Circle of Responsibility

As those of us in the United States of America head into our national holiday of giving thanks, I take note of the troubles of our brethren abroad.  So many are without sufficient food, clean water, and a safe place to sleep.  Many more fear for their lives as well as Europeans who are reeling from the massacre in Paris on Friday the 13th.  

Fear brings its companion, Hysteria.  Hysteria breeds irrational behavior and I am distressed by the rants of public officials on protecting our people by limiting the freedom of those others they consider at high risk to public safety.  This country has been down this road before, especially during World War II, with the arrests and incarceration of citizens of enemy descent (see Jan J. Russell’s The Train to Crystal City: FDR’s Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America’s Only Family Internment Camp During World War II).

In the Bible, there is the curious incident of the body found at the edge of the city limits [Deuteronomy, 21:1-8], upon which the elders of the city are to atone publicly with a sin offering.  The sages say that this is to instill communal responsibility for the travesty that a stranger should die unwitnessed and unclaimed.  I was troubled by this interpretation, feeling overwhelmed by the awesome task.  With time and reflection, I now better understand that actions — both individual and institutional– impact the integration of people within society.

How many times have we read about the individual who was bullied and ignored, who later exploded in anger and vengeance?  Would that we could turn back the clock, so that someone does reach out to this person.  Could we better allocate our mental health resources to serve more people?  What if gun sales were better controlled ?  Why not try to reach out to our new neighbor, so that we could see each other as human beings?

How hard do we try to protect people from persecution for their ethnicity?  The French and the Belgians are now dealing with the legacy of decades of neglect and isolation of their Muslim aliens, who were never adopted into their national identity.  I think we’re a little better in integrating our immigrants, in part because of our pride in our heritage as a nation of immigrants. 

Let us not turn our backs on the plight of the Syrian refugees, who are fleeing from the same kind of horror that Europeans are now experiencing through the evil actions of the Islamic State.  They need a home where they’ll be welcomed, where their young will become integrated into our society, where they’ll adopt American values: this is my prayer for them.  Throughout our history, we’ve turned others of “dubious” backgrounds into loyal, law-abiding citizens and we should continue to do so with the Syrians.  Happy Thanksgiving!

Here is a letter from a former Iraqi Kurd (obtained from HIAS-PA):

My name is Ali and I served as an interpreter for the U.S. Army in Iraq for three years. In 2013, I came to Tennessee as a refugee after two years of vetting by the U.S. State Department.

I knew I had to leave Iraq in 2009 when a friend of mine, another interpreter, took a vacation in Sinjar. While he was at home, his car was blown up, killing him and two of his family members. If I stayed long after the Army left Iraq, I would have been killed too. In 2011, I returned home and began the refugee application process.

Over two years, my brothers, my wife, and my children traveled several times to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for screening. As a Kurd traveling to Baghdad, it was a dangerous for us. The airport, the hotel, and each of the checkpoints on the way to the embassy were all very dangerous. There were many interviews, tests, medical screenings, and background and security checks. They talked to family, friends, and people who employed us previously. And they did it repeatedly over two years. And then finally, on October 23rd 2013, we were approved.

 Like my family, the refugees you see on the news are leaving because it is their only chance at a better life. They leave their homes, live in a tent or on the street … maybe they find a camp. Aid and international refugee programs are the difference between life and death.

As I watch the news from my home in Tennessee, I don’t understand politicians who are trying to stop people fleeing from war from coming to the United States.

I don’t understand why they’d try to prevent Kurds, especially, from coming to America. Over twelve years in Iraq, not one American soldier was killed by a Kurd. These are good people coming from over there. The little boy who washed up on the shore in Greece, his name was Aylan and he was a Kurd who fled the violence in Syria with his family.

The people fighting ISIS alongside Americans last week in Sinjar are Kurds. They are trying to escape ISIS and they need America’s help right now.

Thank you for reading my story.

Please contact your Senators–  Robert Casey and Patrick Toomey in Pennsylvania– and tell them you support the resettlement of Iraqi and Syrian refugees who already undergo exhaustive security checks.

 

 

The Danger of Isolation

By Hannah Lee

Students of Chinese history know that a cultural giant that dominated Asia and termed itself, the Middle Kingdom, closed up its borders to foreigners during the Ming dynasty.  The Emperor Wu forbade all trade with the “barbarian” world.  The Great Wall was completed to stop invasion from the north; its sheer size makes it the only man-made structure visible from the moon.  After the year 1424, seafaring expeditions were forbidden, so China lost its prowess on the seas while European countries rose uncontested.

