I’ve been thinking about the Kindertransport a lot lately.
In 2013 I interviewed Sig Silber of Paterson, who then was a successful, well-rooted, and happy patent attorney with an engineering degree from MIT, a thriving family, and a flourishing legal practice in Clifton.
He also was a man whose mother had put him, his older brother, and their baby sister on the Kindertransport. He never saw his mother again; he and his siblings battled the trauma of that separation for all of their lives. Mr. Silber’s struggles seem to have been successful, but he was quite clear about the toll they took on him, about how that separation from his mother, and the other separations over the course of the next decade that took him from home to home as the needs of the people caring for him and the bureaucracies that lost and then found him changed him, made it harder and harder for him to attach to new people.
He stayed in Paterson long after he could have left, and everyone like him socioeconomically had left, he told me, because that’s where he ended up in this country, and “I wanted to put down roots.”
He was one of the very lucky ones. His sister, who had been seven months old when her mother had to give her up, never flourished, and died young.
That’s not surprising. The kind of trauma that comes from the separation from a parent can actively reroute a young person’s brain, scientists warn us.
I’ve often imagined what it must have felt like for parents who had to put their children on the Kindertransport, but then I make myself stop. It’s not possible to imagine that level of fear and pain, and if it were possible it would be devastating.
We are so very lucky not to have to imagine that.
But the parents who are bringing their children up to the United States’ southern border don’t have to imagine it either, because they are living it.
I know that we need immigration policies. We can’t let everyone in. But I also know that most, by far most, of the people who come to our southern border are looking to escape the violence and fear and degrading poverty of their lives. They are not at all unlike our ancestors; all were drawn by the vision of the Lady in the harbor, with her torch shining on them. They were drawn by our talk of life and hope and prosperity and vast open spaces. Of amber waves of grain.
I also know that President Trump changed the harsh policy on Wednesday, saying that now children can stay with their parents in prison as they await a hearing and likely expulsion. But I also know that this new policy will run into the Flores Act, which demands that children not be held in prison with their parents longer than 20 days, and I know that no one knows what will happen next, but whatever happens will be slow and painful. And I also know that no one knows what will happen to the 2,000 or so children (2,000 children!) who already were separated from their parents. There are no promises about quick reunification with their parents, and the system is such a jerry-built, jury-rigged hodge-podge that even finding them will be hard.
There are many other questions about immigration, even though they pale in comparison to what we’re doing with parents and children.
We need immigrants.
As much as we (we not being all of us, needless to say) talk about how immigrants take Americans’ jobs, unemployment is low now, and the jobs immigrants take are the ones Americans don’t want. They’re day laborers. They’re the guys on bikes with big bags of food, most visible when it’s roasting hot or pouring rain and their lucky customers don’t want to go out, so they do. They’re the people who kill cows and then butcher them. (Remember Aaron Rubashkin, the Agriprocessors owner whose sentence President Trump commuted? His slaughterhouse, in Iowa — not exactly right over the border — employed many undocumented foreign workers. That’s because almost no Americans want to work in such places — and the ones who do, the ones who want to kill, are the ones we really have to look out for.)
At this point, there is neither courage nor novelty in speaking out against the remarkably cruel and profoundly un-Jewish policy that has American immigrant officials taking children away from their parents. But until that practice is ended, every single one of us who has a voice must raise it.