Refugees, illegal immigrants and Cities of Refuge (Part II.)

When Jews from Germany, occupied France and various other German occupied countries of Europe fleeing for their life came to the small town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in south central France seeking refuge, Andre Trocme, pastor of the Reformed Church of France (Eglise Reformee de France) congregation and his wife Magda took them in and dispersed them among the congregants of the church who hid them from both the French police and the German SS and Gestapo. Le Chambon became a Sanctuary City for these refugees.

The people who hid these women, men and children on the run from the Nazi police put their lives on line in doing so. I lived and worked among these folk who were veritable heroes, risking their lives by defying both the French collaborator government and the German Nazi occupying forces. Books, articles and movies have been produced to celebrate their action and both a tree was planted and a commemorative plaque in honor of pastor Trocme and his wife Magda, as well as the good people of the little town of Le Chambon, were placed at Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem-based Holocaust authority into its Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles.

During my five years in Le Chambon after the war, I preached and taught in the town’s Protestant church or temple, as it was called. On one of these occasions while having a conversation with some congregants after the church service, Monsieur Chazot, one of the men, came up to me and thanked me for the sermon. I, in turn, thanked him for the admirable actions he and his fellow congregants had done in hiding and saving the 3,500 refugee Jews who found a safe haven in the little town and its environs. Being relatively new in town, I asked Monsieur Chazot what it was that motivated him and his wife and many of the other town people to take the extraordinary risk of giving shelter and providing safety for the Jewish refugees who in desperation had come to find refuge from their persecutors’ antisemitic wrath. Without saying a word, Monsieur Chazot smiled and pointed his finger to the inscription engraved in stone over the church entrance. It read aimez vous les uns les autres or “love one another,” – a quote from the gospel of John 13:34-35.

I understood.

How did the Chambonais make it from this gospel text to becoming a safe haven for the Jewish refugees? The answer lies in the preaching of their pastor Andre Trocme, both a learned man, a biblical scholar and morally upright person, i.e,. a genuine Christian. Trocme knew about the the Cities of Refuge (Hebrew: arey miklat) cited in the Old Testament and taught that Le Chambon become such a city for the refugees fleeing Hitler and his ilk.

We read in Joshua 20:

“Then the Lord said to Joshua, ‘Tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed you through Moses, so that anyone who kills a person accidentally and unintentionally may flee there and find protection from the avenger of blood. When they flee to one of these cities, they are to stand in the entrance of the city gate and state their case before the elders of that city. Then the elders are to admit the fugitive into their city and provide a place to live among them. If the avenger of blood comes in pursuit, the elder must not surrender the fugitive, because the fugitive killed their neighbor unintentionally and without malice aforethought. They are to stay in that city until they have stood trial before the assembly…..’ “

In the case of Chambon, there is no question of fugitives having killed someone unintentionally and fleeing from the avenger of blood. It is rather the case of totally innocent people fleeing from Nazi police who are pursuing them with the intent of imprisoning and/or killing them for racist reasons. The motivation for providing these women and men a safe haven is, however, the same as in the numerous biblical texts that deal with such Cities of Refuge, namely their presumed innocence.

Against the above background let me now quote from one of our president’s tweets addressed to Californians who, in his opinion, would like to disengage from living in cities who joined the American sanctuary movement: sanctuary cities are “crime infested and breeding concepts [sic]…Sanctuary cities are undermining US laws.” (Trump Tweet, 4-18-2018)

While I and many other readers are at a loss of understanding what the president means by “breeding concepts,” I suggest we do not lose sleep over Mr. Trump’s disability of writing proper English.

I do, however, lose sleep when I consider the callousness of the president of our country as the 700 children come to mind who since October 2017 have been forcibly separated from their parents by I.C.E. I do, however, lose sleep when I consider the transformation that within a relatively short time has taken our country from a land of generosity to a land of narrow and selfish attitude, with an extreme xenophobic outlook, forgetting that our ancestors or we, with the exception of our native nations, have come here as refugees and immigrants.

I thank and congratulate all those who take the idea of sanctuary cities and places seriously and stand up for their inviolability and sanctity, providing safety for innocent women, men and children on the run from persecution and non-viable life situations.

Leviticus 18:16:

“Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.”

I remember!

Refugees, illegal immigrants and Cities of Refuge (Part I.)

I remember!

