When fear takes over

I Remember!

My sweet grandmother on my Mom’s side, Hermine Borger, nee Weinberger, had two brothers, Solomon whom I hardly knew and Arnold, whom we all knew very well. Arnold was a big strapping fellow and I remember him best from his powerful smacking the cards onto the table during the traditional Sunday afternoon card games at my grandparents’ home on the Polish side of our town.

Uncle, or rather grand uncle Arnold owned a bakery in an area close to the Czech elementary school I attended. Every so often my mother picked me up from school and we visited the bakery. Freshly baked kaizer rolls were absolutely delicious when topped with butter and a slice of cooked ham from a butcher shop nearby.

The German occupation of our town on September 1, 1939, spelled the end to uncle Arnold’s bakery and our snacks there. A Volksdeutscher, a local German Nazi, took over the business. As simple as that.

When my father was forced to head the Jewish representation vis a vis the GESTAPO he selected uncle Arnold to be one of its members to work with him in what was called the Judenrat.

Perhaps as early as in 1940 it became clear that one of the most important priorities for the Jewish communities in Nazi occupied Poland was to save Jewish young children for whom the Nazis had no use and thus, given their vulnerability, were threatened with elimination.

Moshe Merin, a Jewish man from the city of Sosnowitz who by the GESTAPO was tapped to oversee all things Jewish in occupied Polish Silesia which included our territory, was well aware of the danger in which the Jewish children found themselves, turned to my father to come up with a plan to bring these little ones to safety.

In short, it was decided to organize an exodus of children from the threatened areas by bringing them to our town and then, guided by people who knew the way into Slovakia via a mountain pass, and onward south to the river Danube and the Black Sea and from there to a Mediterranean port, from where they would be shipped to Palestine and safety.

Given the complexity of the operation of transfering the children once arrived in our area to a mountain guide who would take them into Slovakia, my father delegated the organization and supervision of the operation to my uncle Arnold, member of the Judenrat who did this clandestine job well. While I do not know the numbers of kids involved in these secret transfers, I do know that dozens of children were saved in this manner.

Then, one day, the GESTAPO arrested uncle Arnold. Someone must have turned traitor. The operation suddenly ground to a halt. I need not go into details to describe the fear that took hold of us all. We knew where, in all probability, Arnold was held by the Nazi police. Today, a bronze plaque on one of our town buildings commemorates the horrors of the place:

“In this building, in the years 1939-1945 the GESTAPO had its office and torture chambers in which died hundreds of honorable nationals from both sides of the Olza river.”

The waiting game now began. When and what will the inevitable sequel to Arnold’s arrest be? The when was a realistic question whereas to the what we all knew the answer: wholesale punishment of the Jewish population. This could amount to a police dragnet of arrests, deportation or immediate total destruction. The days dragged on. Every time the door bell rang, we anticipated the worse. My father’s pride and joy was his gold Schaffhausen pocket watch, a veritable chronograph that kept the time within two or three seconds of the noon time signal broadcast by many European radio stations. When the door bell rang the tradition had become for my father to hand to my Mom the gold watch and to place a kiss on her forehead, followed by kisses given to Edith and me on our heads. Only after having done this, my father went down to open the house entrance to whoever the visitor was. A truly chilling tradition!

During those waiting days grand-aunt Else, wife of imprisoned Arnold, regularly came to visit. We heard her arguing with my father behind closed doors, asking him, imploring him for advice as to what to do in this calamitous time. Again and again she begged that he intervene with the GESTAPO and demand the release of her husband. Clearly my father could not do so. Jews had become outlaws and making oneself a nuisance with the Nazis, as they saw it, brought about very dangerous repercussions which made the situation only worse. And so unbearable waiting times and hushed conversations continued and we expected the worst.

