thirty-eight thousand French soldiers from the late seventeen-hundreds. Peasant conscripts were nearly three inches shorter than their well-bred officers—reason enough for a revolution.
"See this?" Komlos said one afternoon, sliding a sheet of paper toward me. "This one graph took me nine years." We were sitting at his desk at the University of Munich, following his results from century to century and from continent to continent. To either side of us, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves held bound volumes of statistics. High curtainless windows looked out on the triumphal arch of the Siegestor and flooded the room in pale golden light.
It was an odd setting, Komlos admitted, for a Jewish scholar who once nearly starved under the Nazis, but hardly unpleasant. Economic historians with his training are a rarity in Germany, and much valued. As a full professor, Komlos has the equivalent of an endowed chair, with state-sponsored grants for his research. He teaches his courses in English, sends his two sons to an international school, and edits his field's only journal, Economics and Human Biology, also in English. "We live in a little American enclave," his wife, Lillian, told me. But they depend on Europe for their livelihood.
The graph in question showed the heights of American slaves, servants, soldiers, and apprentices in the early seventeen-hundreds. To produce it, Komlos searched through Colonial newspapers for descriptions of runaways and deserters, until he had gathered ten thousand seven hundred and forty-two heights. "You can drown in these data," he said. "But they also allow you to get closer to these guys." He showed me an ad from the Pennsylvania Gazette, dated September 26, 1771. An Irish servant named Nathaniel Anster had run away for the third time. He was thirty years old, with a sandy complexion and short bushy hair. He had on a felt hat and a striped blanket coat, was "much inclined to strong drink," and had "a natural propensity to steal." He was also five feet seven inches tall. When Komlos had gathered enough heights, he averaged them out and plotted them on this graph.
The immediate point was clear: America was a good place to live in the eighteenth century. Game was abundant, land free for the clearing, settlement sparse enough to prevent epidemics. On Komlos's graph, even the runaway slaves are five feet eight, and white colonists are five feet nine—a full three inches taller than the average European of the time. "So this is the eighteenth century," Komlos said, slapping the files. "This is not problematic. It shows that Americans are well nourished. Terrific." He reached into a cardboard folder and pulled out another series of graphs. "What is problematic is what comes next."
Around the time of the Civil War, Americans' heights predictably decreased: Union soldiers dropped from sixty-eight to sixty-seven inches in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, and similar patterns held for West Point cadets, Amherst students, and free blacks in Maryland and Virginia. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the country seemed set to regain its eminence. The economy was expanding at a dramatic rate, and public-hygiene campaigns were sweeping the cities clean at last: for the first time in American history, urbanites began to outgrow farmers.
Then something strange happened. While heights in Europe continued to climb, Komlos said, "the U.S. just went flat." In the First World War, the average American soldier was still two inches taller than the average German. But sometime around 1955 the situation began to reverse. The Germans and other Europeans went on to grow an extra two centimetres a decade, and some Asian populations several times more, yet Americans haven't grown taller in fifty years. By now, even the Japanese—once the shortest industrialized people on earth—have nearly caught up with us, and Northern Europeans are three inches taller and rising.
The average American man is only five feet nine and a half—less than an inch taller than the average soldier during the Revolutionary War. Women, meanwhile, seem to be getting smaller. According to the National Center for Health Statistics—which conducts periodic surveys of as many as thirty-five thousand Americans—women born in the late nineteen-fifties and early nineteen-sixties average just under five feet five. Those born a decade later are a third of an inch shorter.
Just in case I still thought this a trivial trend, Komlos put a final bar graph in front of me. It was entitled "Life Expectancy 2000." Compared with people in thirty-six other industrialized countries, it showed, Americans rank twenty-eighth in average longevity—just above the Irish and the Cypriots (the Japanese top the rankings). "Ask yourself this," Komlos said, peering at me above his reading glasses. "What is the difference between Western Europe and the U.S. that would work in this direction? It's not income, since Americans, at least on paper, have been wealthier for more than a century. So what is it?"
The obvious answer would seem to be immigration. The more Mexicans and Chinese there are in the United States, the shorter the American population becomes. But the height statistics that Komlos cites include only native-born Americans who speak English at home, and he is careful to screen out people of Asian and Hispanic descent. In any case, according to Richard Steckel, who has also analyzed American heights, the United States takes in too few immigrants to account for the disparity with Northern Europe.