My mother Anny (z”l) was one of seven children, five brothers and one sister. Ernst, one of her older brothers, was a non-practicing medical doctor who had married Gerda Kohn, daughter of the owner of a large leather factory in our town and subsequently switched his professional orientation from medicine to making leather. The two had a daughter, a very pretty girl, whose name was Hanne, a germanized form of the Hebrew Channah. Ernst and family were our “rich” family members. They lived in a fancy villa close to the river and owned a Chrysler automobile, driven by a chauffeur with a real chauffeur’s cap on his head. We, cousins of Hanne, considered it an honor to be invited to the villa on her birthday to an afternoon fancy, formal snack, to play with their little dog Quickie and some playing ping-pong on a real ping-pong table in their lovely garden.

The good life came to an end with Hitler. As the rumors of a war with Poland became ever more audible and believable, many of our Jewish population fled east toward the interior of Poland. So also uncle Ernst and his family left for the city of Lwow, German name Lemberg, now a city in the Ukraine, renamed Lviv.

Our nuclear family remained in Teschen (previously Cesky Tesin) because my father, highly educated, cultured but also naive as he was, felt we had nothing to fear from the Nazis, basing this totally erroneous attitude on the illusion that he, having studied law in Vienna, Austria, would be exempted from Nazi persecution of the Jews. Having stayed in town, we lost track of those who fled.

Our nuclear family survived the Holocaust. A few of those who had fled east were also lucky enough to survive. It is they who, after the war, told us what happened to uncle Ernst, Gerda his wife and Hanne their daughter, in Lemberg, the German occupied Polish city of Lwow.

Ernst, presumably, had purchased a set of Aryan identity documents, (in German: Ariernachweis), for the family. The GESTAPO, ever eager to hunt down Jews, often closed certain streets that were forbidden to Jews and then demanded identity documents from the folks who now were caught in their dragnet.

Despite uncle Ernst’s possession of Aryan identity papers, he had given to his wife and daughter a capsule of cyanide poison, just in case they were caught in a totally unexpected life threatening event. Just such an event did happen as all three of them found themselves in a street that had been closed, in which the GESTAPO stopped and demanded these so-called Ariernachweise from the pedestrians.

Uncle Ernst, for reasons unknown, carried with him both his Jewish and his Aryan papers. When forced to show his identity papers, he mistakenly presented the Jewish ones. With just enough time to signal his wife and daughter to swallow the cyanide, he was shot on the spot and both Gerda and Hanne, having swallowed the pill, died instantly.

Why tell you this terrible story?

Because I do not like uniformed men to stop folks in the street, demanding to see their identity documentation. When this was the case in fascist/Nazi lands, it was done by profiling on the basis of pseudo science elaborated by pseudo scientists, like Hitler himself: short or tall? hair color: dark or blond? hair texture: Caucasian, African or Jewish? shape of nose: straight Nordic or “crooked” Jewish? Skin color: white or colored? Etc. etc. Nazi pseudo science even insisted that the ratio between cranial longitudinal and lateral measurements of Jews showed a specificity connected to their “race” when, in fact, Jews are a religious-ethnic group and can not be identified by any racial specificity at all.

But this is what profiling is all about.

And this is also what refugees or first generation immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa are exposed to now. Mr. Trump’s refugee and immigrant phobia and love for walls has brought this about. Our judiciary, by definition an independent governmental organ of our United States tri-literal governmental structure of executive, legislative and judiciary has surrendered its independence and has fallen prey to the president’s pseudo-scientific orientation and consequences.

Thus I.C.E. ( Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is doing just that: stopping people in the street or invading peoples’ home privacy, looking for illegal immigrants, and when found, taking them into custody and deporting them.

Because I remember my uncle and his family’s death, I cannot help but remember.

And when I remember, it makes me feel very uncomfortable because the methods now employed resemble those of Nazism/fascism.

I don’t like police – our American police – to profile innocent folks in the street or to search for innocent illegal immigrants in private homes. These kind of actions are methods of a police state. This is not the kind of country the Statue of Liberty and the inscription underneath it represents.

A 10th grader responds.

After one of my recent Holocaust-related talks at UNC-A for a large group of Middle School through College students, I received from a 10th grader the following essay which I thought was worth sharing with you.

“My heart is pounding, and I am on the edge on my seat. I can feel the energy around me as I graciously listen to his words. Seventy-eight years have passed, yet he is telling his story as if he is the same thirteen-year-old boy living in treacherous misery. His name is Dr. Walter Ziffer, and he is a Holocaust survivor. Dr. Ziffer speaks of many hardships that morning, and I am clinging on to every word. The pain, the fear, the agony, that he must have gone through, alone. He was just barely a teenager when the Nazi soldiers brought down their wrath, murdering six million of his brothers and sisters.