Five weeks into this misery Else visited with my father once again but this time what in the past had been requests for help, turned into threats. We noticed upon her arrival that her physical appearance had significantly deteriorated. She had lost a lot of weight, her usually kind facial expression had turned severe and tears had turned into frowns. We heard her scream,

“Leo, if you do not make it clear to the GESTAPO that it is you who are the responsible person who delegated the children’s operation to Arnold, I will go down there and make this clear to them myself. It is you who are responsible for the operation and not Arnold. Only such an admission by you will save my husband. Consider this an ultimatum! And make it quick because I will not wait any longer!”

This time she did not wait for a response from my father. Slamming the doors behind her she stalked out.

The next few days were pure hell. My father seriously considered requesting the local GESTAPO chief, a certain SS Hauptsturmfuhrer (captain) Schweim, for the release of uncle Arnold. My Mom, of course, begged him not to do it. In retrospect I am certain she was right. Suddenly there was tension in our home between father and mother and both Edith and I were distraught. This sort of thing had never occurred before.

And then it happened: uncle Arnold was released. He had not been tortured.

Peace returned to our family but the prior happy relationship with aunt Else was never quite restored.

Why am I telling this story?

To convey to you how one’s psyche can be impacted by fear and how this fear can change one’s basic orientations, relationships and even world view. In our case, Else had been a loved and esteemed member of our family. Fear had distorted her friendship and love to the extent that she was now ready to jeopardize the very life of my father in an effort to save her husband. Love had turned into hatred. The good that had been accomplished by saving the lives of a large numbers of children thanks to the work of Else’s husband had receded into the past. To save her husband, the blame for the transgression of Nazi law had to be pinned on someone else although by doing so that person would receive a death sentence.

I cannot help but see a parallel between the story I related and on a much vaster scale the political situation in our land and more specifically the fear mongering that is done by president Trump to which our population is exposed almost daily.

Surely, you remember the case of the DACA young people who still are in limbo, with the protective legislation by former President Obama revoked. Surely you remember the attempt to instill fear in us by Trump’s reporting about the “caravan” of thousands of Latin Americans marching to our southern border. The already existing border patrols had to be reinforced by thousands of military and police personnel to protect us. The rape accusations against these poor people were again resurrected and our president, protector of women par excellence (wow!), continues alternately to plea with and threaten Congress into financing the billions necessary for the building of his promised wall that would put an end to the dangerous illegal immigrant incursions from the south. As it turned out, a “caravan” of about 200 people showed up at the wall, mostly women and children, fleeing from terrible situations in their own countries.

From a report received earlier today (5/4/2018) I learned that the Trump administration is now ending temporary protected status for tens of thousands of Hondurans. Since last year the US administration has scrapped similar protections from immigrants that were allowed to stay in the US since 1999, following a hurricane that ravaged their country. The Trump administration has scrapped similar protections for immigrants from other countries, including Nepal, El Salvador, Haiti and Nicaragua. These immigrants holding temporary legality in the US who would love to remain here have had children here, worked hard, started companies, made investments, etc. Now they don’t know what will happen. More limbo for people who in desperation sought and received asylum in this country which is now being revoked for no good reason, other than…!

Here is what I am worried about. Based on my lived experience in Nazi Germany I know that falsehoods and lies when heard long enough sink in and their toxicity is absorbed. The lies spread by the Nazis concerning the Jews took deep root and in some quarters remain alive to this day. Will we, a population consisting of immigrants and children of immigrants have the strength to resist infection by the avalanche of fearmongering and lies coming from our president and his surrounding, or will this spreading of fear negatively affect our country’s long held generally favorable attitude toward strangers, immigrants, refugees and empathy for others’ suffering even though these “others” do not belong to our tribe? It is my hope that we will overcome xenophobia because, yes, we can.

Our Jewish tradition cherishes a text attributed to 18th cent. rabbi Nachman of Breslov which reads, “kol ha-olam kulo gesher tsar me’od, veha-ikar lo lefached klal,” or in translation, “The hole world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid at all.” If you want to hear it beautifully sung, Google it, and listen to Ofra Haza sing it on YouTube. It may give you courage as it does me, every time I hear it and sing along.

