Editor’s Note: Rebecca A. Kobrin is the Russell and Bettina Knapp Associate Professor of American Jewish history at Columbia University. The views expressed here are solely hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
On Monday, a Twitter debate erupted between Democratic Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Lindsey Graham over what lessons should be learned from the Holocaust. Ocasio-Cortez contended that the point of remembering the Holocaust was to apply its lessons to contemporary events like the events at the southwest border of the United States, while Graham argued that reckoning with it meant seeing it as utterly distinct. In one tweet, Senator Graham wrote: “I recommend she [Ocasio-Cortez] take a tour of the Holocaust Museum in DC. Might help her better understand the differences between the Holocaust and the caravan in Tijuana.”
While the question divided two of Washington’s most outspoken figures, the deeper problem is that their discussion failed to make clear an entirely different connection between the two historical moments: the role the United States and its immigration policies played in the unfolding tragedy of the late 1930s. By failing to pass legislation that would have allowed more Jewish refugees to settle within its borders, the United States inadvertently sent a message to the rest of the world that Jews were expendable.
This week is a particularly apt time to reflect on the legacy of US immigration policy in the 1930s. Eighty years ago this week, on December 2, 1938, the first group of Jewish refugee children arrived in Great Britain as part of a larger humanitarian effort to save Jewish children from the growing violence of the Nazi regime.
Known as the Kindertransport (children’s transport), the initiative allowed Jewish children under the age of 17 from Nazi-occupied Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia to settle in England without their parents or guardians because Winston Churchill convinced Parliament that it had to use immigration policy, and not just foreign and military policy, to stand up to Hitler. Escalating violence against Jews in Nazi-occupied territories, like Kristallnacht weeks before, had made them refugees. Eventually between 9,000 and 10,000 children settled in England through this program.
Americans should study this period because at the same moment that England opened its doors to children under the age of 17, our own government failed abysmally to respond to the Nazi menace – largely because of the bigotry and xenophobia that shaped visions of Jews and the State Department’s immigration and refugee system.
In February 1939, Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts sponsored a bill based on Kindertransport program. Wagner and Rogers wanted Congress to temporarily admit 20,000 Jewish children until it was safe for them to return home. As the bill stipulated, their stay would not have cost taxpayers a penny; various Jewish groups had agreed to assume financial responsibility for the children.
But the bill failed to move out of committee, because of racist fears that cast Jews as dangerous to the nation. As Laura Delano Houghteling, wife of the US Commissioner of Immigration and cousin to FDR, allegedly summed it up at a dinner party: “Twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow up into 20,000 ugly adults.”
The current presidential administration’s policies seem designed to echo Houghteling’s sentiment: placing child migrants in the past months in “tent city” jails, separating them from their parents or tear-gassing child asylum seekers at our border.
As a professor of American Jewish history and Jewish migration, I have thoughts about what Americans should consider as their representatives debate the lessons of the Holocaust. Let’s start with thinking about how immigrants are being talked about today. The asylum-seekers at our southern border have been called “invaders” and “terrorists.” As reporters embedded in the group have shown, these men, women and children are not terrorists; most of them see themselves as fleeing for their lives.
The continued demonization of this group has not only been in language but in action as well: by sending troops to the border and using tear gas, this administration portrays this as a group to be feared. As the Auschwitz Memorial Musuem aptly tweeted earlier in the week, “It’s important to remember that the Holocaust actually did not start with gas chambers…hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes & prejudice through legal exclusion, dehumanization & escalating violence.”
Let’s continue with better education. Americans today, as numerous surveys attest, lack basic knowledge of the Holocaust. Nearly half cannot name a single concentration camp. But as the gap in Graham and Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter debate highlights, Holocaust literacy can’t be only about what took place in Europe. Americans should read histories and original sources like newspapers and government documents that illustrate how many in the US believed Jews were inferior or suspect in the 1930s – and how that perception contributed to immigration and refugee policies that kept many Jews trapped in Europe.
Indeed, even after American soldiers saw what had taken place in Buchenwald, Dachau and Auschwitz, the United States still refused to accept most survivors of the concentration camps. Truman penned an executive order in 1945, in response to the opposition he saw in Congress to providing refuge for people who had survived the Holocaust.
The lesson of the 1930s, that Churchill understood so clearly and channeled into the Kindertransport, is that immigration policy is an expression of a nation’ values. Governments make choices that impact lives. While the question of immigration reform is complex, America’s immigration policy over the last two years has conveyed a lack of regard for the basic human rights of asylum seekers, and a total cruelty towards the special needs of children.
Some policymakers, like Lord Alf Dubs, recognize the deep connection between the lessons of the Holocaust and the shaping of contemporary immigration policy. Dubs, himself brought to the United Kingdom on the Kindertransport, became the author of the “Dubs amendment,” passed in May 2016, requiring the UK government to act “as soon as possible” to relocate and support unaccompanied refugee children in Europe. While the implementation of that measure has been far from perfect, Americans can and should take a lesson from Dubs that children of asylum seekers contribute to their new homes and can even become some of their greatest leaders.
Americans, including any members of Congress thinking of engaging in a Twitter debate, should remember England’s act of humanitarianism and the 10,000 lives it saved. England acted boldly through both immigration policy and foreign policy as the US government failed to act. England probably did not go far enough; more could have been saved and the children of the Kindertransport who were saved had to endure because of the trauma of family separation for the rest of their lives. But at least England appreciated that children seeking asylum deserved refuge and not to be tear-gassed for seeking shelter across its borders. By failing to make policy that looks more like the Kindertransport and less like “a wall,” the United States may be turning away some of its future leaders.