On Holocaust Remembrance Day Friday, I went to synagogue and watched as a survivor of the Holocaust took to the bimah. As this tall man with grey hair, decked out in a three-piece tweed suit, lit the Shabbat candles with his shaking, veined hands, I was moved to tears. His accent was English, but traces of his Czech lilt emerged every so often as he spoke, making me think of my great-grandfather and his contemporaries—the lilt they must have had when they spoke English.
I’d never seen the synagogue so crowded; there were so many of us. I’ve watched documentaries, I’ve met survivors. But there was something about being in a sacred space with dozens of other Jews, in such close proximity, watching the Shabbat candles burn and hearing a voice from our collective past.
A hush fell over the room as he began to speak. He told us how he’d traveled with hundreds of others on Kinder-Transport from Prague to London, age 6, on the last train to make it to London. The other trains were all stopped from running, for reasons that are both political and incomprehensible, and the children left behind in Prague perished.
This man now devotes his working days to helping refugee children from Syria and other war-torn countries find their way to freedom in the U.K, U.S, and Canada, with a large amount of success. He stressed that the Holocaust began with words — persistent, damaging, racist language which eventually pervaded society and became normalized. He told us that when we begin to witness the normalization of racial prejudice (and it all starts with words, he warned), we must speak up and take action. The bystanders who watched and did nothing are the most guilty, we were told.
That same day, our president signed an order closing American borders to refugees. This is a xenophobic, racist, and anti-humanitarian decision. It reeks of the decisions made by many countries during the Second World War. Just as Holocaust survivors hurriedly got their papers in order and waited for the go ahead to flee to safety, refugee families across the world are doing the same thing today. These refugees are in search of a safe place to call home, and today they wait in limbo in small rooms in our airports, while throngs of us breeze through passport control, holding on to our little blue passports, unaware of the families behind the wall. These refugees are not so far removed from our great-grandparents. They are our past and our future. On Friday, there were refugees in the process of gaining entry, with all their papers in hand, who were completely stopped in their tracks.
I can’t help but think about my own grandparents. When they came through Ellis Island, weary, America gave Rachel and Jacob Kramer, who’d emigrated from Romania and Russia, the freedom to start again, to be who they were without fear of persecution. My great-grandparents, like so many others, were given permission to make America theirs, to contribute to society, to enrich it, to start over and build a new life. I’m part of a generation of Jewish-Americans who, admittedly, grew up taking certain freedoms for granted, because such freedoms had never been called into question during my lifetime. I now feel I have no choice but to question the sanctity of those freedoms.
In synagogue Friday night, the rabbi told us: “The Torah tells us not once, but 36 times, that we should love the stranger. How we treat strangers reveals the truth about who we are as human beings.” As we remember the mass genocide of our people who did nothing wrong, we must have the courage to stand up for those being persecuted in their home countries and denied entry to ours. They’ve done nothing wrong.
We must stand up and fight against these ridiculous rulings, rulings which can have truly tragic consequences.
America, the brave. Now is our time to be brave. I’m channeling the spirit of my great-grandparents: I’m taking action. I’m speaking up.