Morality falling through the cracks.

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt…!”

This is a biblical exhortation in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) addressed to liberated Israel which especially Holocaust survivors must never forget. Remember!

Slaves have few if any rights. I and my fellow Jews under the German Nazi regime during WWII were slaves who had no rights and no recourse against coercion and violence, no appeal courts to which we could have taken our complaints about being mistreated.

Still in our hometown, after having been occupied by Nazi evil, but before deportation, we were never safe, whether in our homes or in the street. On many occasions we were simply taken off the street, corralled by the German police and then forced into forced labor such as street cleaning which involved sweeping and shoveling horse droppings, to the entertainment of fellow towns folk, or cleaning government buildings, etc.

Now imagine that innocent children, all under 16 years of age brought to our country by their parents who came here illegally, whichever their mode of entry may have been, now live in fear of being taken off the street or from their homes and deported by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement). Deported to where? To their native countries they do not know, having been brought up in the United States. These young people, totally Americanized, 72% of whom profited from higher education, do not even speak their native country’s language.

Having become political footballs, they now live in fear. The DREAMERS’ (as they are called) dreams of legally becoming US citizens demolished. What a sad end for them and for us, a nation of fellow immigrants and dreamers of a safe and good land.

So I ask, what is it with our law makers in Washington: don’t they have children they love? Have they lost their morality, their sense of what is right? Has their access to power transformed them into non-thinking and non-feeling monsters? Has human-made law, which often in history turns out to be deeply flawed, trumped humaneness and empathy whose origins come from more authoritative sources as we tend to affirm in our religious and humanistic traditions?

In polls, the majority of Americans expressed the view that the DREAMERS “should be allowed to stay and become American citizens if they meet certain requirements.” The average age of these DREAMERS is 24. Those 25 and younger make up two-thirds of DACA recipients. A truly disgraceful situation when one considers that these 800,000 young people, who are Americans in every sense of the term with the one exception of long overdue citizenship, make up less than one third of one percent of our population. It has been estimated that the US would lose about $ 460 billion in GDP over the next 10 years with the elimination of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) legislation and the deportation of the DREAMERS.

In the so-called omnibus federal budget of 1.3 trillion which is to allow our government to operate until September 2018, which most of our legislators have not seen, let alone studied, because it was cobbled together behind closed doors by a chosen few, and needs to be signed into law no later than in three days, the DACA issue is not included.

Any compassion for those poor youngsters? Obviously not. Their daily insecurity must continue. This is truly shameful behavior by the president and our lawmakers.

Musings about the notion of justice.

I arrived in the USA legally on a student visa in 1948, later to be changed into an immigration visa thanks to the intervention of Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee, because I was a refugee from communism. This explains why I am very interested in the fate of the so-called dreamers, their fate to be decided by the government sometimes this month. Only a couple of weeks ago the daily news dealt with DACA or “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” established by the Obama administration in June 2012 but to be phased out by the Trump administration beginning in 2017 and so jeopardizing these young people to be deported to their native countries they do not know, having been brought up in the US. Hot button issues succeed each other so quickly these days that one has hardly time to reflect about and digest them. The DACA issue in which the fate of 800,000 young peoples’ future is to be decided – no small matter for innocent women and men who were brought into this country as infants by their illegally immigrated parents and now risk deportation – was suddenly displaced from due public consideration by Trump’s acceptance to visit North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and shortly afterwards, by the ousting of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, as well as the resignation of a number of government officials. So what is it with the DACA young people?

While I am in no position to discuss the legalise involved, I want here to briefly discuss in a general way the concept of justice and what it means to be a law abiding citizen.

As in my previous piece, I am returning to my experience in Nazi Germany. The post-World War One German Weimar Republic was a democratic state in every sense of the term. Following the ascendancy of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship of the Third Reich, democracy quickly disappeared and gave way to nazism, a type of fascism. How was this rapid transformation accomplished? By a new system of justice and thus new legislation that annulled the previous laws.

