jewish-refugee-stories

The story of the refugee is a fundamental part of Jewish history.

It starts with Abraham the Hebrew — “Avraham Ha’Ivri,” literally “Abraham From The Other Side” — when God tells him that one day his children will be slaves in Egypt, in Genesis 15: “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs…”

Later, we are enjoined to remember that experience — to engrave it onto our hearts, into our daily dealings with the other: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus, 22:20. And just a few verses later, in the next chapter once again — “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” The text goes so far as to imply, in Leviticus 19, that the treatment of the stranger is equivalent to recognizing God: “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God.”

Perhaps the text must remind us multiple times (36, to be exact) that we were once strangers, because it understands innately that human nature is to forget. Especially as we grow privileged and powerful, as we grow comfortable in our new lands, perhaps the many commandments to love the stranger — ruthlessly repeated again and again — show just how much we need that reminder of our past.

From Hitler’s Berlin to Soviet Moscow, from fundamentalist Teheran to chaos-ridden Addis-Ababa — throughout our history, and in the past century in particular, Jews have fled and sought refuge in foreign lands, desperate for the chance to live peacefully.

Ask almost any American Jew about her ancestors. “I am one-quarter Lithuanian, one-quarter Russian, and half Hungarian.” “The borders were always changing over there in Europe, you know.” “They changed our name at Ellis Island.” Decades and centuries later, our family lore as migrants becomes a central part of our identity, both individual and collective.

For some, that history appears in the privacy of kitchens and on our holiday tables. For others, it appears in our choices of profession — or in our art. And for some — it inspires them to help others seeking asylum.

Here, we have collected the stories of Jewish refugees, in honor of World Refugee Day.

Read them, share them, and tell us your story of seeking refuge by writing to us community@forward.com