According to the New York Times, fewer than 2000 Syrian refugees have been accepted for resettlement to the United States. Of these, half are children and one-quarter are over age 60. So the refugee crisis, of which Syrians are a significant part, affects older people as well as the young and the middle-aged. As we hear more and more strident calls to keep out these refugees, ostensibly because they might be terrorists, when in fact they are seeking to escape from those same terrorists who roam their native lands, we would do well to remember an earlier refugee crisis. It’s a crisis I’m all too familiar with, as my parents—then ages 13 and 14—were among those who left Germany in the winter of 1939, at first merely to escape persecution, later to escape death. It would be 8 years before they finally found refuge in the United States, where they have lived productive lives for the past 68 years.
By the summer of 1942, tens of thousands of European Jews had already been rounded up by the seemingly unstoppable Germans and incarcerated in ghettoes, enslaved as forced laborers, or sent to extermination camps. Those who remained in Holland, Belgium, and France were on the run. One of the only countries to run to was Switzerland, an oasis of neutrality in war-torn Europe. But in August, the Swiss government sealed its borders to refugees, invoking the time-honored allegation that further Jewish immigration was a threat to the peace and stability of their society. In December of 1942, the government clamped down further, ordering that every refugee over the age of 16 be turned away at the border. In the coming months, the Swiss police would send about 25,000 people to almost certain death.
It was not the first time that the world had turned its back on Jewish refugees. In the summer of 1938, just days after the American Independence Day holiday, representatives from 32 countries gathered at the majestic Hotel Royale in the French lake-side resort of Evian-les-Bains to discuss the plight of the millions of European Jews who wished to immigrate to avoid discrimination, persecution, and worse. For over a week, the delegates convened to express their concern--but did nothing.
A few months later, on what would become known as Kristallnacht, synagogues were torched throughout Germany, Jewish businesses destroyed, and 30,000 people arrested for the crime of being Jews. In response, a democratic US Senator and a Republican representative introduced a bill that would have admitted 20,000 Jewish refugee children to the United States. But public opinion was resoundingly against immigration on the grounds that it could be harmful to American citizens, and the bill died an early death.
When the United States entered the war, virtually all immigration to this country ceased. But already that fateful fall, the State Department had deliberately put barriers in the way of Jewish refugees. Even accessing the limited quotas in place as of the xenophobic Immigration Act of 1924 became increasingly difficult. Consulates abroad were instructed to “delay” and “effectively stop” the trickle of immigrants arriving in the United States by resorting to administrative devices to “postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of the visas.”
After World War II was over, the member states of the newly established United Nations recognized the callous cruelty of their behavior towards refugees. Committed to mending their ways, they drew up the Declaration of Human Rights (1948), which asserted that everyone has the right to “seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” This was followed in 1951 with the “Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees” which defined refugees and delineated their rights. In 2001, dozens of countries reaffirmed their commitment to the rights of refugees, acknowledging that “many persons still leave their country of origin for reasons of persecution and are entitled to special protection on account of their position.”
In light of this history, the current attempts by state governors, including Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, to close their hearts and barricade the gates to refugees is both tragic and intolerable. We must not confuse the persecuted with their persecutors. We need to remember the words engraved on the Statue of Liberty, a gift to us from France, from the poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus:
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.