How fast, we Jews, forget!

The shameful treatment of would be immigrants to our country continues. While I have no high opinion of Trump, an understatement, it is beyond my understanding why he nurtures this venomous hatred against these people who flee to preserve their lives and the lives of their children. Is it all in the name of his white supremacist attitude, best expressed in the slogan of “Make America White Again?”

As a Holocaust survivor, I cannot help but compare Trump’s racism to that of Hitler’s who, in similar manner, sized up the threat of Judaism as a threat not only to Germany but to the world. One of his more famous antisemitic mentors, Richard Wagner, the great composer, expressed the threat of Judaism and the Jewish people by coining a new word: Verjudung, meaning something like “jewishing” the otherwise pure world…I hate to think what a totally white America would look, feel and act like!

Because of Jewish ethics and more particularly because of our past history in which we came to experience and hopefully to learn what rejection for ethnic reasons feels like and produces, Jews must not and cannot turn their back to migrants fleeing for life.

I am disappointed that on the local, national and international level few Jewish voices have been heard to condemn our governments’ treatment of these poor refugees at our southern gates. Have we forgotten what rejection feels like?

Here then are reminders:

Back in 1938 the plight of the Jews in Germany had become known. Rumors had it that Jews in Germany were sent to concentration camps. Auschwitz had not been built yet and so the worst had not yet happened. There was much talk about the necessity of creating safe havens for the Jews but talk did not suffice. There was need for action.

It was on President Roosevelt ‘s initiative that an international meeting was convened in July 1938 in Evian-les-Bains, France, to request commitments from the assembled nations to accept Jewish refugees from Germany.

And so 32 nations came together joined by 24 voluntary organi-zations that participated as observers. Also 200 journalists attended. Hitler endorsed the conference and even allegedly promised to help the Jews leave his country. It was reported that he said, “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [the Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.”

The conference ended in failure. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic which offered help, none of the other participating nations made a commitment about accepting Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany. For Hitler this was a victory as it seemed to demonstrate that no one desired an influx of Jews to their country. Useful propaganda!

Two months after Evian – the Sudeten was given to Hitler by British prime minister Chamberlain. 120,000 formerly Czech Jews became stateless. In March 1939 Czechoslovakia was occupied and 180,000 more Jews came under Hitler’s rule. Then came Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. On September 1, 1939 WW II broke out. Holocaust and 6 million Jewish dead followed. Have we, Jews, learned anything from Evian? Do we not remember?

Our treatment of the refugees at our southern border is a test of American humaneness and civilization and we are flunking it.

The story of the Saint Louis Ship should be an other reminder for us Jews of our history of a people fleeing from destruction and being refused to be given a haven of safety and a secure life.

During WW II the ship, the St. Louis, owned by the German Hapag (Hamburg-America Line) was a German luxury ocean liner that carried over 900 Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in 1939 trying to escape the Holocaust. The ship’s destination was Cuba in the hope that the refugees would debark and settle there. Having arrived there, the ship docked in Havana’s harbor but the refugees, with the exception of some Spaniards, Cubans and US citizens with Cuban visas, were not allowed to disembark. US government officials interceded with Cuba but to no avail. What now?

The ship’s captain, Gustav Schroeder, a seemingly very decent human being, now took the ship to the US and to Canada, trying to find a nation that would accept these Jewish refugees fleeing for their life. Both nations refused the ship’s landing in their respective harbors.

In view of these refusals, no alternative was left for the captain but to return to Europe. The UK, Belgium, the Netherlands and France accepted a few of the ships’ refugees. Unfortunately, the Nazis in their lightning fast war caught up with these Jewish refugees who thought they had escaped the clutches of Hitler. Statistics show that 254 of those who were forced to return to Europe were murdered during the Holocaust in Auschwitz and Sobibor. The rest died in various slave labor camps, in hiding or in attempts to evade the Nazis.

Let me end this blog by reminding ourselves that we Jews, too, were once on the run from death. Should not our empathy for these folks at our southern border motivate us to speak out loudly against their mistreatment?

I do not understand that Melania Trump, a mother herself, has not been willing or able to speak out for a more humane treatment of these suffering folk. Jared and Ivanka Kushner, both allegedly Jews, have remained silent. I do not understand that the fathers and mothers, employed by ICE, lend themselves to such inhuman treatment as separating children from their parents.

