What’s happened at our border is not what America should be


22/06/2018

By Leah Pisar

“When the deportations from Bialystok, my native town in Poland, began, only three of us were still alive: my mother, my little sister Frieda and I. Father had already been executed by the Gestapo. That morning mother told me to put on my long pants, so I would look more like a man capable of slave labor. “And you, and Frieda?” I asked in despair. She didn’t answer. She knew that their fate was sealed, and like the mother of Moses in Egypt, she wanted to give her first-born a chance to live, if only one in a thousand. As they chased them, with the other women, the children, the old and the sick, toward the waiting cattle train, I could not take my eyes off their frail shapes. Little Frieda held my mother with one hand, and with the other her favorite doll. They, too, looked at me as long as they could, before disappearing from my life forever.”

Every time my father recounted the chilling story of his final farewell to his mother and sister, before they were carted off to Auschwitz to die, I found some sort of irrational consolation in the fact that at least they were together.

The next scene, as I imagined it, was cruelly reassuring: They must have gone into the gas chamber together, holding hands (Frieda’s doll surely had been confiscated), my grandmother stroking my 8-year-old aunt and promising her that it would be OK … as the vents opened, releasing the gas that would quickly choke them to death. In a perverse way, for me that scenario was tolerable: Frieda was not alone when she died.

Then a historian of the Holocaust came to visit my father, maybe 15 years ago. She had done a great deal of research about the convoy that deported the women and children from Bialystok on that warm summer day. And it turned out that a majority of the kids were, in fact, ripped away from their parents, put on a different train, and sent to Theresienstadt — the infamous children’s camp in Czechoslovakia where so many children were detained, under falsely humane conditions, before being transported to Auschwitz or Treblinka to be murdered. The researcher couldn’t say for sure, because she hadn’t found Frieda’s name on any list. But there was every reason to believe that she had been one of the children of Terezin.

And that’s when it all became unbearable. Little Frieda, all by herself at the hands of violent strangers? My grandmother, helpless, as her sweet daughter was pulled away from her; going to her death not knowing what had been done to her two children? The optimist in me has always believed that she knew her son would make it and that, until her last breath, all of her attention was focused on protecting Frieda. But if she had been separated from her little girl, can you imagine what her last moments were like? The emotional torture?

No, I am not equating the xenophobic heartlessness of the Trump administration with the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” That is utterly beside the point.

Yet, as the mother of a 3-year old son, I believe that the unspeakable horror of being ripped away from a young child, and the fear that a child of any age must feel under these circumstances, does bear some equivalence. Does that little girl in the pink sweatshirt, whose photo has made so many of us weep, feel less terrified than Frieda did — regardless of what awaited each one of them?

Is today’s child supposed to say to herself: “Oh, it’s not that bad; at least they’re not going to throw us all into a gas chamber, so I might as well just get hold of myself and stop being a scared baby?”

Four years after that agonizing farewell in Bialystok, my father was rescued by an American tank column in the Bavarian forest, having just escaped from Dachau. As this 16-year-old boy recognized the white five-pointed star emblazoned on the tank, he fell to his knees on an active battlefield, with bullets flying in all directions, and yelled the three words of English that his mother had taught him: “God Bless America.” A black GI, Sgt.t Bill Ellington (we learned his name decades later), opened the hatch of the tank and pulled the skeletal teenager into the womb of freedom.

In the depths of Poland, as the war broke out, my grandmother dreamed of America, teaching herself English and hoping to emigrate some day. It stood for so much of what was right. Of course, it was not perfect. But to the rest of the world it was a shining beacon of freedom and safety. This is what she inculcated to her son, who went on to become a proud American — gaining citizenship by special act of Congress, when he was a young adviser to President Kennedy. He passed this strong sense of patriotism on to his children. To this day, I have no more precious possession than my blue passport with its regal golden eagle, whose beak is turned away from the arrows and toward the olive branches, in a sign of peace.

Where has that America gone? How are we letting this happen to our country?

Donald Trump has made a lot of geopolitically tone-deaf moves since taking office. He has a warped sense of America’s national interest. And he is influenced by unilateralist ideologues. Fair enough — everyone is entitled to his own opinion, be it about international trade or nuclear proliferation. And those who are legitimately in power have a right to govern in their own way, even if it means insulting key allies of the G-7 or withdrawing from one international agreement after another. It will take future presidents decades to fix the mess that this president is making of our country. So swings the pendulum of politics.

But this administration’s sadistic behavior toward migrants or, more generally, nationals of certain countries, or even people with funny-sounding names, is utterly un-American. Even if he and his team are scrambling to fix the optics, the fact that they even acted out such a sinister plot is deeply upsetting.

As human beings, regardless of our political preferences or religious affinities, we should not stand for it. Through my tears, I remain hopeful that our compatriots of all persuasions will come to their senses, come together and say, “Enough!” This is not about left or right, blue or red. It’s about right and wrong.

Leah Pisar was communications director of President Clinton’s National Security Council. She now chairs the Aladdin Project, which seeks to combat extremism and teach the lessons of the Holocaust to the Muslim world through education. Her late father, Samuel Pisar, was one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz, Dachau and several other camps.