Japan endured its own isolationist policy under the Tokugawa shogunate from 1633–39 and remained in effect until 1853.  It attempted to keep abreast of Western technology by studying medical and other texts in the Dutch language on the small artificial island of Dejima in the bay of Nagasaki, built to confine foreign traders.

The United States had its own sad history of isolationist policies during the 1920s and 1930s as well as the tragic and cruel imprisonment of citizens of Japanese, Italian, and German descent during World War II.  [Note: check out The Train to Crystal City: FDR's Secret Prisoner Exchange Program and America's Only Family Internment Camp During World War II, by Jan Jarboe Russell.]

What we’re witnessing is a massive global migration of desperate people, fleeing violent conflict and societal upheaval.  Why are Americans talking about building walls across our northern and southern borders?  What a waste of governmental funds!  We’re a nation of immigrants that has benefitted enormously from their contributions in all sectors of society.

Last night, HIAS welcomed its first Syrian refugee family to the Philadelphia area.  This family had been waiting for four years to come to the United States.  The State Department has enacted additional guidelines for the Syrians, refusing entrance to anyone from the refugee camps, citing concern for militarization there, and with extra security precautions.

We are separated from the Middle East by the Atlantic Ocean, so we are not be in the footpaths of the desperate people.  Why not channel our concern about this crisis in helping the refugees and asylum seekers in our midst with: American acculturation, after-school homework help, mentoring the college-bound teens, and/or preparation for naturalization exams.  We are privileged to show the new arrivals the American way, the democratic way to religious freedom.  We owe this to ourselves and our ancestors, the first immigrants to this country.

Film Chat: From Swastika to Jim Crow

By Hannah Lee

On Monday, the National Museum of American Jewish History again waived its admission fee and opened its doors on a day when it is usually closed to the public, and hosted a full day of programs in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The museum’s new exhibit is “Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow,” about the experiences of Jewish refugee scholars who were driven from Europe by the Nazis who found teaching positions at black institutions in the American South of Jim Crow laws. And, in keeping with the spirit of the day, the museum organized a screening of the documentary film that inspired the exhibit, as well as a discussion with one of the filmmakers, Steven Fischler, of Pacific Street Films. Up to 900 people visited that day.

Soon after Adolf Hitler took leadership in Germany in January, 1933, the Nazi Party issued laws to ban Jewish scholarship and pedagogy. These restrictive laws had huge support in the ivied walls of academia. According to Dr. Ismar Schorsch, the former Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, students were amongst the most rabid of Nazi sympathizers. By 1940, some 2,000 German and Austrian academics had been dismissed. These members of the intelligentsia, called “mandarins” for their revered status in society, were cast out in a world where few spoke fluent English and fewer probably had manual skills.

Limited assistance came from the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced Foreign Scholars, founded in New York in 1933, which offered one-year grants to colleges to partially subsidize salaries of the refugees. While the Committee did rescue over 300 scholars from Nazi-run Europe, they were the ones with established reputations such as philosopher Martin Buber, physicist James Franck, and writer Thomas Mann.

The younger and lesser known academics arrived with tourist visas, desperately seeking work on their own. Walter Fales worked as a butler and cook until he landed a position in 1946 as Associate Professor of philosophy at Lincoln University, a traditionally black college in Chester County, Pennsylvania. Some 50-100 of these refugee scholars found haven in these black colleges, where the facilities were ramshackle but where the students had a keen thirst for knowledge. These professors became beloved on their campuses, despite their formal European customs such as insisting that their students wear jacket and tie.

Former students testified on the film to the pivotal role these Jewish mentors had on their lives. John Biggers arrived at Hampton Institute (now University) in Virginia with a work-study scholarship for plumbing, but Professor Viktor Lowenfeld opened his eyes to the world of artistic creativity. Biggers became an artist, professor, and founder of the Art Department at Texas Southern University in Houston.

Civil rights activist and author Joyce Ladner recalled that she couldn’t afford the application fees for graduate school, so her professor at Tougaloo College in Jackson, MS, Ernst Borinski, a former judge and law professor in Germany, paid them with his own money. When she reported the successful defense of her doctoral dissertation four years later, he sent a telegram with his congratulations and $100 for her to celebrate the milestone with her friends.  The telegram is in the exhibit.

