My family has been running from danger for nearly 100 years. The Nazarios are refugees; their remnants have scattered around the world to survive. My Jewish mother fled Poland in 1933. My Christian father fled Syria two years earlier. They met and married in Argentina, whose right-wing dictatorship imprisoned and almost killed my sister. By giving us a home, the United States saved our lives.
Would it do the same today?
The Trump administration has barred those seeking refuge from our borders and turned our immigration courts into a joke. This is a betrayal of America’s decades-long role as a world leader in refugee protection. It also breaks our own laws and treaty commitments, which say we will take people in, give them a fair court hearing and not return them to harm.
But it is not a total historical anomaly. America has gone through spasms of nativism before. In 1939, Congress shelved a bill to take in 20,000 Jewish children, and the ocean liner St. Louis, which carried 937 Jewish refugees, was turned away from the docks; hundreds aboard were murdered in the Holocaust.
Then, as now, many on both the right and the left have argued that the choice Americans face on immigration and asylum is between zero tolerance and opening the floodgates. But this is a false choice. We can have an immigration policy that is sane and humane.
My mother, Clara Aberbach, was 9 when she left Chodorow, Poland, now part of Ukraine. It was 1933, the year Hitler came to power in Germany.
“I loved Poland,” she told me. She and the other children skated on the Luh River each winter and floated down it on wooden rafts come spring. The summers she spent at her grandmother’s vineyard, feasting on fresh milk and eggs.
Each Saturday, she stepped inside the town’s 300-year-old synagogue, whose walls were painted red, gold and green with scenes from the Bible. One painting showed a rabbit being attacked by a griffin — a symbol of the mass murder of Jews in the area centuries before.
More than 125,000 Jews were killed in pogroms in Ukraine between 1918 and 1922. By 1930, my mother’s family saw a new storm gathering. They knew it might be bad. So they fled to Argentina. The United States wasn’t an option: New quotas kept out “undesirables” — Jews, Asians, Africans.
Many in my family stayed behind. Dozens were exterminated, many in the Auschwitz death camp. Some died in the Warsaw Ghetto, where over 400,000 Jews were confined to 1.3 square miles. In Chodorow, the synagogue was torched. On Sept. 4 and 5, 1942, Germans went house to house there, killing the weak and children on the spot.