Editor’s Note: Rebecca Kobrin holds the Russell and Bettina Knapp Chair in American Jewish history at Columbia University. The views expressed in this commentary are solely hers.
Rebecca Kobrin: One lesson America needs to understand is that the Holocaust did not begin with killing or gassing, but rather with words
But perhaps the most important lesson of the Holocaust for Americans is the role that open borders for refugees can play in saving victims, Kobrin writes
Monday is Yom Hashoah, the day designated in 1953 by the State of Israel to commemorate the murder of millions of Jews during the Second World War. Selected to mark the anniversary of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising, this day is meant to impart a lesson: Jews should be remembered not only for dying in the Holocaust, but for fighting for their lives as well.
But perhaps the most important lesson of the Holocaust for Americans is the role that open borders for refugees can play in saving victims from unspeakable violence.
Since January 20, I have often pondered: What does our current administration see as the lessons for Americans to learn from the Holocaust? Especially on the occasion of Yom Hashoah, I cannot stop thinking that a deeper knowledge of the the world’s role in the Holocaust is needed in America.
In addition to Sean Spicer’s recent embarrassing ignorance about Nazi Germany’s gassing of its own Jewish citizens (along with other victims), the last time the administration acknowledged the Holocaust, it failed to mention how Jews were its main victims. Moreover, it issued its statement concurrently with an executive order barring immigration from seven countries.
Despite having Jared Kushner in the highest leadership of this administration, a man who identifies publicly as a Jew and as a grandchild of Holocaust survivors, the bigotry that made the horror of the Holocaust possible was erased. The Trump administration, in its actions against immigrants and refugees and in its erasure of the role anti-Semitism played in the Holocaust, displayed a dangerous dismissal of the role eugenics played in discussions of immigration in the 1930s and continues to play today.
The appointment of Jon Feere and Julie Kirchner at two federal agencies has alarmed immigrants’ rights activists because they come from organizations founded by John Tanton, an individual who has openly embraced eugenics, the science of improving the genetic quality of the human population by encouraging selective breeding Surely it is important to remember when listening to these new appointees talk of walls and bans that it was the widespread notion that Jews were racially inferior in the 1930s that made the word “refugee” practically synonymous with “Jew.”
One lesson America needs to understand is that the Holocaust did not begin with killing or gassing, but rather with words.
In my work as a scholar of American Jewish history, I examine the Jewish experience in the United States and consider whether the near-obliteration of European Jewry could have been avoided through the adoption of different policies by countries throughout the world in the 1930s. For example, the experience of the infamous SS St. Louis teaches us the important power of executive orders, the words they use, and the messages they send – not only to those immigrants who clamor to come to the United States but also to the larger world.
The SS St. Louis left Hamburg in May 1939, carrying 937 German Jews – many of whom had been imprisoned in concentration camps – seeking to flee Nazi Germany. They all had valid visas for entry in the coming years but had to leave Germany immediately for their safety. Denied entry to the United States out of the preposterous popular misconception of their being German spies, the 937 Jews were sent back to Europe to await the calling up of their visa numbers. These passengers resettled in Europe, but many fell back into Nazi hands. As a result, over a quarter of these US visa-holding Jews perished in the Holocaust.
Germany understood the message: the world did not care about Jewish refugees and the world would not speak up as the Nazi war machine killed millions of innocent Jews. History has not looked kindly on President Roosevelt’s failure to issue an executive order to allow the entry of these refugees, nor others who denied Jewish refugees entry into the United States out of fear of being German spies in the 1930s or Communists after the Second World War. Years later, the State Department issued an apology to the surviving passengers of the St. Louis.
The world currently faces a dire refugee crisis. President Trump has recently taken action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s mistreatment of his people. But this geopolitical situation is all too familiar. The administration also needs to think of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who have no choice but to flee their homelands to escape brutal and longstanding conflicts. Those Syrians who have thus far arrived in America are no more terrorists than passengers on the SS St. Louis were German spies or Holocaust survivors were Communists. Rather, all share the desire to start life anew after much suffering and loss
As the White House considers how to recognize the Holocaust, it should teach Americans that the Holocaust resulted from racist rhetoric about peoples considered “other,” and the failure of world refugee policy. Perhaps the White House should think about the moment when a future State Department is called on to apologize again to innocent people for the ways the United States abandoned its core principles because of racist fears. How will it explain how in 2017, it denied entry to scientists going to MIT, medical researchers destined for Harvard, or translators who have risked their lives for US soldiers, because they were considered threats to the nation, undeserving of entry?
By embracing refugees rather than turning them away because of assumptions about their national origins, the current administration can make good on the freedoms that FDR shamefully turned his back on over 70 years ago.