Turned away from Cuba, the United States and Canada, more than 900 Jewish refugees aboard the ship St. Louis were finally and tragically returned to World War II Europe, where many died in Nazi death camps.
Barred in three lands, desperate German Jews attempted suicide rather than return to the land of their birth. Prepared to flee their homeland — particularly after the destruction of thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues and the incarceration of 30,000 Jewish men in concentration camps following Kristillnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass — hundreds of thousands of Jews were trapped when potential host countries would not open their doors. As one Jewish American author wrote at the time, “It is apparent that the technical obstacles to emigration, great as they are, are not the principal factor preventing adequate treatment of the refugee problem. Given a real determination to assist the refugees, these obstacles could be quickly overcome.”
Because those obstacles were left in place, millions died by starvation, Einstaztgruppen (mobile killing units), and, ultimately, the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, Belzec, Sobibor, Chelmno and Treblinka. These deaths were preventable. The “lucky ones” were described by liberating American and Allied soldiers as walking skeletons. Finally, when “more than 11 million prisoners of war and ‘displaced persons’ were liberated from Nazi slavery…, the roads of Europe were filled with people.”
These are the reasons for the creation of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). These are the reasons that shortly after the end of the war, the United Nations created a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which asserts "Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution."
These are the reasons that our duly elected leaders signed international treaties to prevent us from active or passive participation in such atrocities again. These are the reasons why the United States today recognizes the legal right of asylum of individuals as specified by international and federal law.
Proportionally more people are displaced now than ever before in world history: 70.8 million people — refugees, asylees, and internally displaced persons — are unable to return to their homes, according to the UNHCR. More than half of them come from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.
And yet we have forgotten why the generation of my grandparents — “the Greatest Generation” because of their willingness to act because, as author Tom Brokaw wrote, it was the “right thing to do” — gave up their nylons and planted their victory gardens and left their homes for factories and their factories for the front and, finally, gave up their very lives on the shores of Normandy, the terraces of Monte Cassino and the islands of the Pacific.
We have forgotten why asylum from persecution is included in the list of universal human rights. We have forgotten that when, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, Ronald Reagan first spoke of “making America great again,” he also said, “These [immigrant and refugee] families came here to work. They came to build. Others came to America in different ways, from other lands, under different, and often harrowing conditions, but this place symbolizes what they all managed to build, no matter where they came from or how they came or how much they suffered."
Our country needs better immigration policies; there is much room for improvement. But an administration that, over only a few days, has both announced an intent to slash refugee admissions to zero next year and effectively ended asylum at our southern border, has forgotten the tragic consequences of turning our backs on people fleeing violence. We must not forget. “For,” as Auschwitz survivor, author, and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel has written, “in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.”
Lisa Rampton Halverson, Ph.D., Springville, is the senior director of education for Mormon Women for Ethical Government. She is an adjunct instructor at Brigham Young University and has helped teach a course on the Holocaust at Stanford University.