As reports spread that U.S. President Donald Trump is considering suspending the U.S. refugee program on the eve of the United Nations’ International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Holocaust survivors responded with a mix of outrage and empathy.
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“A million and a half Jewish children were murdered in the Holocaust and the world stood silent,” says Gerda Freiberg, 91, an Upper Silesian native who survived three years of brutal Nazi slave labor in a women’s camp in Sudetenland when she was a teenager. “When we were liberated, we just stood there not knowing where to go or what to do, and not one person, not a local doctor or a mother or father offered to help us or give us food or make sure were okay. There were girls dying of typhoid."
“We had no money, no education, no country who wanted us,” Freiberg recalls. “We jumped on trains, traveled on the roof because we had no ticket. We returned home, but no one was left. The communists were coming, we didn’t want to stay, so we made our way to Germany, that blood-soaked land, where we were put by the allies in a displaced persons’ camp, sort of like refugee camps today.”
Though Freiberg says there are differences between the plight of Jews after the Holocaust and refugees fleeing Syria, Sudan, Yemen and other countries now on Trump’s potentially blocked list because of terrorism concerns, she says that she feels an obligation to do something to help the children, such as those caught between the crosshairs of Syria’s dictatorial president Bashar Assad and the Islamic State.
“Is it fair to turn away the children even if the adults there have Jewish blood on their hands?” she asks. “It took me eight years after the war to make a home for my child. Yes, there may be terrorists among some, but there are more decent people among them, and how do we make the choice?”
“There’s extreme vetting involved,” says Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, formed in 1881 to help Jews fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. “There’s no comparison between the refugees who are allowed into the U.S. and the ones who go to Europe. The ones coming here are vetted more than any in history – nobody is screened as scrupulously. We make sure that not a single bad actor gets in."
“Each applicant is interviewed for hours by Homeland Security, put through intense security screening, is fingerprinted, multiple intelligence agencies and their databases are all involved, immigrants are interviewed for hours,” Hetfeild adds. “It’s a slow process; it’s meticulous, what more can you do?”
But not everyone is assured.
“My heart goes out for all refugees,” says Eva Mozes Kor, founder of CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Terre Haute, Indiana, and a twin who survived the experiments of Auschwitz’s sadistic Dr. Josef Mengele. “It is horrible to be uprooted from your home. But I am concerned about terrorists sneaking into the United States among other refugees. No matter how much refugees are vetted, there is still a possibility of terrorists sneaking in. It is a difficult issue.”
Kor is no stranger to sensitive issues. She famously forgave her tormentor, Dr. Mengele, on the 50th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, marked as International Holocaust Remembrance Day – a move that outraged many in the Holocaust community. If she could forgive Mengele, why can’t she extend a hand to Syrian refugees?
“I talked with Mohammad [Ghanem] at the Syrian American Council and learned that they would prefer creating safe zones so that people could stay in their home country,” she says. “That would help greater numbers of people as well. If there is some way we can figure out a way to create safe zones to keep families in their home communities that would be better than families being uprooted.”
Indeed Trump’s new plan calls for the building of safe zones in Syria, a move rejected by former President Barack Obama because he feared it would draw the U.S. into another unwanted war by forcing an increased military presence, particularly after the bombing of Aleppo, called the worst humanitarian crisis in recent history. But in six years of conflict and talking about creating safe zones, none have been built.
“If the Trump Administration really cared about refugees they would curtail the refugee program for Syrians only after creating the safe zone – not before,” says Hetfield. “It’s a deep and tragic irony that Donald Trump is slamming the door in the faces of refugees right before International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The entire refugee convention came out of the Holocaust and the failure of the international community to protect Jews and survivors. It’s a schonde!”
The U.S. shut its doors to immigrants in 1921 and didn’t lift the ban for decades, until after World War II, Hetfield adds. It wasn’t until the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the 1951 Refugee Convention that the rights of refugees were recognized and that states were mandated to protect displaced persons.
“This is rock bottom – the lowest point we’ve seen since the 1920s,” he says. “During the U.S.’ previous immigrant ban, six million Jews died, many of them because they couldn’t escape. It’s true America can’t solve all of the world’s problems, but what is America without refugees? How can Trump claim ‘America first’ and abandon the values that make us America. When refugees come here, they’re considered Americans, not refugees. That’s what gives us credibility in the world. We set an example for the world.”
