Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rescuer or Bystander? Syrian Refugees and Unlearned Lessons from the Holocaust

Originally, I wanted to write a piece encouraging teachers to use the resources of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in instruction (as part of what I indicated a few weeks ago would be a series on teaching resources that I like). Recent world events have changed the post a bit, but I am still linking as many USHMM resources to this piece as I can to encourage fellow teachers to examine and use them in class as much as possible. And in the spirit of Giving Tuesday, please consider donating either to the USHMM or to one of the fine charities linked in this piece.

One of my most prized possessions is a letter from Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to my students. Teachers who teach Wiesel’s books love him for many reasons, one of the key reasons being that, when students write him, he often writes back. In 2012, he wrote my kids back.

I cried when I opened the letter. I ran through the hallways of my school showing it to anyone and everyone. I made color copies of the letter for all of the students in the class. I placed a framed copy at each of their desks for them the next morning. I also gave one to our principal, who hung it in the main office. It was one of my happiest days at school.

Each year, in English 10, I use Wiesel’s memoir, Night, as the focus of one of our conceptual units. The units for English 10 are Cultures, Ethics, Movement, and Cycles. The book works well in any of those units, but my favorite place for it is in Ethics. The many ethical dilemmas surrounding World War II are immediately engaging for students. Those lessons are most interesting when the students focus not on the Nazi perpetrators and the horrors of their behaviors but rather when they focus on the bystanders, the people who knew what was happening and did not act to stop it.

My 10th graders recently finished reading the book, and as they read the first few chapters, I showed them clips from an Academy Award-winning documentary about Jewish children whose fate was different, the children of the Kindertransport.

I am always surprised that the Kindertransport remains a Holocaust footnote for most folks because the lesson that it teaches is perhaps the most important lesson we have to learn from historical tragedies: We can do something. In 1938, horrified by the events of Kristallnacht, citizens in Great Britain actively sought to save Jewish children from the Third Reich. They organized a life-saving rescue effort in which Jewish families in Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland were allowed to send their children to the U.K. to live as foster children with British families or to live in youth hostels.

German Jewish refugee children from the Kindertransport, upon arrival in Harwich, UK, December 12, 1938. Source: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (www.ushmm.org)

Sure, politics reared its ugly head in the organizing of this endeavor: Only children were allowed to go because their parents (most of whom later died in the Holocaust after sending their children to England) were viewed as potential job-stealers in Britain. Also, rich children were typically the ones rescued because of the significant fees levied on their families by the Reich. Nonetheless, Great Britain did what no other country did during that time: It made the safety of the Europe’s children its business early on, it acted quickly, and it saved nearly 10,000 lives before Britain’s entry into World War II in 1939 ended the transports in 1940.

In 1938 and 1939, the organizers of the Kindertransport, including British hero Nicholas Winton, approached other countries, including the United States, to ask for their help in these rescues. No dice. In fact, the U.S. government responded that to participate would mean separating children from their families and that such an action was an affront to “the laws of God.” (I am not kidding.) The real reasons, of course, were the United States’ longstanding paranoia about immigrants (which continues today and is so ironic for citizens who extravagantly celebrated their ancestors’ immigration to the U.S. last week on Thanksgiving) and its also-longstanding anti-Semitism. 

The U.S. government (specifically the U.S. armed forces) acted heroically on the U.S. entry into the war in 1941, and we participated fully in liberating concentration camps at war’s end (my own grandfather was a soldier in that liberation), but we should feel shame for the action that our government did not take earlier. Our unwillingness to assist the Kindertransport coupled with the internment of Japanese Americans during wartime shows that the United States government did not always act heroically during that era. In fact, we sometimes acted egregiously, perhaps even unforgivably. We could have been better than that—better people, a better nation. We could have done more. But we did not.

Japanese American child en route to an internment camp, 1942. Source: Library of Congress (www.loc.gov)

If U.S. history has taught us anything, it has taught us that we never really learn from U.S. history. The specifics of historical incidents may change, and the bad guys’ names may change, but we typically make the same mistakes over and over again. We tend to be so mired in our day-to-day worries, the in-the-moment politics of an issue, our own prejudices (prejudices that we rationalize as completely different from the prejudices of previous generations because, well, we’re us, and we…could never be the bad guys?), that we don’t see when we are going down the same historical road.

For example, how does a nation that remembers Vietnam end up in a war in Iraq? How does a nation that remembers the stupidity of John F. Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith being an issue in his presidential campaign end up with a candidate now saying that people of the Muslim faith should never be president? How does a nation that knows how genocide starts refuse—so many times—to stop it from happening again? I don’t know why we don’t learn from history, but I do know this: we could learn from history. We can do something.

