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Why Refugees’ Plight Is Personal for Me — and All Jews

They come by the thousands now. Day after day, night after night. By sea and overland. They have been coming for far longer than just this summer, but suddenly, in the past few weeks, in their tremendous numbers and their family units, their presence is finally seen. They are body to body in Keleti station in Budapest, arriving by trainloads packed to the ceilings at Vienna’s Westbahnhof and Munich, navigating the waters of the Adriatic and the Mediterranean by dinghies and inflatable rafts, their lives so horrific at home that they are willing to risk everything.

The last time Europe saw a crisis like this, it was our families on those ships and streets and trains.

Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s former chief rabbi, wrote in the Guardian on September 5: “I used to think that the most important line in the Bible was ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Then I realized that it is easy to love your neighbor because he or she is usually quite like yourself. What is hard is to love the stranger, one whose color, culture or creed is different from yours. That is why the command ‘Love the stranger because you were once strangers’ resonates so often throughout the Bible. It is summoning us now.”

Image by Getty Images

The idea of the stranger among us summons us Jews in particular, because for so many of us it was we who were strangers; it was our own families that were turned away during the Holocaust. We spend hours debating what Franklin Roosevelt knew, what Winston Churchill knew, and when they knew it. They had plausible deniability, for a time. It was conceivable not to know. The images came much later.

We discuss what might have been done if. If one more border had opened. If one more ship had been sent. We parse the texts of State Department memoranda, revealed by the Freedom of Information Act. We look at the BBC transcripts that show what reporters knew and when they knew it.

In the summer of 1941 the United States decided that refugees were too risky to help. “U.S. Ruling Cuts Off Means of Escape for Many in Reich,” The New York Times bleated. The ruling in question dictated that no one could leave if he or she were leaving behind a family member — America feared fifth columns. Shipping companies were advised that refugees who already held spots on ships were likely not to be using them. New seats, new ships, were unnecessary.

Desperation in Europe was overwhelming. Already, the previous August (as professor Richard Breitman of American University published in his book “Refugees and Rescue”), a representative of the American Friends Service Committee in Vienna had noted: “There is absolutely no chance for anyone, except in most unusual cases. FDR doesn’t want any more aliens from Europe…. Day after day, men and women just sat at my desk and sobbed. They are caught and crushed, and they know it.”

All that summer, my grandfather’s girlfriend, Valy, wrote to him from Berlin. He had escaped two years earlier; she was still filled with hope for her own refugee dreams.

July 6, 1940. My beloved only one, my boy! You will be with me in this world! This one sentence in your last letter stays with me all the time, wherever I am; I can hear it, see it and feel it. Always! When I am doing what I’ve been doing all these days, always your words — “you will be with me” — are comfort and torture at the same time, because of the question: WHEN will I be with you? Please tell me, beloved, when? I do not know the answer, and the consulate has only a vague idea of 1–2 years, meaning an eternity, unimaginable, inconceivable — equal to a hundred years to me, who must be with you within the shortest imaginable period of time, right now and immediately.

For Valy and her countless counterparts, policy and humanitarian ideals ran counter to each other, if the latter existed at all. It was all too easy not to see her and the thousands like her. In Vienna, my grandfather’s half-brother agreed to send his son away on his own; his daughters then escaped by foot to Paris and London. He remained behind and was murdered, as was his wife. The last letters from both were from 1941, filled with anguish. But even then, those at home weren’t exactly certain what was happening.

Now, however, our Twitter and Facebook feeds are filled with resolute marchers, inundated by images of regular people armed with smartphones and digital cameras, documenting the human flood.

It is the children that catch us. Their eyes round, their faces tired or hidden behind a parent’s legs. They are asleep on their parents’ shoulders, they walk beside them or are strapped to their bellies, legs dangling, as their mothers or fathers stride ever forward. They are far younger than the Syrian conflict so many of them flee. They have been trapped the entirety of their young lives, and now we watch them, by the hundreds, as they seek refuge. And the images keep coming.

For Jews, this time of digital inundation has come during the Hebrew month of Elul, a time of stocktaking, soul-searching, self-examination. Might we not see it as a moment of global stocktaking, global soul-searching, global self-examination? With children washing up on shores of tourist destinations, and refugees piled into European train stations?

Some small bright spots are starting to appear. Individuals in Austria and Macedonia and Hungary and Germany, bearing food and clothing and well wishes, shoes and cars. And yet a bottle of water and a piece of fruit are not a policy. Thousands more are coming. Their conflicts are unending; we have taken far too long to address them. We are terribly late. Europe has barely begun to attend to those arriving. Our own leaders have barely said a word.

This is personal to me, as someone who has spent the past few years writing a book that had me weeping over children torn from parents, or sent alone without their parents, into freedom if they were lucky, or into death if they were not. The world did not see us clearly then.

We cannot claim, now, not to see. We cannot claim not to know. The question is what we do with our knowledge.

Sarah Wildman is the author of “Paper Love: Searching for the Girl My Grandfather Left Behind” and a Forward contributing editor.

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