This year is not 1938. The faces of the refugees are different.
The languages they speak are different. The places and killers from which and from whom they are fleeing are different as well. But the refugees’ anguish and despair, their fear and sense of abandonment, are very much the same.
So is the xenophobia of much of the world that wants no part of them.
Then, the refugees were Jews persecuted in Nazi Germany. Today they are Christians, Yezidis and Muslims targeted for mass killing by IS in the Middle East.
Then, the refugees were Jews whose synagogues and homes had been burned and ransacked during the Kristallnacht pogroms of November 9, 1938. Today, they are Christians and Muslims whose churches and mosques have been bombed by Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.
The failure of most of the world, including the United States, to give a haven to Jews fleeing first from Nazi Germany and then from German- occupied Europe gave Hitler the assurance that no one would stop him from taking his anti-Semitic hatred to the next, foreseeable level. How many Jews murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz- Birkenau, Treblinka, and the other death camps might have lived if only the gates of the United States, Canada and Australia had not been closed to them? President Obama has said that “Slamming the door in the face of refugees would betray our deepest values.” He is right, of course. And we must never forget that we already betrayed these values 77 years ago.
Much is being written these days about the St. Louis, the ill-fated German transatlantic liner that was forced to take more than 900 refugees back to Europe in May of 1939 after being turned away from Cuba and refused entry into any U.S. harbor.
An even greater international outrage, however, had taken place 10 months earlier.
In July of 1938, at the behest of the Roosevelt Administration, representatives of 32 countries met in the French resort of Evian in what turned out to have been a disingenuous pretense of addressing the then prevailing refugee crIS. Sitting in the luxurious Hotel Royal, they professed to be sympathetic to the plight of the Jews who were being persecuted in the Third Reich, and in turn, with the notable exception of the Dominican Republic which expressed a willingness to take in 100,000 refugees, they explained why their respective governments would not do anything to help.
The United States would not increase its quota of 27,370 immigrants from Germany and Austria.
Great Britain’s representative declared that “The United Kingdom is not a country of immigration,” and refused to even discuss the possibility of allowing more Jews into Palestine. Some delegates pleaded that they did not have the financial means to take in refugees. Others said categorically that they had taken in as many refugees as they could absorb. And so on, and so on. The Australian delegate, T. W.
White, famously said that, “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”
Addressing a United Nations conference on Indochinese refugees in Geneva in 1979, Vice President Walter Mondale accurately concluded that at Evian, the international community “failed the test of civilization.”
It is true, of course, that today’s refugee crIS presents enormous challenges, but these are challenges that must be met pragmatically, realistically, not rejected out of hand.
This does not mean that refugees should not be rigorously vetted to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the United States in their midst. But this presupposes erroneously that this is not already being done.
“Syrian refugees undergo a more extensive screening than any other visitors or immigrants to the United States,” U.S. Representative David E. Price (D-N.C.), former chairman and current senior member of the House Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, explained in the Charlotte Observer. “They must first interview in-person with representatives of the United Nations, who conduct an extensive initial background check that is verified by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. They are then interviewed and their cases reviewed by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, the State Department, the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, the National Counterterrorism Center, Customs and Border Protection, and the federal government’s intelligence agencies…. This process is so intensive that it takes a long time – an average of 15 months, and often as long as three years.”
If something practical can be done to enhance this screening process even further, it should without question be done, but we cannot lose sight of the fundamental fact that we are talking about human beings who have been persecuted viciously, and who look to the international community for help much as European Jews did in the years before and during the Holocaust.
Simply put, grinding the entire US refugee program to a screeching halt or eliminating all federal funding for the resettlement of refugees are not acceptable options.
David Miliband, the former British Foreign Secretary, wrote in God, Faith & Identity from the Ashes: Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2015), a book I was privileged to compile and edit, that he now heads the International Rescue Committee, because he believes that “in a small way I am repaying a personal debt to those who helped my parents.” Miliband’s father came to the United Kingdom from Belgium in 1940 as a refugee.
His mother survived the war years in hiding in Poland. Although raised in a secular household, he wrote that, “I know the injunction ‘He who saves one single life it is as if he has saved an entire world.’ That is the spirit of those who helped my family. It is the spirit I try to honor. And it is the spirit we need to keep alive tomorrow.”
Each and every refugee from the IS barbarity, whether Christian, Yezidi, or Muslim, represents a world that not only deserves but needs to be saved. As a society and as a nation, we cannot, we must not abandon or betray them.The author is founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and senior vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell Universities.