In summer 1941, my Zadie was taking his law boards in Minsk when the Dean announced that the Nazis had invaded the Soviet Union. At first, the Dean directed the students to continue with their exams. Shortly after, the Dean returned and, notably more panicked, exclaimed that everyone should flee to the east as fast and however they could.
So my Zadie and Bubie took to the highway initially on foot with whatever they could carry. The German Luftwaffe hunted the refugees fleeing on that highway. Luftwaffe planes would swoop down to fly as low as possible, forcing their target to dive on the ground. Those too slow were beheaded by the plane’s wings. My Zadie and Bubie would never forget the image of heads bouncing down the highway, detached from bodies. Thus began my grandparents’ journey that would see them holding onto moving trains in freezing temperatures and nearly starving in the train station of Tashkent before ultimately making their way to New York City as two of the only surviving members of their families. And they had it easy compared to their friends.
On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I thought of my grandparents, the Holocaust, and the terror that led them and their peers to the United States. I couldn’t help but think of their modern day equivalents being forced out of their homes, separated from their families, and fleeing into the unknown. My grandparents’ descendants in this regard are not fellow Jews, but the Muslim and Christian families fleeing the war zones of the Middle East. These families, like my own three-quarters of a century ago, are being displaced and murdered brutally and unjustifiably. And now it appears that the United States’ official policy will be to turn our back on them and eliminate the sliver of hope they may still hold.
As Jews, we as a people know better than most the consequences of indifference when nations turn inwards. When we most needed the United States and other nations to open its doors to us, those doors were shut, contributing in part to the need for today’s holiday. Many of the same arguments used to condemn today’s refugees to death were made against our ancestors. Then, like now, there was a domestic focus on preserving American jobs for Americans. Then, like now, American Firsters spoke of the radical influence of Jews, that we were communists and socialists whose views were incompatible with American values. Then, like now, opponents to open doors spoke about inviting violence and insurrectionists into American borders by allowing Jews to seek refuge in this country. Were these fears justified? And did they warrant condemning so many to death?
The answer is undoubtedly a resounding “no.” In my experience, refugees are some of the most patriotic, industrious, and committed Americans. The list of Holocaust survivors who ultimately came to this country and made significant contributions is long and distinguished. Think of the great building families of North Jersey that helped develop the modern suburb. Closer to home, consider the founder of Vishay Intertechnology, a distant relative of my Zadie, who built a world-class corporation. And, beyond the greatest financial successes, look to the scores of families who have made America their home, instilling in their children deep appreciation and commitment to our country’s values. There was no proliferation of pro-communist violence or degradation of American values when the United States finally opened its doors to refugees. While there are always outliers, families of refugees, like my own, embrace this country because we know the alternative.
Our personal connection to the refugee experience makes it essential that we stand up and speak for today’s refugees. Turning our back to them is not only antithetical to our values, but also our security interests. How can we effectively combat radicalization when refugee children see us as indifferent? How can we ask citizens of a foreign country to be the translators and aides to our armed forces if we won’t protect them and their families when they are hunted precisely because they helped us? Keeping our doors open today is an investment in our future. No wall, physical or otherwise, can hide us from the world, and our role in it.
As a father, I value the safety of my children and community as much as the next. But Jews know the awful consequences when policy is based on fear. That is why, while we must say “Never Forget,” we must also choose “Never Again.”
Jonathan Spells Krause is a lawyer in Philadelphia, serves on the Executive Board of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, and is a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project. The views expressed are solely his own.