While reading news of so many American governors proclaiming that Syrian refugees aren’t welcome in their states and, over the last two days, giving presentations on the Holocaust, I keep thinking of two things: how this very country refused Jewish refugees during Hitler’s reign, and this famous quote from an Emma Lazarus poem that adorns a plaque on the Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
The resonances are everywhere. The Washington Post today reprinted a poll from Fortune Magazine in July 1938 that reported that 67.4% of respondents leaned against opening our doors to refugees from Germany-occupied countries. Even more alarming is a statistic I shared with participants in my K.U. Osher class based on my book Needle in the Bone: How a Holocaust Survivor and Polish Resistance Fighter Beat the Odds and Found Each Other: according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, between 1933-1943, there were 400,000 unfilled immigration slots for European Jews, including even a request from Anne Frank’s father, Otto, to get his family to America.
How this all adds up is obvious here, a place in which refugees overran, stole from, murdered, and greatly damaged the native peoples living here, and made of them refugees in their own land. My people, like your people, found or lost refuge here (found in the case of my eastern European grandparents). Although there’s plenty now that’s an overwhelming mess of infinite proportions, especially regarding how we treat each other, America and so much of the rest of the world is a constant experiment in bringing together people who otherwise wouldn’t find each other. We are each other’s huddled masses, and one way or another, we always have been.