As a member of several second-generation Holocaust survivor groups, I’ve become used to posts evoking strong reactions. The most controversial posts quickly devolve into emotional debates about who is “more Jewish” or whether Jews who fled Germany and Poland before 1939 can be called Holocaust “survivors.” But I have never seen a more mean-spirited, divisive discussion than one I witnessed this week on the separation of parents and children at our country’s borders.
The original post included a shared status from someone not in the group: “Watching ICE load children into freight trains. Let. That. Sink. In. Freight Trains,” and a comment from the poster, a group member, that the parallels with how the Nazis transported Jews are undeniable.
That’s when all hell broke loose. Some group members insisted that there was NO parallel, and drawing one minimized the Holocaust and desecrated the memory of those who perished. “They’re not taking these children to their deaths!” these members argued. “They’re in the country illegally. It’s their own parents’ fault that this is happening,” they said when further pressed.
While I am always surprised and saddened when anyone uses the illegality argument and insists on calling the victims “illegals” or “immigrants” rather than the more appropriate words “refugees” or “asylum seekers,” I was — and still am — supremely shocked at the indifference and outright mean-spiritedness exhibited by people whose parents were refugees themselves. Some of us had relatives or family friends on the SS St. Louis, a ship full of refugees which was famously turned away by the U.S., and most of the passengers became victims of the Holocaust once they were sent back to Germany. How can one be so heartless when one’s family history also involves the traumatic separation from loved ones and fleeing one’s country to find a better life in America?
As a 2G who wrote a book about transmitted trauma from the Holocaust and who now works with clients to heal from trauma that they didn’t even experience firsthand, I also see the seeds of yet another traumatic event that will result in intergenerational trauma passed down to future generations of Mexican and Central American families. Thanks to the inhumane policies of the United States government, the parents and children who are being separated at the border will be forever scarred, emotionally for sure and possibly physically, too. The children’s future children will carry the trauma in their genes as well.
For those who say, “How dare you compare this to the Holocaust!” I say, “Yes, I dare.” Because the emotional and psychological damage of this trauma won’t stop with those actually crossing the border and being taken into custody. It has nothing to do with the children’s destination or the intent of the separation; it’s about the enduring effects of this traumatic experience.
The pain inflicted on the victims of the Trail of Tears didn’t stop when Native Americans settled in a new location. The recurring nightmares suffered by the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn’t stop when the war was over, nor did the anxieties felt by Japanese held in internment camps. The trauma that victims of other genocides and wars, such as in Armenia, Cambodia and Vietnam, didn’t stop when the survivors resettled elsewhere, and the survivors of the Syrian and Myanmar genocides won’t stop after the refugees find new homes.
We are living in a country that is intentionally traumatizing children for political purposes. President Trump views this policy as “leverage” to get his pet project, a border wall, built. He’s effectively holding these innocent children hostage. Innocent children who are crying for their mothers and fathers in detention centers where those in charge speak a different language and are not allowed to comfort them. How far we have fallen.