Here is a list of official, documented genocides in which we have dragged our heels or decided to “sit this one out” since the Holocaust:
  • 1975: Cambodia (U.S. response: “Let’s get the hell out and stay the hell out.”)
  • 1994: Rwanda (U.S. response: “Ew. We don’t want to get involved in that, so let’s cover up the fact that we even know it’s a genocide. No one will notice, right?” Then later, “Oh, sorry.”)
  • 1995: Bosnia (U.S. response: “Not our problem,” then “It’s the U.N.’s problem,” then “OK, now we get it. The Rwanda thing made us look bad. So yeah, OK, our problem.”)
  • 2003: Sudan (U.S. response: mostly, “Huh? Where? Oh. Let’s send resources to the Gulf region instead.”)
[For folks who want to interpret a political slant to this post, please note that two of these genocides occurred on the watch of Republican presidents, and two occurred on the watch of a Democratic president. This is bipartisan shame.]

Then there are other world crises, crises within countries with historic ethnic and/or religious tensions that escalate to worldwide notice. We’re often not sure whether an actual genocide is occurring, but even when the signs are bad (very, very bad), we are slow (or, again, completely unwilling) to intervene.

Honestly, how much do we care? Some Americans understandably express concern about the U.S. involving itself too much in the business of other sovereign nations. The complication is that, as the sole remaining superpower in the world, if we are going to “have our way” with other nations economically and strategically (the elements of “superpowerness” that our government seems never to shy away from), then we do not get to look the other way when governments spiral into the organized moral chaos of demagoguery that leads to genocide. We are the world’s default, de facto leader in countless situations, and we have a moral imperative to act like one.

Right now, our president has asked our nation to save 10,000 Syrian lives, the same number of Jewish children that Great Britain saved from Hitler and a tiny fraction of the millions fleeing Syria. My Facebook and Twitter feeds, like the national mood, are overwhelmed with posts related to this issue. As with the U.S. response to the Kindertransport in 1938, some of those posts are fueled by love and concern, but most are fueled by fear and some by straight-up ugliness.

Some folks will feel uncomfortable with me making comparisons of the Syrian refugee situation to Nazi Germany, but I urge you to examine the history of the early days of the Third Reich. It’s the same rhetoric, the same type of knee-jerk nationalism we see in situations like the current one involving Syrian refugees. We have presidential candidates trying to out-muscle-flex each other in advocating the use of torture and even in suggesting that we should identify and surveil Muslims in this country solely because of their religious affiliation. Casting all Muslims into the role of villain has not only become commonplace; it's become acceptable in a nation that touts its appreciation of religious freedom at every opportunity. What’s happening? What is this?

In my view, it's the same thing it's always been: it’s the same completely and utterly hateful bullshit from people who are willing to exploit longstanding religious and racial prejudices to get elected. It has worked for many a ruthless politician-turned-dictator, and it may be working now. To our knowledge, this situation with Syrian refugees is not yet genocide, but it bears more than a passing resemblance to how genocide begins. Historically, this rhetoric (and the climate that the rhetoric creates) is what the early stages of genocide look like. 

But we do have a choice. We can choose to protect human beings instead of sacrificing them. We can provide safety to people whose lives are in danger, or we can continue to foster a misguided illusion of safety from the evils of the world that, in reality, only escalates violence. If you choose to save lives, please consider
  • donating to one of the many organizations trying to stop this nightmare in its tracks. One of my new favorite charities is the International Rescue Committee because they assist Syrian refuges in settling in the United States. I hope that I would not have been an American who said no to the Kindertransport, and I won’t be that kind of American now.
  • using the resources of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in your classrooms, church organizations, and community activities. Their resources (both online and at the museum) are excellent and can help to explain these world events in a way that encourages action—but not the kind of action that results in targeting religious or ethnic groups for mistreatment.
  • using social media as a vehicle for compassion and understanding instead of arrogance and prejudice. I love social media, but I have nearly quit Facebook so many times over the past month. Instead of giving up on it, though, I’m going to post this piece and encourage action that values the lives of human beings. All human beings.
Every year I teach Elie Wiesel and Night. In those lessons, I have an annual nag telling me to be brave, to stand up to bullies in all forms. Those lessons tell me not to allow people to target and mistreat others and then try to call it “necessary” or “justifiable” or in the interest of “safety.” It is easy to get wrapped up in the moment, in the distrust of people whose cultures are mysterious to us, in the scorching rhetoric of ambitious candidates who care more about inflaming the public than serving the nation. It’s easy to do, but I simply refuse, and I hope you do, too. We can do something, so this time, let’s do it.

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