There is so much to take in at Israel’s Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, that even visiting several times is insufficient to absorb all the stories it has to tell.
The most vivid memory I have of my visits is the section on how the world responded to Jewish immigration before and during the Holocaust. Though I’d learnt much about the Holocaust going to a Jewish school and heard countless stories from survivors, somehow my consciousness had been evaded by an essential truth of the Holocaust. For whatever reason, I was under the mistaken impression that if only the world had known what was happening early enough, perhaps it wouldn’t have happened.
At Yad Vashem, I first came to the realisation that this was a fallacy. There was a section about the 1938 Evian Conference, convened in France to discuss the plight of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. At that early time, before Kristallnacht had occurred or Hitler had conceived his Final Solution – and despite his then-willingness to deport Jews to countries willing to take them – the world’s leaders were unable to muster the moral fortitude to save Jewish refugees from their horrific fate.
Etched on a wall at Yad Vashem in large letters is a quote from Australia’s representative at that time, Trade Minister, Sir Thomas White. His rationale for Australia not wanting to take in Jewish refugees? “As we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.”
A few years after my visit to Yad Vashem, I joined a meeting of young Jewish leaders from around the world at the AJC (American Jewish Committee) Global Forum, a large-scale conference organised by one of the world’s leading Jewish advocacy organisations. There, the AJC’s effervescent and remarkable Executive Director, David Harris, told us why the AJC existed. He told us the story of the MS St Louis, which attempted to carry 908 Jewish refugees from Germany to the shores of the US, Canada and Cuba, all of whom turned them away, forcing them to return to Europe where many of them perished.
January 27, this past Friday, was the UN’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On Twitter, I noticed an account called the ‘St Louis Manifest’ had been set up to tweet names and photos of those passengers turned away by the US who were subsequently murdered by the Nazis.
I thought instantly back to David Harris at the Washington Hilton, telling us that the AJC were determined to ensure that never again would they be unable to convince the authorities in the land of the free and home of the brave, to provide refuge to an MS St Louis. Back then, in 2014, it was easy to be inspired and buoyed by his assurances.
Today, a week into the Trump administration, that inspiration turns to horror. On the world’s day to remember the Holocaust, President Trump signed an executive order to discriminate against refugees and citizens alike from seven Muslim-majority countries. US citizens, green card holders and visa holders – all of whom have passed stringent security vetting – are being turned away by the very same country that blocked the MS St Louis. Refugees with visas and plane tickets denied boarding. US citizens detained on arrival at US airports. Others travelling abroad, with jobs, families and pets in the US, are now unable to return home.
Thousands around the country are protesting around airports. Taxi drivers are on strike. Lawyers are working to file emergency injunctions. It is a cruel and abhorrent law, shocking the public and the world – despite the fact that it was foreshadowed in Trump’s presidential campaign months ago. It is all the worse that it was enacted on a day supposed to be epitomised by the phrase “Never Again”. Never before has “Never Again” sounded so hollow.
In something of an ironic twist, earlier that day, the White House’s Holocaust Remembrance Day statement had omitted any mention of Jewish people, six million of whom were murdered by the Nazis. Though many have suggested it a slight on Jewish suffering, perhaps it is much more serious than that –a greater attempt to dehumanise the Holocaust, to abstract it from its victims and turn it into some sterile historical event to acknowledge without reflection. Without mentioning the six million Jews, we needn’t ponder how and why they came to find themselves victims of such an evil, racist genocide.
It is the inverse reaction to the tendency by some to make the Holocaust so unique and incomparable that, though we must look back on it with horror and compassion, we must not ponder any lessons it might have for today.
‘Never Again’ is meaningless if it cannot be translated into compassion for today’s victims of persecution, discrimination and genocide. The memory of the Holocaust should not have us simply waiting for another one. ‘Never Again’ can only be meaningful if we fight from the earliest warning signs of such evils. There may never be another Holocaust, but there will continue to be injustice and abject cruelty if we allow it. And, certainly, there will be and already is genocide around the world which we cannot ignore.
Trump’s immigration policy means that some of today’s most persecuted and victimised people are denied the safehaven they need to survive. It makes a sizeable religious group wary of being denied their civil rights and ability to be judged equally to others. It makes it all the more likely that the world’s luckiest nations will continue to look inwards while suffering and evil persist elsewhere. Jews around the world must know how dangerous that is. We know it from experience.
Many Jewish groups, the AJC included, have condemned Trump’s immigration decree. They promised that if the MS St Louis ever showed up at American shores again, they would not be powerless to stop it this time around. I hope they’re right. The world’s shores are flooded with St Louises, and once again, doors are being shut in the faces of those who need refuge the most.