I had heard of the Holocaust, but I did not know what it was until I was about 12 years old. I remember sitting there in that history class thinking, “A person really did that? A person really tried to eliminate an entire race? Why would he do that?” Here I am, years later, thinking the same thing. Before now, I had read stories and memoirs, and I have even watched a couple of interviews. But there is something so incredibly breathtaking about being in that auditorium, hearing that sorrow in his voice, feeling the passion in his soul growing louder and louder. Dr. Ziffer explains that it hurts him, even now, to recall his past and speak about it. But, he says, he must. He must let young people like me know what really happened, and he must bring awareness to the topic. In that auditorium, there are kids as young as 11 and 12. And Dr. Ziffer doesn’t sugar coat anything either. He speaks of being ripped away from his family, of men and women being raped and killed, of being worked nearly to death at the camps, of all the murder that surrounded him. Everyone is touched by his words. As nothing but humans, our differences seem irrelevant now as we listen to him speak.

Here’s what I think. Without a doubt, I am more than in awe of people like Dr. Ziffer. I am beyond thankful for Elie Wiesel, Samuel Bak, Primo Levi. In Elie Wiesel’s “The Perils of Indifference” speech, he inspires members of the twenty-first century to never show indifference to others, and to always possess compassion. This is key. These survivors have witnessed and experienced things that most people only have nightmares about. They use that to inform young people about this monstrosity. Adolf Hitler, former chancellor of Germany, responsible for the death of over 6 million people. But here we are today, united as a people at least on the opinion that the Holocaust was simply evil. It was inhumane and wrong. We have to learn to effectively communicate, especially when we disagree. The is precisely why Dr. Ziffer’s story needs to be told.  In America, we are fighting about politics, religion, civil rights … everything. But we can all join together on this, and never let it happen again.”

I Remember the Rose and the Coincidences…

Scene 1.

Surfing the net the other day I ran into an obituary-type article about David Wyman’s death on March 14, 2018. Professor Wyman is the author of The Abandonment of the Jews, Pantheon Books, 1984, a Holocaust-related remarkable work dealing with the USA’s reluctance to assist the death-endangered Jews in Europe during the German Nazi regime.

The excellent article was written by Pierre Sauvage, film maker who, among others, produced the movie Weapons of the Spirit, dealing with the good people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a small town in south central France. These fine women and men, endangering their own lives, hid Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany and thus saved the lives of approximately 3,500 women, men and children. Pierre Sauvage, the film maker himself, was one of these saved young people.

Having lived with my family in Le Chambon from 1964 to 1969, I was privileged to have personally known most of the folk filmed by Sauvage, including the hero of the saving action, pastor Andre Trocme of the local congregation of the Eglise Reformee de France, honored at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

I had the joy and privilege to personally know Professor David Wyman, having been invited by him to give a lecture at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst where he taught. I recounted on that occasion some of my personal experiences as Jewish prisoner in seven slave labor and concentration camps during my teen years.

It is this incident and the related coincidences I want to share with you in this blog. The exact date of my visit to the University of Massachusetts unfortunately escapes me but it must have fallen somewhere into the later 1980s.

So here we were, my former wife Carolyn and I, sitting in a small amphitheater. A good many students filled the venue and I was just about ready to step to the lectern after David Wyman’s introduction when he signaled me to wait. A few minutes later, a young female student entered the hall carrying a bud vase containing a single beautiful red rose. She placed the vase on the lectern at which point Wyman invited me to start. A beautiful gesture.

Scene 2.

On June 1942 the whole Jewish population, just short of 1,000 women, men and children, of my town of Teschen, (Cieszyn, prior to the Nazi occupation), in Polish Upper Silesia, was deported to Auschwitz where they were murdered. The Jewish young people, including myself, were sent to slave labor camps. My parents and my older sister miraculously survived and thus our nuclear family was reunited after the war’s end. There followed an exchange of our camp experiences and we learned from my father who had been in a sub-camp of Auschwitz by name of Blechhammer the following story.

In Blechhhammer in Upper Silesia, Nazi Germany had built a major synthetic-oil industry based on the vast Silesian coal resources. My father was part of the Jewish and other prisoner work force involved in the building of this huge industrial complex. Without being able to report specific dates – the prisoners had no calendars or time pieces! – he told us how on two occasions, when the refinery power house was ready to start operations, allied bombers at great altitudes appeared in the skies and precision bombed the power plant to smithereens.

