01:07 - Source: CNN
What you need to know about Passover

Editor’s Note: Barbara Fischkin is an author writing her fourth book, a historical novel which depicts Felshtin, her mother’s lost shtetl, the Yiddish term for “town” often used to describe Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. She has worked as an international journalist and has a master’s degree, which included shtetl and Holocaust studies. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.

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A hundred years ago, the 750,000-member Federation of Ukrainian Jews in America warned that 6 million in its region back home were in peril. This was after a spate of pogroms that killed at least 127,000. It made headlines. Then the issue was put on a back burner.

I often click back to this vintage story, trying to figure out why more people don’t know or talk about this warning in 1919. Or why there was no effective outcry from the powers that led our country and its allies.

I have a personal connection to the pogroms of that year since my mother, then 6 years old, narrowly escaped one of them when she ran from a burning building. Her parents, who also survived, then took her and her two siblings on an arduous trip across Europe. Eventually, they wound up safe in Brooklyn, New York. Their only son went back to Europe to serve in the US Army during World War II. But like so many, my family did not know how bad the Holocaust was until after it was over.

In America, they all became citizens, and if gathered today, my grandparents’ American children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren and their spouses could fill a room far bigger than a shtetl hut. All the adults have worked in meaningful ways. The children are being raised to do the same.

As Jews convene their Passover Seders Friday evening, an event that includes the obligation to welcome the stranger, it’s worth focusing on how sheltering refugees like my own ancestors is truly a lifesaving process.

Today, our headlines emphasize the central question of how to treat refugees. When I see photographs of these migrants at the border, I see my mother and her family escaping heartless local nationalists. And the discussion about immigration seems to be escalating. Late Tuesday, Attorney General William Barr reversed a ruling, a move that could now lead to credible asylum seekers being detained indefinitely. The American Civil Liberties Union has condemned this, calling the decision a violation of due process.

As I prepare our Seder, I cannot help but contemplate some troubling word usage from the administration. President Trump floated the possibility of moving immigrants to sanctuary cities last week as a form of retaliation against Democrats for refusing to support more stringent controls on immigration. His spokesman Hogan Gidley suggested that Democrats work with the administration “to find the best way to transport those illegal aliens.”

The emphasis is mine – the word “transport” terrifies me. It brings to mind the image of a cattle car, transporting masses of humans and ignoring the humanity of any individual.

Is it really sanctuary cities where Trump and his henchmen hope migrants wind up? An administration that has separated children from their parents, hardly permitting a whiff of farewell – and then all too often loses track of the kids – wants to bring migrants to sanctuaries?

Give me a break.

We say in our family that my mother saved her own life. But the reality is that she did not do it alone. Yes, as a child she ran from a burning building. And yes, the uncle who had been put in charge of her amid the chaos burned to death. But she ran into the woods and hid in a haystack where she might have frozen to death if not for a Catholic farmer who risked his own life to take her to his home. It is likely that the local band of young nationalists would have killed him if they found out. It is significant that they resembled many of today’s white nationalists, fired up in anger and lacking contemplation.

We also say that my grandfather, although a simple watchmaker, did not put his fears or his knowledge of local history on a back burner. He knew there had been pogroms before. And knowing more would come, he left his shtetl Felshtin after approximately 600 people were brutally killed there in 1919. Those who stayed behind did not even make it to the camps. In 1941 they were marched out of the town where their ancestors had lived for centuries and forced by a drunken group of Nazi Einsatzgruppen thugs to dig their own mass grave before they were killed.

Today, Felshtin is gone, but there is a concerted effort to remember what happened. Here in America, we have a Felshtin Society, which consists primarily of descendants of pogrom survivors determined to keep their memories alive. At a recent reunion to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the pogrom, we mentioned our own good fortune to be there – and discussed the plight of today’s migrants and immigrants.

In the Ukrainian town of Hvardiiske, where Felshtin once stood, the Catholic priest Father Piotr Glowka has begun an impressive educational program for his parishioners and others so they know why no more Jews are there. By extending beyond his own congregation and faith and preserving the memories of the Jews who once lived in the area, Glowka embodies the spirit of Passover. He has recently read parts of the memoirs of those who fled the pogrom, including one my grandfather wrote about my mother. They were translated, all on a voluntary basis, from Yiddish and other languages to English by Sidney Shaievitz, one of our Felshtin Society members – and then again to Russian by a New Jersey high school student named Elizabeth Bazhenov, who is not Jewish.

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    As the US government continues to crack down on immigration, I can only hope that we continue to teach people about this important history and urge them to take political action. The first crucial step in “never again” is knowing and teaching about what is happening right now.

    After my grandfather immigrated to the US, he insisted that every Seder end with his own, booming Yiddish-accented rendition of “God Bless America.” I will sing this at our Seder and also hope that migrants and other immigrants in peril can sing it here and live comfortably in the open.