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American attitude toward refugees recalls treatment of Jews during Holocaust

Jacob Apelberg, a Holocaust survivor, talks about his experiences and how he survived. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

As we observe the Jewish Holocaust Remembrance Day, I think back to the oldest standing synagogue in North America, built in 1763 in Newport, R.I. It was started by descendants of the Marranos, the “hidden Jews” of Spain and Portugal. That explains why it had a special trap door under the Bima — the raised platform where the Torah is read — leading to an escape hatch and tunnel to nearby Barney Street. It was a precaution based on years of suffering from inquisition and persecution.

The synagogue represented the first time in generations that these Spanish-Portuguese Jews could practice their religion freely; they never had to use the hidden trap door.

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However, other people did. According to several historians, after the emancipation in 1863, the synagogue's underground shelter was used as a hiding place for African American slaves escaping the South en route to the North.

Just recently, Jews worldwide sat at their seder tables, pointed to the matza, and chanted from the Haggadah, “this is the bread of affliction … whoever is hungry, come and eat, whoever is needy, come and join us.” Living up to the Haggadah’s words, the Rhode Island synagogue became part of the Underground Railroad, opening its doors, or rather its trap door, to African Americans who were fleeing persecution and discrimination.

Fortunately, in the United States nowadays, we are free to practice our religion, free to express our beliefs, free to criticize our government and free to participate in protests — as I did recently in the second student-led gun reform walkout.

Yet, I find it difficult to boast of freedom in this country.

I have been outraged, as have many others, to read about the thousands of children who were brutally separated at the border from their parents. Parents and children have been robbed of their freedom and stripped of their human rights.

The separation of families has inflicted on children traumas that will last them a lifetime. Two migrant children from Honduras, Franklin and Byron, aged 11 and 7, who were separated from their mother at the border, tell of the inhumane conditions they were put in and of “being treated like trash.”

Even though federal judges ruled this barbaric practice must stop, children are still being ripped from their parents at the border. Furthermore, despite court rulings demanding the reunification of children with their parents, the current administration is indifferent and is dragging its feet.

One cannot help but see correlation between the actions of the current administration and the actions of countless countries closing their doors to Jews seeking shelter during the Holocaust. If more countries had opened their doors to Jews — as the Rhode Island synagogue had done for African American slaves — thousands of lives would have been spared.

Like most other countries, the United States did not welcome Jewish refugees. In 1939, 83 percent of Americans were opposed to the admission of refugees. In May 1939, the State Department went so far as to turn away Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis when the German ocean liner sought to dock in Florida after the refugees were denied entry to Cuba. Following their deportation back to Europe, 254 of them perished in the Holocaust. The aversion of others to help and shelter Jews allowed a mass genocide to happen.

In her book “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” political theorist Hannah Arendt described how the majority of democracies treated the Jewish refugees escaping Europe: They “were welcomed nowhere and could be assimilated nowhere. Once they had left their homeland they remained homeless, once they had left their state they remained stateless; once they had been deprived of their human rights, they were rightless, the scum of the earth.”

Sadly, these words now describe how our government is treating refugees at the southern border.

The indifference and criminal negligence of the United States and other countries during the Holocaust should serve as a warning and call to action today. When refugees fleeing persecution are being turned away at our borders, we cannot be indifferent again; we cannot turn a blind eye again.

We must demand that this stain on our democracy be removed, that all innocent children torn away from their parents are reunited and that all those fleeing violence and persecution are allowed to find shelter in our country.

Abigail Leibowitz is a sophomore at Northwood High School in Silver Spring, Md., and a student activist and synagogue youth leader.

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