What If They Had Stopped My Family At The Border?

Commentary
By ZP Heller 9-18-2018

When my family left Poland 70 years ago this fall, they left illegally. This was 1948, three years after the Holocaust, during which the Nazis decimated Poland’s Jewish population, killing over 3 million people. The few hundred thousand Polish Jews who survived, which included my grandparents Sam and Bernice, continued to face rampant anti-Semitism, violent attacks, pogroms, and economic deprivation in their home country.

My grandparents packed up their meager possessions, dressed my mother Sylvia — who was one at the time — warmly in a fur coat, and left the Polish town of Szczecin near the German border.

They left on Yom Kippur — a day of atonement traditionally observed by fasting and attending synagogue. It would have been unheard of for my grandparents to work on Yom Kippur, let alone embark upon such a life-altering journey. So why did Sam and Bernice choose the holiest of Jewish holidays to flee? They left on this holiday because didn’t have the proper papers to leave Poland, and they didn’t want to draw attention from the authorities.

Sam had lied about his age after World War II because he didn’t want to be conscripted into the Polish army. He was 13 when the war began. Sam lived for most of the war in the Lodz Ghetto, not far from where he grew up but cut off from the outer world by barbed wire fences and Nazi guards. When Sam’s three older brothers fled to the Russian front at the onset of the war, Sam was tasked with caring for his older sister and their mother.

One day in January 1942, Sam returned to their apartment in the ghetto to discover his mother had died of sickness and starvation. He had to arrange for her funeral in the Jewish cemetery, which by then had a three-day wait for burials because the ghetto’s mortality rate had skyrocketed. His mother’s death was bookended by mass deportations, as the Nazis rounded up tens of thousands of Jews and sent them from a train station near the cemetery to the Chelmno extermination camp. In the months after Sam’s mother died, he used to visit her grave frequently because the cemetery was relatively quiet, and he could rest for brief periods.

Sam survived the Holocaust by working as a slave in a series of labor camps and concentration camps, including Czestochowa, Buchenwald, and Sonnenburg, where the Nazis forced him to build V-2 rockets. He never saw his sister again after he left the ghetto in 1944. Yet when he returned to Lodz after the war, he saw someone standing outside a hospital whose head was wrapped in bandages except for his nose. He instantly recognized the man as one of his brothers. Incredibly, all three of Sam’s brothers had survived the war by serving in the Russian army.

By 1948, his brothers had fled Poland again, this time for the displaced-persons camp of Bergen-Belsen with the ultimate goal of emigrating to America. Desperate to keep his remaining relatives together, Sam wanted to follow his brothers. Bernice, whose own family had left Poland for Russia when Germany invaded in 1939 and spent the war traveling through Siberia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, understood Sam’s desire to preserve their family. She also viewed America as a better option than Israel, where her parents had gone after the war.

sylvia_in_wentorf_1.jpg

ZP's mother, Sylvia, playing in the dirt in the displaced-persons camp of Wentorf.

The trip from Szczecin to Bergen-Belsen should have taken less than a day by train or car. But because traveling through East Germany was out of the question, my family took a circuitous and highly perilous path through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, and finally into West Germany. They took trains whenever possible, traveled by car whenever someone offered a ride, and walked whenever they had to. At one point while in Prague, completely exhausted and not knowing a soul in the city, they rested in the Old Jewish Cemetery. A man walking past them whispered “Amcha? Amcha?” The Hebrew word for “your people.” He put them in touch with someone willing to drive them to the Austrian border. The total trip took about six weeks.

My family wound up living for years in Bergen-Belsen and the displaced-persons camp of Wentorf, before they were finally able to leave Europe in December 1951. My mother remembers the enormous troop ship they sailed on, the U.S.S. General Harry Taylor, and some of the kind people they met when they arrived at Ellis Island, who gave her a green plastic turtle and a plaid quilt for her doll. She remembers moving to Philadelphia, so Sam could continue to remain close with his brothers who had settled there.

My mother recalls Sam working hard as a machinist while he put himself through school at night, first for his GED and then to become a mechanical engineer. And how proud they all were when, roughly five years after they first arrived—around the time that they had enough money to buy their first home in this country—she and her parents became U.S. citizens. But my family’s “American story” almost didn’t happen.

Recently my mother told me that if the authorities had stopped her family at any point as they fled from Poland, she would have been separated from her parents. They would have survived the horrors of the Holocaust only to face the fresh hell of a Communist regime. That image immediately brought to mind the heart-rending photos from earlier this year of over 2,600 children, from infants to teenagers, being forcibly separated from their parents as they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border due to the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy on immigration.

While the ensuing media coverage, public protests, and political backlash eventually prompted Trump to end a policy that was tantamount to child abuse, the government has been deliberately slow in reuniting many of these children with their parents. Meanwhile, the fate of thousands of migrants seeking safety in our country remains uncertain.

The United States has historically had a humanitarian obligation to protect refugees seeking asylum. My family’s immigration was only possible because the U.S. changed its restrictive immigration laws regarding Jewish refugees after the war and worked with international allies to address a global refugee crisis. In fact, just six months before my family immigrated in 1951, the United Nations outlined its Refugee Convention.

This monumental document defined what it meant to be a refugee, in addition to the concepts of granting asylum and non-refoulement, which specifies that refugees shouldn’t be returned to countries where their lives are in danger. It's become the basis for international law regarding the rights and treatment of refugees. This is what the Trump administration is now violating.

Today, the majority of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are from Central American countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. They are often families or unaccompanied children fleeing from gangs, domestic violence, and poverty. Yet, Trump falsely portrays them all as gang members trying to “pour in and infest our country.” He and his administration dare to question the suffering and persecution endured by immigrants seeking asylum, denying their requests or detaining them indefinitely. Just last week, The New York Times reported the Trump administration continues to detain 12,800 migrant children in detention centers throughout the country.

Trump’s xenophobic, racist demagoguery helped him become president, and he has made the inhumane treatment of immigrants central to his mission. He issued an executive order banning immigrants from countries with predominantly Muslim populations, cozied up to dictators with abhorrent human rights records like North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and pulled the U.S. out of the U.N. Human Rights Council—all within the last two years. And though Trump suffered a setback when the world witnessed the effects of his zero-tolerance policy, he appears undaunted in attempting to prevent asylum seekers from entering this country.

On this Yom Kippur, we should pause and reflect. Think about the waves of immigrants who have sought asylum in this country, from my family and hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants fleeing from persecution in postwar Europe, to the thousands of Central American families seeking shelter from violence today. Think about how far Trump has gone in just two years to undermine the humanitarian basis for our country’s asylum laws. And then look forward, to this November’s election and the next two years, as we consider our future.

ZP Heller is currently writing a book about his family's immigration past. He received his MFA in creative nonfiction from The New School, and has been published in The Huffington Post, UPI, Columbia Journal, The Nation, The American Prospect, AlterNet, and The Philadelphia Inquirer, among other publications. He lives in Philadelphia with his family.

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