The question that must be asked is what does the word “justice” mean? Can the concept be so flexible so as to change practically over night, as it did in Germany? While various dictionaries define the term “justice” differently, they agree on one fundamental meaning, namely, “determination of rights according to the rules of law or equity,” or “the quality of conforming to law.”

These definitions immediately raise the question as to who it is that establishes the law according to which the citizenship is to behave. In the case of Nazism it so happened that both the legislators and judges of the Weimar Republic were eliminated and those who followed Hitler’s racist ideology installed instead.

It was this radical change that facilitated the transformation of the Democratic Weimar Republic into the racist police state under Adolf Hitler.

The filling of vacant US judgeships is taking place right now at an unprecedented pace under Donald Trump’s presidency, orchestrated by the Justice Department under Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

What might be the reason for such haste?

Haggling over other people’s lives.

We, Holocaust survivors, must remember for the sake of future generations. And we do, because we cannot do otherwise.

On April 25, 1944, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi German SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer (lieutenant colonel), the person assigned by his superior Reinhard Heydrich (SS general) to manage the deportation and extermination of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe in World War II, met in Budapest with one Joel Brand, a member of the Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee. It seems that Mr. Brand knew Eichmann from previous meetings in which he had attempted to bribe him to permit Jews to leave Hungary. In this particular encounter, Eichmann offered “to sell” one million Jews to Brand and thus to freedom and continued life.

The proposal was to exchange one new military truck for the freedom of one hundred Jews, these trucks to be delivered to the Nazis by the Americans and British. Eichmann promised that these trucks would be used only on the Eastern front where the Germans were fighting the army of the communist Soviet Union. By Brand accepting the offer, one million Jews would go free in exchange for 10,000 trucks.

The Allies very quickly rejected the deal. If accepted, it would have turned out to be a ruse because before the “business deal” was further discussed, Eichmann had already ordered the deportation of the Hungarian Jews and the first deportees arrived at the death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau on May 26, 1944 and were murdered there.

Why do I relate this story? The answer is: the striking similarity between the attempted shameful immorality of the German Nazi proposal of exchanging human lives for trucks and its American counterpart of President Trump’s insistence on Congress’ funding his proposed separation wall between the US and Mexico in exchange for signing a bill of amnesty, thus allowing a way toward American citizenship for the Dreamers – the DACA issue.

To be sure, the so-called dreamers’ lives are not endangered by a “life or death” bargain as were the Jews in Hungary. But what about the 800,000 Dreamers who, after having been brought into our country as little children, dreamed and continue to dream to live in the US legally and safely? These young people are psychologically and emotionally Americans. They have been socialized as Americans and know no country other than the country in which they have been brought up which is the US. They have spent their childhood in the very same way American-born children have spent theirs. The land they came from unknowingly is a land strange to them even to the extent that for many of the DACA Dreamers its language is unknown.

It is shameful that the 535 members of congress, all supposedly intelligent and compassionate men and women, and President Trump who, on Twitter, once called himself a “stable genius,” have not been able to resolve the DACA problem which, if not resolved, will expose the Dreamers to deportation.

If the Statue of Liberty were able to shed tears, the time we live in and this issue would surely cause her to do so. Has our morality so deteriorated that we have forgotten who we are? Are we not all children of documented and undocumented immigrants? Have Emma Lazarus’s words underneath the grand old lady who represents the American spirit of generosity and wisdom, receded into oblivion?

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Will it be the “golden door” or a huge unbreachable wall?

Mr. President, it is well known you do not read. Do make an exception in this case, and do read this poem. Reflect on it and ask yourself whether your presidency reflects the iconic words above.

Then take your pen and sign.

I, a refugee from Communism and first generation American and many others like me, will be grateful to you. It could be a beginning!