Manny Lindenbaum, 84, was chased by Nazis as a small child from his hometown of Unna, Germany in 1938 because his parents were of “Eastern” descent, was stranded homeless, poor, hungry and stateless at the Polish border, then shipped to the Russian border only to be placed on the last Kindertransport boat from Gdansk to England. For Lindenbaum America has always represented freedom, a home and a future.
It was a future his parents and his older sister, who was 14 years old and deemed too old for kindertransport, were excluded from.
“I know that if America would have accepted any kids in 1938 or '39, there would have been at least 20,000 kids who would have not have been murdered, my sister included,” Lindenbaum says. “So when we talk about closing the borders or looking at refugees as enemies, they are talking about us. We were refugees – the mothers and fathers, babies, grandparents, desperately looking for a decent life or a life at all. How can we read about the horrors that are taking place around the world and not feel we have to help?
“America is refugees, that’s what America is, the thought that they are a danger to us? That’s how it was when we came here. The U.S. didn’t want refugees from Germany, including Jews, because they were fearful of criminal activity,” Lindenbaum adds. ”But percentage-wise, there is far less crime than in the general population.”
Lindenbaum was shuttled between one Christian home and another during the war, which he says is exactly why as Jews we must return the favor and help others in need.
“It’s a Jewish and American value,” he says. “America should be a light onto the nations, that’s what our constitution asks from us. I know America will come to its senses, but what will the cost be?”
Being at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. with HIAS gave him hope. “There was such a great feeling of camaraderie. People were gentle to each other. We have to stay active and never be a bystander,” he says.
Miriam Caine, 83, vice president of the Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors of Philadelphia, agrees, though she says the issue is not so black and white for her.
“I was uprooted at the age of 7 when the Russians came to my hometown and gave my parents 15 minutes to pack up, before they shipped us to Siberia,” she says. “I spent the war starving, homeless, freezing and on the edge of death, and FDR wouldn’t let us in. Am I bitter about that he let millions of our people get murdered? I was, but that’s why we have to get over our hurt and help others today.”
Though she adds that the plight of many Syrian refugees is different than what she went through, she says they, too, are victims of genocide and deserve compassion and aid.
“It’s absolutely heart-wrenching when you see children dying and running for their lives, being shot at – it’s something any survivor can relate to,” she says. “So while I have safety concerns, I think completely closing the door to immigrants is 100 percent wrong. The U.S. can easily absorb honest and decent people, especially children. That’s what hurts the most – when the door is shut in the face of a child who is not given the opportunity for a better life.”
When Caine arrived in Philadelphia, she was 15 years old and placed in 4th grade because she couldn’t speak English. But she moved up to high-school within less than two years, and got a job working for a Polish grocer, who paid her $5 a week and fed her during her shift.
“That felt like $1,000 back then,” she says. “It enabled me to help my parents and to learn English and build a better life. America showed me freedom. It’s a land of future possibilities. Yes, I did hear 'goddamn Jew' in school, but still, if you want to make something of yourself, this is a country that is giving you an opportunity to do so."
"I have two children, both professionals – and I wouldn’t have been able to give them the same opportunities in a different country. This is what America always has meant to me. Sure you have to work hard and struggle, but you can succeed. By shutting our doors, we’re taking those opportunities away from those who want to succeed in life. It makes us no better than others. We lose what makes us exceptional.”
Many survivors share Caine’s feelings of rachmones or mercy for others, according to Dr. Charles Silow, a psychologist who works with Holocaust survivors in Detroit and leads support groups. A few are more concerned about the potential for the refugees being anti-Jewish or anti-Israel. But the majority are more concerned about the terrible human tragedy unfolding.
“I would say most survivors have tremendous pathos for Syrian refugees,” he says. “They feel empathy and see their misery, agony and they identify. They know the horrors, the starvation, the unbelievable tragedy of what’s going on there, but there’s also fear for their own safety. Some of it comes out of a concern for the survival of Jews and the state of Israel. We are a traumatized people, we’re scared of another Holocaust, so when they hear of potential threats and terrorists, that’s what motivates them to be on the side of cautiousness. But others say, ‘We can’t let our fears get the best of us, we know what it’s like.’ Both responses are understandable.”
To Silow, the refugee ban cuts at the core of Jewish values.
“We have to look at the big picture and remember what makes us Jewish, which his Tikun Olam, repairing the world,” he says. “It says in the Torah 36 times: Remember you were slaves in Egypt, therefore treat the stranger in your midst with kindness and respect. That’s what the Torah tells us.”