How were these Jewish refugees received in the American South, where Jim Crow laws (the name taken from a minstrel routine) isolated blacks physically and culturally? Were they considered white or not? Donald Cunnigan was a former student and now a professor of sociology at the University of Rhode Island, and he recalled the unusual status of these highly educated Jews in the South. While they were not accepted by the whites, they were regarded by the off-campus blacks as either non-white or even black — one told him that Jews were mentioned in the Bible and any people who’d suffered as they did in ancient Egypt must have been black!  Karen Brodkin, professor of anthropology at UCLA, addressed this topic in her 1998 book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America. In the nineteenth century, there were hundreds of races; most, including Jews, being considered neither black nor white.

The film does not address the Jewish life of these refugees, but the exhibit has a quote from John Herz, professor of international politics at Howard University in Washington, D.C., who recalled that the Düsseldorf rabbi came to visit his mother about religious instruction for her children.  His mother replied, “That decision I leave entirely to my children; music is my religion.”  However, Georg Iggers, professor of history at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, AR grew up in a religious family in Hamburg and he recalled that Jews could be culturally German and yet be observant of Jewish tradition.

An audience member asked the filmmaker Fischler if the rise of the black nationalist movement (“Black Power”) set back black-Jewish relations. The film referred to people who decried the role of whites on a black college, such as Professor Borinski who’d created a curriculum on race history. No, said Fischler, because the refugee professors were close to retirement age in the 60s and no one lost their positions for it, unlike earlier movements of xenophobia.

The catalyst for the film came from a letter by Professor Herz to The New York Times about the anti-semitic comments of speakers at Howard University and other black colleges in the late 90s. He referred to the 1993 book by Gabrielle Edgcomb, From Swastika to Jim Crow: Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges, which inspired the filmmakers to make their documentary.

I noted how all the interview subjects were so articulate and highly accomplished and I asked if the filmmakers had conscious choice in their selection. They didn’t eliminate any potential candidates, said Fischler, and maybe only the students with the strongest memories and the closest relationships stepped forth. Only three of the refugee professors were still alive for the film.  Furthermore, many of the black students of the time did become prominent in their fields, noted Fischler.

In the 12 years since the release of the film, an audience member asked, what would they add to a sequel, if one were to make one? This traveling exhibit is their sequel, responded Fischler, making the material more accessible to a greater public.

“Beyond Swastika and Jim Crow: Jewish Refugee Scholars at Black Colleges,” originally from the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, is on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History until June 2.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2980/film-chat-from-swastika-to-jim-crow

 

Book Chat: Exodus to Shanghai

By Hannah Lee

Heartbreaking are the testimonies of Jews who sought every avenue of escape from Nazi-controlled Europe, but were foiled at every turn, with diplomatic and bureaucratic obstacles. They had limited access to accurate news. They had limited resources to buy their freedom and even the ones with means and the forethought found themselves victims of covetous maneuvers. Nazi regulations forbade bringing most valuables from the country and limited cash to 10 Marks or $10 per person.

First-hand testimonies are found in a book published in July, Exodus to Shanghai: Stories of Escape from the Third Reich by Steve Hochstadt. As part of the academic Palgrave Macmillian studies in oral history, Professor Hochstadt’s research focused on the odyssey of 16,000 Jews who escaped from Nazi-run Europe and found refuge in Shanghai, China when all other doors had slammed shut. The book distilled the transcripts of 13 narrators chosen from over 100 oral histories conducted with the survivors.

Most of the narrators left their homes in the frantic and brief period between the Anschluss (the occupation and annexation) of Austria in March 1938 and the beginning of war in September 1939. They came from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia and represent a cross section of all refugees. The book does not cover the odyssey of the religious Jews from Poland, including the entire Mirrer Yeshiva, who spoke Yiddish and dressed differently from the cosmopolitan Berliners and the Viennese.

Desperate and resourceful women found out that a visa to Shanghai could release their men from concentration camps. Assistance came from the philanthropic organizations, Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden in Germany and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in New York, including tickets to Shanghai for the poorest families.

