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.

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!