Approaching her retirement, Zofia Dubicka went to register for her Social Security benefits in March when a clerk delivered stunning news.
"You're not a U.S. citizen," he told her.
She was incredulous. Then devastated.
"I just started crying. I said to him, 'Are you sure?' He said, 'Yes ma'am, I am.' "
She thought: "How could that be?"
Dubicka, who will turn 67 on Saturday, has lived in Northern Virginia for 24 years. Before that, on New York's Long Island for four decades. Her family had fled Poland at the end of World War II, and all this time she thought that she had been born on a farm in Germany. They immigrated to the United States when she was 3, and she vividly remembers the day her father became a naturalized citizen in 1961, when she was a teenager.
"Zofia, now you are a free American citizen, too," she remembers him saying. "You can be anything you want to be, go anywhere you want to go."
But now at a federal office in Fredericksburg, Va., the clerk was telling her she was not who she thought she was.
Worried about the possibility of not being able to claim her Social Security benefits, Dubicka immediately started what she assumed would be the long process of applying for U.S. citizenship. Then three weeks ago, the immigrations officer assigned to her case told her about another shock that she had discovered deep in Dubicka's family's immigration records: She had been born in a displaced-persons camp, in Westrhauderfehn, Germany - not on a farm.
"My parents never talked about it," Dubicka said this week. "On Sunday after church, all the relatives gathered for a big meal, and the only thing my father said was how bad Hitler was, how terrible everything had been, and how lucky we were to be here."
Immigration services officer Patricia Smith, who was assigned to Dubicka's case, said if Dubicka's mother had also been naturalized before the daughter turned 18, Dubicka would have automatically been a citizen. But her mother never filed for citizenship.
Dubicka's sister, who has since died, was born in the United States in 1951, and so was automatically an American. The mix of legal residents and citizens in a family is not unusual among immigrants, Smith said, and that can add to the confusion in which someone assumes he or she is a citizen, until learning otherwise.
"It's a lot more common than people realize," Smith said. "It usually turns up when you apply for benefits at some point, and that's when people start inquiring."
Smith said it was "very understandable" that Dubicka assumed she was a citizen. "But all she had was that little immigration visa."
The yellowed permanent residency card, which Dubicka found in her parents' files after they died in the 1970s, shows a toddler staring seriously into the camera, a relic of their arrival at Ellis Island in 1949. She had no birth certificate, and her German baptismal certificate was in tatters.
But she knew her birth date was Sept. 14, 1946. And she provided immigration officials her driver's license, her residency card and a Social Security card, which are available to non-citizens. She had never registered to vote, never needed a passport and had never been summoned to jury duty. She had years of tax returns, her certified nursing assistant diploma and plenty of other documents proving her integration into American life.
And she was determined to become a citizen. "I don't give up," she said. "Just like my father and mother must have been to get out of that [displaced-persons] camp, I'm very persistent."
Her family spent three years in the camp in northwestern Germany before being admitted to the United States. They settled in New York, near an aunt and uncle who sponsored them. Her father found work in a steel mill while her mother became a homemaker. They rarely talked of the war and made no mention of the camp or how they ended up there, Dubicka said.
Their reticence did not surprise Mark Wyman, emeritus professor of history at Illinois State University, who wrote a 1989 book, "DPs: Europe's Displaced Persons 1945-1952."
"It was very, very common that the kids grew up not knowing anything," Wyman said. The United States accepted only 400,000 refugees, and those only after several years of delay. At the start of World War II, Poland had been split between Germany and Russia, so "when the war ended, people in Poland and the Baltics retreated with the Germans, in hopes of getting to the Americans or British. They went as far as they could, and many ended up in the camps."
After a normal American childhood on Long Island, Dubicka Americanized her first name to Sophia, married and started using her husband's surname of Goldston. They had four daughters. The couple separated about 25 years ago, just when the New York medical center where she worked started cutting back. Dubicka moved to Alexandria, Va. after she heard there was plenty of work in the region. She moved to Fredericksburg two years ago.
Animated and friendly, she now works at the front desk of a Fairfax, Va. pediatric lung center, where she is used to calming down upset patients and parents, sorting through complicated medical forms and organizing office procedures.
That experience came in handy in the spring as she began filling out forms and collecting documents in her effort to become a U.S. citizen.
Dubicka's interview with Smith was scheduled for mid-August. Smith, the immigration officer assigned to help her become a citizen, found the family's immigration and naturalization records "in a nice, neat package because nobody had opened it in years and years," Smith said.
The Washington district office of the Department of Homeland Security's Citizenship and Immigration Services has caught up on its once-fearsome backlog. It takes five months on average from the time an application file is completed to naturalization; in 2008, the wait was closer to 13 or 14 months, an agency spokesman said.
The background investigation into Dubicka went smoothly, and she had collected all the necessary paperwork. All that was left was the citizenship test, which she easily passed. She planned to return to the Social Security office Thursday morning and finish registering for benefits. She has begun returning her legal documents to her birth name, reclaiming Zofia Dubicka as her new American identity.
On Tuesday night, she gathered outside Alexandria City Hall along with 24 others from 14 countries.
Dressed in pearls and a sparkling American-flag brooch, Dubicka raised her right hand and swore allegiance to the only home she's known for the past 64 years. Then she kissed the small flag she'd been given, and waved it.