In the 1930s, Shanghai was the banking center of Asia and “an open port where the Chinese Nationalists and Communists, organized gangsters, Western capitalists, and the Japanese military competed for authority,” wrote Hochstadt. “Extremes of wealth and poverty jostled in the crowded streets.” Upon arrival, the refugees experienced culture shock in the form of the tropical heat, an alien language, and wartime inflation.

The marvel was that the refugees quickly developed a community in exile, with Jewish institutions and forms of self-governance. The Austrians even created a café life on the streets of their new home. The most ambitious and successful creation was the Shanghai Jewish Youth Association School, affectionately known as the Kadoorie School. About 600 students enrolled in a curriculum of religious and secular subjects, taught in English by the refugees and modeled after Jewish schools in Germany.

“The remarkable thing about Jewish life in Shanghai until 1943 is that there was no persecution,” wrote Hochstadt. The Japanese already controlled most of the city but, while they were allies of the Nazis, they adopted a completely different policy toward Jews. They finally took action on February 18, 1943, when they forced all “stateless refugees” who’d arrived after 1937 to live within less than a square mile in the neighborhood of Hongkou. However, the February Proclamation showed “the ambivalent nature of the Japanese attitude… the word Jew was not mentioned in the Proclamation ,” and the existing Baghdadi and Russian Jewish communities in Shanghai were spared.

With the end of the war, these refugees again had to find new places to live. Nearly all refugee families wanted to leave Shanghai as soon as possible. “Very few had been able to create a life they wanted to continue in China. Remaining in post-colonial China…meant learning and adopting Chinese culture; only a handful of European Jews accepted that challenge,” wrote Hochstadt.

Illustrative of the enormous difficulties for displaced persons after the war, one of the last groups to leave Shanghai, 106 of them without U.S. visas, were supposed to travel across the Pacific on the “General Gordon,” but the Chinese refused to allow the ship to anchor offshore.  So, on May 1950,

the refugees had to take a train to Tientsin, then board barges in heavy seas to get out to the ship. When they arrived in the United States, they were put on a sealed train and transported across the country to Ellis Island…In June, another boat took them to Bremerhaven [Germany], and they entered DP camps, where they stayed for one more year. Finally they were given visas to the United States in 1951.

By the time of the Chinese Communists’ Cultural Revolution in 1966, the Jewish communities of Shanghai “were just a memory.”

The book gives the history of the slight majority of the Shanghai refugees who came to the United States. Life in the United States meant assimilation, letting go of their German culture. They had to adjust to a new world order. One refugee, Lisbeth Loewenberg, reminisced about her adjustment to stability:

My first job that I found after one week when I walked around, that was with Collier’s magazine. This place took subscriptions, they had salesmen go running around and selling subscriptions to Collier’s and Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan, and so on, and I processed these orders. People took subscriptions for one year. I said, “But how do people know that after one year they will still be at that address?” I couldn’t believe in permanence anymore. I was completely shocked that some people took two-year subscriptions. It floored me. But you don’t know where you are going to be tomorrow, was my reaction. And life has actually always seemed to me not permanent.  It’s all just transitory.

Remarkably, these refugees, most of whom had been children or teens during the years in Shanghai, can even look back and say, as did Doris Grey, that they were “the best years” of her life. Another, Gerald Kohbieter, said, “It was a lifesaver. The Chinese were polite people, and they put up with a lot with us…There were some frictions, but all in all, I must say there were good hosts.”

The resilience of youth allowed many of them adapt to, and even profit from their refugee experiences. Lisbeth Loewenberg said,

All the barriers fell. It didn’t make a difference, what does your family do…because everyone was there and started from scratch, nil, nothing, in Shanghai. All things being equal, if all people start under the same adverse conditions, this is where your true ability will show or your true survival instincts or your enterprise…Don’t ever blame the condition, blame yourself.  Because under the most impossible conditions, some people will make it one way or another.

A friend pointed out to me that W. Michael Blumenthal who served as United States Secretary of the Treasury under President Jimmy Carter was one of these refugees.  He arrived in the United States in 1947 at age 21.

Professor Hochstadt earned his Ph.D. in History from Brown University, taught at Bates College in Maine for 27 years, and is now professor at Illinois College. He has just published another Holocaust oral history, Death and Love in the Holocaust: The Story of Sonja and Kurt Messerschmidt (Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine).

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2962/book-chat-exodus-to-shanghai