Scene 3.

I left Europe because of the threat of a communism take-over of Czechoslovakia in February 1947. I Arrived in the US after a two years stay stay in Paris, France, while waiting for a US visa. Sometimes in the 1980s, while already in academia, I purchased David Wyman’s book, The Abandonment of the Jews where, on pages 288 to 307, I found the following material, presented here in abbreviated form.

Scene 4.

Two Jewish men escaped from Auschwitz on April 10, 1944. Their names were Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler. They reported to the free world what was going on at Auschwitz in terms of daily mass murders. The report spread to the Allied Governments and began to appear in the Swiss, British and American press. The message they brought to the West included an appeal for the immediate bombing of the rail deportation routes to Auschwitz, as well as of “the death halls of Auschwitz.” This would have temporarily slowed, if not completely halted, the assembly line murders that were taking place there.

The US War Department, however, was of the “opinion that the suggested air-operation was impracticable for the reason that it could be executed only by diversion of considerable air support essential to the success of our forces now engaged in decisive operations.” (Wyman, p.292) In late June 1944 the German “oil war” had moved to Upper Silesia, in a 35 miles radius around Auschwitz. Blechhammer was in the north-west sector of this area. Between July 7 and November 20, “fleets of from 102 to 357 heavy bombers hit it [Blechhammer] on ten occasions. On Sunday, August 20, late in the morning, 127 Flying Fortresses escorted by 100 Mustang fighters, dropped 1,336 500-pound high-explosive bombs on the factory areas of Auschwitz, less than five miles to the east of the gas chambers.” Only one American bomber went down; no Mustangs were hit. There were other air attacks on this industrial area. But no attempts were made to strike the killing operations of the extermination camp.

Despite the fact that these strikes on the oil important German centers took place only 5 miles away from the Auschwitz gassing and cremation installations of Auschwitz/Birkenau, the US War Department could write “that bombing Auschwitz would be possible only by diversion of air power from ‘decisive operations elsewhere.’ “ On a number of other occasions from July through October, a total of 2,700 bombers traveled along or within easy reach of both rail lines on the way to targets in the Blechhammer-Auschwitz region.” In none of these cases the killing centers of Auschwitz were bombed. There is no doubt that destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria would have saved many lives.

“Mass murder continued at Auschwitz until the gas chambers closed down in November.”

The US government’s refusal to bomb the killing installations in Auschwitz remains one of the unexplained and unresolved scandals of the Holocaust.

In any case, my father’s report about the destruction of the industrial complex of Blechhammer was corroborated and I am grateful to David Wyman to have thrown much needed light on this tragic scandal.

Scene 5

In 1993, Gail and I left beautiful but cold Maine and moved south. After residing in an area called High Country in Weaverville, North Carolina, we moved to our present address at 6 Westview Circle. Shortly afterwards, I met my new neighbor across the driveway. We got to know each other and after he told me about his GI activities during WW II, we immediately bonded. Julian, it so happened, was the bombardier on one of the Flying Fortresses that bombed the Blechhammer industrial complex, where nearby in the concentration camp, my father was imprisoned and coerced to work for two years building the oil refinery complex destroyed by the Allies.

My father’s story, David Wyman’s WW II research and important book, as well as his death, eulogized by Pierre Sauvage native of Le Chambon where we had lived, and Julian P. the bombardier, across my driveway, all this came together in a complex and wondrous story that is dear to me and seemed worth sharing with others.

Passover thoughts.

The Jewish festival of Pesach has come and gone. It is my preferred holiday season for two reasons: it is family observed in Jewish homes and its roots are historical. Pesach or Passover commemorates and celebrates the birth of Judaism.

The Hebrew word pesach means to “skip over” and relates to God’s skipping over the homes of the Jewish slaves in Egypt and thus saving the lives of their first born sons during God’s slaying of the first born sons of the Egyptians. This alleged divine punishment is the Tenth Plague visited upon the evil pharaoh (or king, literally meaning “big house”) of Egypt for his refusal to free the Israelite slaves and to permit them to leave the country.

In a wider perspective the festival is a celebration of an enslaved people’s pursuit of freedom. That aspect of the story is expressed by the Hebrew designation of Pesach as yetziat mitzrayim or the “going out of Egypt.” The Hebrew name for Egypt, mitzrayim, derives, according to the Zohar, a major book of Jewish mysticism, from the word tzar or narrow, tight, and refers to narrow mindedness, constricted opportunities, limited movement and similar. I like best the festival’s Hebrew designation as zeman cherutenu because it means “the season of our freedom.” Having been a prisoner for three years under the German Nazis, I deeply appreciate freedom.

