Saturday, February 02, 2008

Reflections On Immigration

The following is my answer to a letter I received from my uncle. We had had a discussion at my nephew's wedding about the role of framers of the US constitution had in saving our family from being wiped out by the Nazis in WWII.

My uncle's contention was that if the US had not been the bastion of democracy and freedom of speech his parents and he and my mother would have certainly been killed along with all their relations in their shtetl in the Ukraine. Of course, I agreed that it was fortuitous that they were in America and not the shtetl.

We also discussed immigration to Israel and the Zionist alternative. In his letter he wrote of his personal affinity to Thomas Jefferson and his ideas on freedom of speech which certainly would have prevented the rise of Hitler. He also mentioned that he didn't see his parents as being cut out for pioneering rather they were just trying to make a better life for themselves and their children.

This is my response:

Thomas Jefferson was a great man. What he and the founding fathers of the United States achieved in their time changed the world. It is impossible to imagine the nineteenth and twentieth century's rapid technological and social advances happening in a world ruled by absolute monarchs.

As you said, we all should be grateful that David and Rose W*** were lucky enough to immigrate to the United States in time to be saved from the ravages and almost certain death in World War II. But it's a long way between saying that and crediting the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with their survival.

Could the principles of democracy and free speech have prevented the rise of Hitler? No one could fault the constitution of the Weimar Republic, set up after World War I, for not being democratic enough. Unfortunately, Germany's fledgling democracy was open to the sinister manipulation of the Nazi party. Hitler succeeded by abusing those noble principles, blatantly and publicly for the entire world to see. So you see, the laws were 'on their books' and the Germans still were able to kill 6 million Jews.

My grandparents and many, many like them emigrated from the towns of Eastern Europe in the hope of finding a safer haven and perhaps economic prosperity. My mother told me that Grandma Rose couldn't listen to Xmas carols because it reminded her of having to hide in the cellar for fear of a pogrom. So she certainly had reasons for wanting to leave. Not all her family was so poor. Zayda Meir1 was able to return to Greiding and live with married children and their families when he decided that the US was not the place for him. Indeed your grandmother Deena and several brothers and sisters remained in Greiding. Partly this might have been because not all of them would have been accepted at Ellis Island. So when I say 'lucky', I mean it.

My grandparents were also lucky because they emigrated before the quota system of 1924 effectively cut off the emigration from southern and eastern Europe (as well as most of what we now call the third world). The spiritual and ideological descendants of Jefferson clearly showed that they were interested in extending their largesse to those who most resembled them. This resulted in such perversity that in 1939 the 900 passengers of the SS St. Louis were sent back to Europe to perish. Needless to say, others didn't even try and America could put off dealing with the 'problem' until after the war.

Why do you say that your parents did not have pioneering spirit? Far from it! Just imagine what emigration was like a century and more ago. They didn't just get on a plane and a few hours later arrive at their new homeland greeted by smiling natives. They faced an overland trip across Europe, crossing numerous borders, an unpleasant sea journey ending in a selection process conducted in a very foreign language on Ellis Island where the whole ordeal could result in a return passage to Europe before they even got a chance to stay overnight on the mainland. Both of them faced this process essentially alone. (Grandma Rose waited several weeks in the UK, missing one boat, while Uncle Joe recovered from an illness before they made their trans-Atlantic journey. Even then he had to go to Mexico and she arrived in New York alone.) They were very courageous people!

No one can begin to explain why some Jews remained in Hitler's path and others were fortunate enough to be elsewhere. Very few of those who escaped did so because they foresaw the danger and acted in time. For the most part people were in the right or wrong place for other reasons. So, as I said, David and Rose W**** and all their descendants were very lucky.

As to the future, I have made my home in the State of Israel because I believe that here we can establish a Jewish state based on Jewish law where we will not be dependent upon the good will of others. We're nowhere near there yet. But this is where I believe our best efforts should be.

1My Grandma Rose's maternal grandparents Meir and Chana emigrated to US with two unmarried sons to join several of their 13 children in the US. On the boat one of the sons shaved off his beard in anticipation of his arrival in the goldena medina (country). The second son waited until soon after they arrived and before shaving his beard. Zayda Meir wasn't happy with what he found in New York and informed the Bubba Chana that he was not going to stay any longer in that treifa medina. Bubba Chana remained to care for her unmarried sons and Zayda Meir returned to live with his other children in the shtetl. My great-grandmother was the last of his children who married in the shtetl. She and her children and grandchildren were killed by the Nazis.

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