In the nineteenth century, when Americans were the tallest people in the world, the country took in floods of immigrants. And those Europeans, too, were small compared with native-born Americans. Malnourishment in a mother can cause a child not to grow as tall as it would otherwise. But after three generations or so the immigrants catch up. Around the world, well-fed children differ in height by less than half an inch. In a few, rare cases, an entire people may share the same growth disorder. African Pygmies, for instance, produce too few growth hormones and the proteins that bind them to tissues, so they can't break five feet even on the best of diets. By and large, though, any population can grow as tall as any other.
This last point may sound counterintuitive. Height, like skin color, seems to vary with geography: we think of squat Peruvians, slender Masai, stocky Inuit, and lanky Brazilians. According to Bergmann's Rule and Allen's Rule, animals in cold climates tend to have larger bodies and shorter limbs than those in warm climates. But though climate still shapes musk oxen and giraffes—and a willowy Inuit is hard to find—its effect on industrialized people has almost disappeared. Swedes ought to be short and stocky, yet they've had good clothing and shelter for so long that they're some of the tallest people in the world. Mexicans ought to be tall and slender. Yet they're so often stunted by poor diet and diseases that we assume they were born to be small.
In the early nineteen-seventies, when the anthropologist Barry Bogin first visited Guatemala, the country's two main ethnic groups seemed to live on different social planes. The Ladinos, who claimed primarily Spanish ancestry, were of average height. The Maya Indians were so short that some scholars called them the pygmies of Central America: the men averaged only five feet two, the women four feet eight. The Ladinos and the Maya shared the same small country, so their differences were assumed to be genetic. But when Bogin, who now teaches at the University of Michigan, began taking measurements he soon found another cause. "There was an undeclared war going on," he says. The Ladinos, who controlled the government, had systematically forced the Maya into poverty. Whether they lived in the city or in the countryside, the Maya had less food and medicine, and they had much higher rates of disease.
A decade and a half later, after civil war had erupted and up to a million Guatemalans had fled to the United States, Bogin took another series of measurements. This time, his subjects were Mayan refugees, between six and twelve years old, in Florida and Los Angeles. "Lo and behold, they were much taller than the Maya in Guatemala," Bogin says. By 2000, the American Maya were four inches taller than Guatemalan Maya of the same age, and about as tall as Guatemalan Ladinos. "As far as I know, it's the biggest increase of its kind ever measured," Bogin says. "It shows that they weren't genetically small. They weren't pygmies. They were suffering."
Much the same transformation has occurred in the Mexican-American population. Since the nineteen-twenties, the median height of Mexican-American teen-agers has nearly reached the United States' norm. It's that norm, and not the immigrants, that has failed to rise.
If there is an answer to the riddle of American height, it probably lies in Holland, where everyone has a theory about stature. When I spoke to Hans van Wieringen, the pediatrician, he credited his people's growth to child care: the Dutch have the world's best prenatal and postpartum clinics, free for every citizen. Others pointed to the landscape (flatlanders are naturally tall, they said, just as mountain people are naturally short), to the Calvinist religion (Protestants are taller than Catholics because their families have fewer mouths to feed), or to the Dutch love of milk (a study in Bavaria found a direct correlation between height and the number of cows per capita). The Dutch are taller than the Italians, one man suggested, because they go to bed at a reasonable hour.
The most convincing argument was one made by J. W. Drukker, the owner of the old inn at Stuifzand where van Gogh had stayed. Drukker is a professor of economic history at the University of Groningen, and he has made his own study of Dutch height. He looks like an oversized Phil Donahue, with shaggy white locks and wide-rimmed glasses, but he has a more worldly air. His office is hung with mildly erotic prints, and he wears paste-on fingernails on his right hand, for playing classical guitar. "A nineteenth-century virtuoso couldn't have played this instrument," he told me, pointing to the guitar leaning against his desk, beside a sheaf of études. "His hands would have been too small."
Drukker's research on stature began as something of a boondoggle. In the late nineteen-seventies, when Dutch universities were particularly well funded, he had the luxury of two student assistants. "Sometimes they had nothing to do," he remembers. "So we thought, This is weird, we can reconstruct the heights of soldiers and correlate them with income. We love it." Over the next few months, he put his assistants to work gathering heights from 1800 to 1950, then plotting them on a graph. In the end, the curve they produced took so much work that one of the students gave it the acronym yassis—Dutch for "yuck." But the results were striking.