Egypt, previously a generous country for the Jewish refugees from conditions of famine in Canaan, became a very bad country for them with the arrival of a vicious new king. This is signaled in Exodus 1:8,

“The new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt.”

The name Joseph in this context represents both our patriarch Jacob’s son Joseph who had become an important government official, as well as the Israelites who had come to Egypt to purchase food for their starving families in Canaan and who eventually moved down to Egypt, where they were welcomed and invited to settle in Goshen, the eastern part of the Nile delta.

The new king, unnamed in the biblical text, had departed from the generous attitude of his predecessor. In his fear and hate of the Israelite strangers in his land, he enslaved them. It is the biblical book of Exodus that tells the story of the slaves’ suffering and eventual liberation. This is what we recall and celebrate during the liturgical part of the Passover evening seder, a wonder-full experience in terms of family togetherness and education for life.

One of the purposes of this website is to help us remember our people’s past. According to the teaching of our grand sage of the 18th century, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism,

“Forgetfulness leads to exile while remembrance is the secret of redemption.”

This wise saying leads me to remember the Exodus, Judaism’s and therefore also my spiritual birth story, as well as my people’s and my personal experiences under Nazi Germany not so very long ago.

While I fully acknowledge the radical change that entered our communal life with the tragedy of 9/11, I cannot help but notice the increased violence ever since the election of our new king, or rather, president. I am one among many others who attribute this phenomenon at least partially to the man’s behavior which is totally unbecoming to a person of such high position and power. Our country’s leader turns out to be a fear monger, a pathological liar, a misogynist, a megalomaniac, an incompetent who, with few exceptions, surrounds himself with people of the same ilk, men and women who lie with aplomb.

What should we make of a man who boasts about not needing to read because he is a stable genius? Flattered by the last person with whom he speaks, he changes his opinions accordingly, opinions which, when acted upon, impact huge numbers of people in this country and abroad. What kind of role model is he for young people in our land – a man who on TV prides himself of being able to do most anything with women once he reaches for their private parts and who, as I write this, is being sued by multiple women for having violated them?

What should we make of a man who insists that his private insights are superior to the findings of science and who considers global warming to be nothing but a Chinese hoax? This is a man who is about to lower standards for automobile exhaust emissions and who recommends the removal of warning labels on food packaging of junk food because doing so would increase sales and thus benefit our economy. Hail to the blessing of lung cancer and obesity!

Research into Russian interference in our and other nations’ electoral systems is yet another hoax, this one perpetrated by the Democrats; it is nothing but a useless witch hunt, we are told. These and many other presidential pronouncements, too many to be enumerated here, are irresponsible, dangerous and deeply worrisome. Furthermore, they also discredit the Republican Party which, with few notable publicly stated exceptions, endorses and supports the presidential insanity.

These must be giddy days for the NRA, the National Rifle Association. Our man in the White House is their best salesman. “Let’s arm the teachers of the land!” says he. This is yet another way to mass insanity under the mask of good intentions of which our president seems to be a very good sales representative.

It is a slippery and steep slope and we are sliding.

My hope lies in our basic institutions. As long as these resist bastardization and do not succumb to the poisonous lies issuing these days from Washington there is hope.

My even greater hope lies in the recent rising up of our young people, nation wide, marching for their lives and demanding change from a president and a congress that is held hostage by a money hungry and powerful business-related lobby called the NRA. Enough is enough!

I salute the youngsters and their teachers who are marching to prevent our country from becoming a narrow minded homophobic place like ancient Egypt under the rule of its narcissistic pharaoh of the 13 cent. BCE. The only peaceful antidote to becoming a similar oppressive country lies in the power of our democratic electoral system – our votes.

You may have noticed that in this blog I do not mention the name of the person who threatens our and the world’s welfare. I follow the example of the Book of Exodus which does not do so either with regard to the Exodus-related vicious pharaoh’s name. Biblical scholars and archaeologists have identified that person as Ramesses II whose statues and temples are ubiquitous all over Egypt.

So why not mention here the name of our contemporary pharaoh-like leader in Washington? By not doing so, I follow the wise biblical admonition given to Israel pertaining to Amalek, Israel’s perennial symbolic enemy, found in Deuteronomy 25:17-19,

“You shall blot out the name of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget.”

Some people do not deserve a name to be remembered by. At best, their fate will be nothing more than a tiny footnote to world history.