Holocaust Survivors Battle Trump Immigration Policies

American Jews are drawing on their own survival stories to denounce measures being enacted against refugees in 'sanctuary' cities

Members of Jewish organizations and other groups at an anti-Trump demonstration in Manhattan, November 13, 2016.
Jennie Kamin

Wth moving public testimonies of childhoods spent in fear of raids and mass arrests, Holocaust survivors are being enlisted in the battles against harsh Trump immigration policies being implemented across the United States.

As individual states and cities grapple with new federal policies requiring local police to act as agents of immigration authorities, survivors are pointing to parallels with World War II when local authorities in Europe cooperated with the Nazi regime.

Last week, 79-year-old Rene Lichtman lent his voice to the struggle in his home state of Michigan, where GOP-sponsored legislation has been introduced that would increase the number of raids and deportations by cracking down in so-called “sanctuary cities” — places where mayors have declared they will not act as federal proxies for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) acting to round up immigrants. The bills “prohibit cities, townships, villages and counties from enacting laws that limit coordination and cooperation between federal officials and any municipal employee” and would impose a $2500 – $7500 fine on local officials who “knowingly violate the law.”

Lichtman testified against the legislation before a committee in the Michigan House of Representatives, telling the story of how Jews were rounded up en masse when he was a young child in France, and showing them pictures of his murdered relatives. “My family members were picked up in the streets of Paris in the very same way that ICE people are deputizing local police and picking them up in the streets.”

As he spoke, he held up photographs of what he described as “the French police deputized by the Nazis, picking up Jewish men. They got the list of the men to be picked up from the French police who kept lists of Jews in Paris, including Jewish children, including children on my street, who were picked up and went to the gas chambers while I was fortunate to be in hiding.”

Lichtman told the committee that “I see a lot of parallels to what is going on right now in cities like Ann Arbor and Pontiac, where ICE is coming in and with the help of the local police are picking up immigrants.”

He recalled that after joining the U.S. Army, he realized that he was undocumented when his senior officer in an intelligence unit told him that he had appeared on a list of “aliens.” The officer told him to go see a judge and straighten out his status — which he said back then he was able to do quickly and easily. “Today   ICE could have been called on me and I would have been shipped off.”

Lichtman noted in his testimony that he was testifying on the anniversary of the infamous voyage of the  SS St. Louis in 1939, the ship filled with Jewish refugees from Europe that was turned away from U.S. shores, while the passengers were “prevented by people from the State Department from coming into the United States sent back, and half of them went to the gas chambers,” said Lichtman. (Historians estimate that over 200 of the original 936 passengers were murdered in the Holocaust.)

One of the Michigan congressmen on the committee, Democratic Rep. Jeremy Moss, also a descendant of survivors, pointed out that “the first wave of illegal immigration from our southern borders were Jews trying to escape growing anti-Semitism and had no other access to this country” after the 1924 Immigration Act set strict quotas for prospective immigrants based on their country of birth.

Despite Lichtman’s testimony — and others who testified against the bills —  the anti-sanctuary city legislation passed the committee with a 7-4 vote along party lines, with all the Republicans voting in favor and all Democrats opposing it, before moving on to a vote in the full House. Similar legislation, which would forbid cities from implementing policies that limit coordination between ICE and local law enforcement and administration, has been introduced in over 30 states, and recently passed in Texas, where it is facing aggressive legal challenges from some of its cities. The Trump White House has also included measures in its new budget which would punish immigrant-friendly cities on a federal level as well, slashing funding to any city or county that acts as a sanctuary.

Rep. Jim Runestad (Republican), a cosponsor of the anti-sanctuary bills who was at the Michigan hearing, told the website HuffPost that he “didn’t believe” there was “any relationship to what the horror of the Holocaust was, compared to what we’re talking about, almost exclusively economic immigrants, illegal immigrants, looking to advance their financial situation.”

But Rabbi Aryeh Cohen of Bend the Arc, a Jewish social justice organization active in countering the Trump immigration policies, said that Holocaust survivors “have a unique first person view” to contribute to the immigration debate and should be heard. “When survivors say that they’ve seen this before — that they were in Poland, Germany and France and that what’s happening here feels eerily similar, we need to listen.”

 In California, Cohen noted, the rhetoric has gotten heated and “racist and Nazi imagery” has been used by groups with names like “American Children First,” who are actively working to defund sanctuary cities.

It was in that state that 87-year-old Bernard Marks grabbed international attention in March when he  stood up and spoke out in a Sacramento gymnasium at a forum on immigration.

“When I was a little boy in Poland, for no other reason but for being Jewish, I was hauled off by the Nazis,” Marks told attendees at the forum which hosted Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE. “And for no other reason I was picked up and separated from my family, who was exterminated in Auschwitz.”

Marks said that the wave of arrests, detentions and deportations of illegal immigrants reminded him of the situation that brought him to Dachau and Auschwitz.

“I spent five and a half years in concentration camps, for one reason and one reason only. Because we picked on people,” he said, before chiding Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones. “And you are a sheriff, who we elected as a sheriff of this county. We did not elect you as the sheriff of Washington DC. It’s about time you side with the people here!”

With a crowd of hundreds cheering him on, Marc concluded with a warning to officials: “Don’t forget, history is not on your side.”

The foray into politics for both Lichtman and Marks came on the heels of years spent as volunteers speaking to groups about their Holocaust experiences. Lichtman addresses groups at the Michigan Holocaust Memorial Center. He testified to state legislators that since the Trump administration cracked down on immigration, schools in the neighboring Canadian town of Windsor, Ontario had stopped sending groups for Holocaust education “because they are concerned that the children will be questioned about their status” at the U.S.-Canadian border.  

In some cases, it hasn’t been only individuals, but also Holocaust education organizations that have played a role in opposing Trump policies. In February, immediately after the controversial Trump executive order on immigration was first announced, Chicago’s Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center held a press conference in which several survivors, actively involved in the museum’s work, explained why it was important to them to condemn what was happening.

“You dehumanize people and then it’s okay to do what you want with them,” 83-year-old Alan Elster said at the press conference.

“First we were dehumanized, our citizenship was taken away, and then we were restricted to live in awful places, ghettos surrounded by walls,” he added. “You might not think that could happen here, but look at World War II what happened with the Japanese, who were put into concentration camps," said Elster, referring to what are also called internment camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated in the United States.  “So we, as survivors, must stand with the people that are trying to come into this country to create lives for themselves. We as survivors have a duty and an obligation.”So we, as survivors, must stand with the people that are trying to come into this country to create lives for themselves. We as survivors have a duty and an obligation.”