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Immigrants and America: Lessons from the Past

My paternal grandmother as a new immigrant

Published in ChicagoNow, August 1, 2019

Our current anti-immigrant political climate is sadly not new. This summer, I attended an enlightening series of lectures by Professor Daniel Greene on Americans and the Holocaust sponsored by Northwestern University’s Continuing Education program. What I learned is troubling, in terms of how patterns of the anti-immigration, xenophobic, America-first ideology that we are currently experiencing have been part of our country’s landscape before.

We like to think of the America symbolized by the statue of liberty and Emma Lazarus’s poem inscribed at its base in which Lady Liberty, “Mother of Exiles,” welcomes all who come to our land, saying,

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!”

My maternal grandfather (right) with his brother, American immigrants

My grandparents came here fleeing the oppression and pogroms of Lithuania at the turn of the twentieth century. They were penniless, poorly educated young people who didn’t speak English but were willing to work hard to make a better life for their children. Of course, they faced discrimination and poverty, but life was better for their American-born children. By my generation, their grandchildren all went to college and were fully integrated into the fabric of America. I naively thought this was a typical immigration story up until the recent problems on our southern border, but I learned in class that it was not.

During periods of economic depression in America, there has often been a fear that immigrants would steal jobs and bring strange new customs and religions. In the years my ancestors came here, between 1880 and 1920, more than 20 million immigrants came to America. Industry and urban areas were growing and we needed them. The combination of the Depression and two World Wars, however, drastically lessened the flow of immigrants. There were literacy tests, quota systems, and laws like the 1934 Johnson-Reed Act that favored northern European whites and discriminated against Jews and Asians.

The chart below illustrates the ebb and flow of immigration:

While the current administration boasts about our excellent economy, many are still struggling. Trump taps into their economic insecurity as well as many Americans’ underlying fear of “the other” – the person of color, the immigrant, the non-Christian. These are not new fears. History teaches us they have been a factor behind the way immigrants have been treated over time throughout the world. In 1940, Charlie Chaplin made his first talking film, The Great Dictator. In it, Chaplin portrays a Jewish barber and Hynhel (Hitler), the Tomainian (German) dictator. Hitler and Chaplin were born within a week of one another. Ironically, as Chaplin biographer David Robinson wrote, “Each has mirrored the same reality – the predicament of the little man in modern society. Each is a distorting mirror, the one for good, the other for untold evil.”

At the end of the film, a movie, Chaplin makes a speech as the barber, who has been mistaken for the Hitler figure. Almost 80 years ago, Charlie Chaplin voiced ideals that feel very relevant in today’s world. Here are a few excerpts from that speech:

We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone.
We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate.
Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!
Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

I remember asking my parents why more wasn’t done to prevent the Holocaust or to help the Jews immigrate here before, during, and after World War II. They told me they didn’t know how bad things were for European Jewry until the war was over. When Hitler came to power in 1933, my parents were growing up in an America that had no appetite for engaging in another European war. With 25% unemployment, there were enough problems to solve and people feared competition for jobs. During these tough times, my parents came of age in a climate of economic insecurity, anti-Semitism, and fear. They trusted and adored FDR and were unlikely to protest on behalf of the plight of European Jews, although it’s hard to believe they knew nothing about what was happening. There were newspaper accounts, especially in the Jewish publications, which I know they read. Edward R. Murrow was broadcasting news of the murder of Jews on the radio in 1942. By 1943, there were full page ads in newspapers and a pageant called “We Will Never Die” performed in several large cities. Colliers Magazine ran an article by Jan Karski entitled “Polish Death Camps” in October, 1944.

A more honest answer to my childhood question would have been that, yes, they knew Jews were dying in Europe, but what could they have done? They may have feared protesting too loudly in the climate that prevailed. After all, two of the greatest anti-Semites of the time, Henry Ford and Father Coughlin, were active in Detroit. Like FDR, they were focused on the war and all of their energy went into winning it. To answer my question honestly was likely too painful for them. It was better to claim ignorance than to admit they were powerless to do anything.

When Hitler was defeated in May of 1945, there were six million displaced persons in Europe. Despite President Truman’s call for us to help, only 5% of Americans wanted to take them into our country. Solving the refugee problem proved to be challenging. The few Jews who tried to return to Poland in 1946 were met with anti-Semitism and pogroms. Most Holocaust survivors moved westward and ended up in displaced persons camps, which shockingly existed until 1957. In 1948, with the establishment of the state of Israel and Congress agreeing to issue 400,000 visas to refugees from the war, Holocaust survivors finally had some options to find asylum outside of DP camps.

Also in 1948, the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Especially in light of today’s political climate, it is worth reading this document which states, among other things,

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.
No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.
Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.

Eleanor Roosevelt, appointed US Ambassador to the UN by President Truman, had a leadership role in drafting this document. She presented it to the General Assembly for adoption December 10, 1948.

Eleanor Roosevelt holds a copy of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. National Archives

George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” So what can we learn from knowing the truth about America’s reactions to the plight of Jewish immigrants before, during, and after the Holocaust? Can we prevent future genocides by becoming engaged before it is too late? Peter Hayes, Northwestern University history professor and author of Explaining the Holocaust, reminds us to be alert but not afraid, to watch out for the infringement of the rights of minority groups, and to “beware of the beginnings.” Yale professor, historian, and activist Timothy Snyder is a Holocaust scholar who warns us that another one, driven by the trend toward authoritarian governments and by climate change refugees, is on the horizon. His book On Tyranny – Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century is a dire warning. “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

I feel more empowered than my parents to resist cruelty and injustice. I can protest, write about, and donate to organizations dedicated to helping the migrant children being held in squalid detention camps and their families being denied asylum. I can resist and support candidates whose values reflect mine. Unlike my parents, in this world of 24/7 cable news and online information, the one thing I can’t do is claim I didn’t know until it was too late.

I am extremely grateful to Professor Daniel Greene for his excellent series of lectures and for helping me to understand the lessons of the Holocaust and my parents’ answer to my childhood question.


by Laurie Levy
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