In 1939, before World War II had begun, 937 passengers boarded a ship called the St. Louis to escape the coming genocide, foretold by increasingly harsh laws against Jews and the hatred on display on Kristallnacht (night of broken glass). Destined for Cuba, most of the passengers had legally obtained Cuban visas hoping that eventually they might migrate to America. The passengers were shocked to learn that Cuba would not let them disembark, having canceled their visas. Now filled with “undocumented” refugees, the ship sought landing in America and Canada and was refused. Despite authorities knowing what fate awaited these passengers should they return to Europe, they were told the law was the law. There were quotas restricting German/Austrian Jewish refugees. They were sent back to be slaughtered.
This story came to mind when a Facebook friend posted a meme comparing her family (two Jewish refugees who were within the quota) and today’s immigrants. The meme extolled those who followed the law, assimilated and got no assistance from our government to those the meme claims don’t follow our laws, get government aid, and “spit on our values.” Yeesh!
Let’s start with the law. In 1938, 68% of Americans said that they didn’t want Jewish refugees from Germany or Austria to be allowed in the United States. That number only changed slightly after Kristallnacht. Asked whether America should admit 10,000 Jewish refugees, 61% said no. Back then, people cited recovering from the Great Depression as a reason not to help refugees. My Facebook friend cited COVID as the reason not to admit refugees today.
At this point, someone is feverishly typing a comment condemning me for comparing anything to the Holocaust. I’ve checked the rule book and as the Jewish son of an American soldier who carried the dust of Dachau home on his boots, who stood in a bookstore with my husband as my father told us the names and crimes of each of the Nazis he spotted in a book about World War II, and who held my father’s hand as he cried out because, plagued by dementia, he thought German marching bands were outside his apartment, I think I am included in the quota.
Today there are millions of people around the world trying to escape their own holocausts, some fleeing actual genocide, many fleeing starvation, and yes, some simply trying to improve a dismal lot in life. And we still have quotas. Those who show up at our borders and say “please give me asylum,” who are not immediately sent back to their home countries become “documented” “legal” immigrants. They are participating in a system based on law. Processing most claims takes years. After six months, they’re allowed to work and pay taxes. That’s the law.
I accompanied one woman on her journey. She had been targeted for assassination because of her political activism. Before she fled, she was raped and mutilated by a group of men who were angry that she had spoken out against female genital mutilation. They told her that the next time they came back they would kill her. She ran and found her way to the United States seeking asylum. Our government fought against her in court until finally, testimony from a psychiatrist who specialized in torture and trauma convinced the lawyers and the judge that she was telling the truth. Her holocaust was over. Our values of compassion and the rule of law won the day. We all cried tears of joy that day, no spitting.
My Facebook friend’s friends decry refugees getting government assistance. Yes, some get food stamps and stipends, especially during those first six months when they’re not allowed to work. In some states, they get Medicaid. I believe in my heart that most readers of this column would think that was a good idea, especially since you know that once they’re allowed to, these folks will work their tails off. To quote a line from Hamilton, “Immigrants, we get it done!”
I think I’ve covered “the law,” “spitting on our values,” and “getting government assistance.” Let me finally cover “assimilation.” What exactly does that mean? We call America a “melting pot” but does that mean that we all melt into some particular goo that is uniquely “American?” No. Instead, America represents something unique in the world, wild diversity. Our music, art, food, philosophies, politics, literature, architecture, religions and languages surround us with a cacophony of sights and sounds and smells and ideas that help us flourish as a nation. When we are at our best, we are that “shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere.” There you go, a card-carrying progressive quoting Ronald Reagan in the “San Mateo” Daily Journal where readers can have a field day sharing hundreds of ways I’m wrong! What’s more American than that?
Craig Wiesner is the co-owner of Reach And Teach, a book, toy and cultural gift shop on 25th Avenue in San Mateo.