Holland's growth spurt began only in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, Drukker found, when its first liberal democracy was established. Before 1850, the country grew rich off its colonies, but the wealth stayed in the hands of the wealthy, and the average citizen shrank. After 1850, height and income suddenly fell into lockstep: when incomes went up, heights went up (after a predictable lag time), and always to the same degree. "I thought I must have made an error," Drukker said. "I must have correlated one of the variables with itself." He hadn't. Holland, like the rest of Northern Europe, had simply managed to spread its prosperity around. These days, Dutch heights no longer keep pace with the economy. ("We can't grow to four metres just because our income quadruples," Drukker says.) But the essential equation is the same: when the G.N.P. grows, everyone grows.
As America's rich and poor drift further apart, its growth curve may be headed in the opposite direction, Komlos and others say. The eight million Americans without a job, the forty million without health insurance, the thirty-five million who live below the poverty line are surely having trouble measuring up. And they're not alone. As more and more Americans turn to a fast-food diet, its effects may be creeping up the social ladder, so that even the wealthy are growing wider rather than taller. "I've seen a similar thing in Guatemala," Bogin says. "The rich kids are taken care of by poor maids, so they catch the same diseases. When they go out on the street, they eat the same street food. They may get antibiotics, but they're still going to get exposed."
Steckel has found that Americans lose the most height to Northern Europeans in infancy and adolescence, which implicates pre- and post-natal care and teen-age eating habits. "If these snack foods are crowding out fruits and vegetables, then we may not be getting the micronutrients we need," he says. In a recent British study, one group of schoolchildren was given hamburgers, French fries, and other familiar lunch foods; the other was fed nineteen-forties-style wartime rations such as boiled cabbage and corned beef. Within eight weeks, the children on the rations were both taller and slimmer than the ones on a regular diet.
Inequality may be at the root of America's height problem, but it's too soon to be certain. If the poor are pulling all of us down with them, some economists say, why didn't Americans shoot up after the war on poverty, in the nineteen-sixties? Komlos isn't sure. But recently he has scoured his data for people who've bucked the national trend. He has subdivided the country's heights by race, sex, income, and education. He has looked at whites alone, at blacks alone, at people with advanced degrees and those in the highest income bracket. Somewhere in the United States, he thinks, there must be a group that's both so privileged and so socially insulated that it's growing taller. He has yet to find one.
"The best measure of a just society is whether you'd be willing to be thrown into it at random," Komlos told me one day over lunch at an Italian restaurant in Munich. He was paraphrasing the American philosopher John Rawls. The United States earns mixed marks by that standard, he said. The country still gives refugees like his family a home, but it also leaves them stranded. His father spent ten years making watchbands at sweatshop wages and was no better off than before. In Hungary, at least, there had been companionship in poverty. In America, his family was surrounded by wealth.
Yet his father's story, like that of the Maya in Florida, had a second act. Herbert Komlos eventually figured out the American system. He borrowed two thousand dollars from a friend, opened a storefront in Logan Square, and began importing watchbands from Hong Kong. Within ten years, he had saved enough money to move to a house off Lakeshore Drive. By the time he died, last winter, at the age of eighty-six, he was living in a condominium near Palm Beach.
"There were twenty-five thousand of us Hungarian refugees, and not one of them I knew didn't make it," Komlos told me. "Not one of us didn't aspire to and reach the middle class. This was the generation of George Soros. This was the generation of the guy who founded Intel. I had cousins and second cousins—everybody became lawyers, accountants, professors." He'd been back to Chicago recently, he said, and the poverty and urban decay had come as a shock after Germany's tidy inner cities. "But, if you look at the Turks in Germany or the Algerians in France, there aren't that many who can advance up the social ladder." He shrugged. "America is still a land of opportunity."
The last time I saw him, we were in downtown Munich. The sun was out and shoppers thronged the Marienplatz, sporting midwinter tans from Majorca and the Canary Islands. As Komlos headed for the subway, I watched the crowd sweep over him until only the top of his head was visible, bobbing contentedly beneath the tide. I remembered a joke he'd made earlier, when I'd mentioned that my parents are immigrants, too: "If they'd stayed in Europe, you might be four centimetres taller." Then I squared my shoulders and waded in behind him.
About the author:
Burkhard Bilger is a contributing write for The New Yorker, for more information on this subject please visit http://www.TallTall.com
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