Our nation of immigrants has been afraid of refugees before.
Jewish children with no home and, soon, no parents, were not really welcome in the United States during World War II when they were desperate to escape the Nazis.
“They told the foster mothers not to speak German or Yiddish at all. They wanted us Americanized, they didn’t want us to talk to each either,” said Herta Baitch, who was just the kind of child refugee that many Americans feared then and fear now.
This week, 27 U.S. governors and Republican presidential candidates lined up to announce their rejection of Muslim refugees from Syria. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, R, even insisted that he would not allow a “3-year-old orphan’s” entry.
Baitch was 7 when she arrived in this country — one of about 1,400 lucky children who made it to the United States at a time when we turned away at least one ship filled with hundreds of Jews running for their lives. For Baitch, 83, hearing the harsh tone of today’s conversation about refugees hurts.
“It’s a horrible reminder of the Holocaust years, when boats were turned away,” she said.
In a poll that was published in Fortune Magazine in 1938, 67.4 percent of Americans asked about allowing German, Austrian and other political refugees into the country agreed that “With conditions as they are, we should try to keep them out.”
In fact, the United States did turn them away. Most infamously, the SS St. Louis was denied port in Florida. And a quarter of the 908 Jewish refugees aboard who were returned to Europe were killed in Nazi death camps.
When the country of immigrants was closing its doors, a few organizations found ways to bring small groups of unaccompanied children to the United States, where they lived in foster homes or with distant relatives.
Baitch’s parents ended up dying in concentration camps, but her mother’s last act before she was sent to a camp was to find a woman who would take her daughter to the United States.
“It’s the children I ache for,” she said.
She understands concerns that terrorists might hide among the refugees coming here. The United States should screen adults, especially unaccompanied men, thoroughly, she said. And, in fact, the current vetting process for any refugee takes 18 to 24 months and involves background checks using digital, passport and biometric information. Different than the papers and rubberstamps of another era.
“So many times, the doors were closed to us,” she said. “They let so few children through.”
Michel Margosis and his family went from Siberia to Belgium to France to Spain as they fled the Nazis. They hid on a French farm for one year, escaped a detention camp and crossed the Pyrenees mountains.
Sound familiar to today’s headlines? See the pattern?
In the end, only Michel escaped, coming to the United States alone as a 14-year-old.
More than 70 years later, he presides over a French conversation club at his Springfield, Va., retirement community. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and worked for years as a chemist for the Food and Drug Administration. But, at 87, he has never forgotten what it feels like to be a refugee. Listening to politicians who want to block refugees in the name of safety, he said, feels “very xenophobic and very regressive.”
Eve Boden’s parents were shipped to Auschwitz, where they were killed.
She was a little girl when she was sent to a detention camp in France, where she lived in mud up to her knees for five months before a humanitarian organization rescued her.
On her 7th birthday in 1942, she came alone to a country that didn’t really want her. It was a time of American isolationism and anti-Semitism, she said. The attitudes, the fears, the conversations about refugees “were just as awful then as they are today,” said Boden, who is now 80 and lives in New York. “Back then, the British opened their arms to 10,000 children. Americans opened their arms to about 1,000,” she said.
“You lose sight of the children and the women who are struggling,” she said. “All of these migrants are escaping war. That’s what they want. Escape. Like we did.”