America, where are we headed?!

Forcing family breakup: the new American way?

The 18th century great Jewish German poet Heinrich Heine once wrote, Denk ich an Deutschland in der Nacht, da bin ich um den Schlaf gebracht. This translates into English as, “Whenever I think of Germany by night, I can no longer sleep.” A prophetic utterance of one who lived some 200 +years before the Holocaust took place.

I feel the same way when, during the last one and a half years, I have been considering what has been happening to my country, the United States of America. By “making America great again,” Donald Trump’s slogan prior and after his election to the presidency, the president has actually “made America great-ly” impoverished and reduced in morality, generosity and spirit, a deep concern which often deprives me of my sleep.

Just about after every lecture dealing with my experiences during the Holocaust, someone in the audience asks me which of these experiences I consider to have been the most horrific. Hard to say when the entire three years were a veritable hell. “Were you afraid of death?” – another person inquires. Every daily roll call may have sent me into the gas of Auschwitz or the shooting wall at Gross Rosen where prisoners no longer able to work were machine gunned and cremated. With our increasing dehumanization and deterioration in body and spirit, fear of death was replaced by hunger. This was an ongoing process, eventually leading to destruction of us who had become non-thinking zombies..

So was there a most terrifying moment in my life? The answer is Yes.

The date was June 29, 1942 when our family was torn apart. Driven from the ghetto into a junkyard by the SS, we were forced to hand over any valuables still in our possession. Gold necklaces, coins, wedding rings, watches, – all these were confiscated. There was intimidation by shouted threats and beatings. For a boy of fifteen that I was this was terribly scary.

But then came something even worse: separation. Women and men were separated into groups. My Mom was ripped from my Dad’s side. And I was ripped away from both my parents and my older sister. Never had I been – had I lived apart from my beloved parents who, from the day of my birth, had taken care of me, nurtured me with unending expressions of love. Words cannot express the feeling of abandonment and lostness and – yes, of fear, I experienced in that moment.

If I feel so terribly hurt to this day, even in retrospect, I cannot even imagine what my parents felt and went through on that acursed day. As my thoughts return to that utterly obscene event, I can still see my Mom weeping. with a face distorted with anguish, running behind me and calling to me, “Walti, Walti, do not leave us!” An SS soldier barring her way toward me, hit her on the head with his leather whip shouting, “Enough of that! Back to your group!” A rough shove did the rest. No longer were we together as a family. All four of us must have realized that a big question mark would from now on hang over our existence. Would we ever see each other again?

Daily, the question of illegal immigration is played out before our eyes these days. It seems that president Trump and his acolyte Jeff Sessions, the attorney general, are consumed with hatred for undocumented immigrants. For months we have been hearing unending litanies concerning the threat undocumented refugee immigration represents for our country and population.

Doctors Without Borders, the fabulous worldwide medical organization whom I admire and support, announced yesterday that new Asylum Restrictions issued by Mr. Sessions, the Attorney General and head of the Justice Department, are a death sentence for Central Americans fleeing deadly violence in their countries. Citizens of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador will from now on no longer be able to use domestic or gang violence as acceptable justification for seeking asylum in the US.

We, a country consisting entirely of immigrants, with the exception of America’s Native Nations, are closing the gates to refugees fleeing for their lives hoping to find a safe haven in our country . Having come to our southern border and seeking asylum, they will be turned away.

Since last October,700 children of parents who came here many years ago as undocumented immigrants have been forcibly separated from their parents who were deported to their country of origin and we are told that 1,500 children, thus separated under duress from their parents and sent “somewhere,” cannot be found.

I hope you see the connection between my story above and what has been happening here. Have our legislators become non-thinking and non-feeling men and women? Do they not have children? Do they not love their children? If threatened by conditions of death, would they not seek asylum in a neighboring country?

What is happening to us Americans? Can we still claim to be “the Land of the free and the home of the brave?” after this kind of sham perpetrated by our government? Have we become great under Trump or have we, thanks to him, become great-ly diminished as compassionate human beings?

Concern for our country and where we are headed under this government, keeps me awake during many a night.

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.”