Even before the attacks on Paris last Friday, conservatives were screaming for a ban on refugees from Syria, their Islamophobia blinding them to the fact that by taking in these men, women, and especially children in need, we are aiding ISIS’ enemies. This bigoted and hateful anti-Semitic (yes, conservatives, Arabs are Semitic people) attitude, of course, is reminiscent of the United States’ refusal to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler in the period prior to and during World War II.
You’ve probably heard of Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who famously recorded her experiences hiding from the Nazis. What you may not have heard is that she was one of the refugees the United States callously turned away in the early 1940’s. In February, Reuters reported that letters had been discovered showing that Frank’s father, Otto, was seeking help and money to procure a U.S. visa to flee Adolf Hitler.
Frank asked a former classmate in New York, Nathan Strauss, who owned Macy’s department store, for $5,000 as he attempted to flee Holland with his wife, mother-in-law, and daughters Anne and Margo. “This is the first concrete evidence that he did actually pursue the possibility of escape from Holland,” New York University professor David Engel said when the letters were released by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
The letters, telegrams, and government documents reveal that Frank attempted to get into the United States in 1941, a year before the family went into hiding. In a letter to Strauss, Otto Frank wrote:
“It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for. Our own fate is of less importance. You are the only person I know that I can ask.”
Ultimately, the $5,000 was not needed because the “sake of the children” was not a matter of importance to the United States Government, who denied the visa. Strauss, now deceased, and his wife made several attempts to appeal the decision, even enlisting the aid of others, but to no avail. Anne Frank died in 1945 in a German concentration camp. But American University professor Richard Breitman says it didn’t have to be that way:
“Anne Frank could be a 77-year-old woman living in Boston today, a writer. That is what the YIVO’s documents suggest.”
Breitman says that Frank attempted to escape at exactly the wrong time. Not only was Adolf Hitler making it more difficult to leave Germany, but the United States was in the process of making it more difficult to enter. Frank was issued a visa by Cuba on December 1, 1941 (yes, that evil nation of Communists conservatives hate), but it was canceled 10 days later when Germany declared war on the United States.
Anne Frank was just one of many to whom the United States refused refugee visas. Had the United States assisted, she could have lived a full life, but the isolationist policies at the time led to a rather cold and uncaring outlook toward those who came to us seeking help. Frank’s Diary serves as a reminder that each person we turn away is a human being — someone who hurts, someone who feels pain, someone who suffers, and someone who dies.
The phrase “we should take care of our own” is something that sounds darkly benevolent, but at some point we lost our humanity — and countless people like Frank perished as a result of our refusal to do the right thing.
Unfortunately, we are seeing this repeat today. Across the nation, conservatives are emphasizing that we need to protect our own from an unproven threat experts say is wildly overstated by those who insist on choosing hate over humanitarianism. We are reminded that we need to take care of our own, just as we were with the Jews attempting to flee the Holocaust — a flimsy excuse intended to justify a refusal to consider the needs of those coming to us for help when, in reality, anti-Semitism was an issue in the United States as well (including in Congress) at the time, making it easy to turn away Jewish asylum-seekers.
Today, Islamophobia runs rampant among the more conservative parts of our population. Though they have no legal grounds to do so, Republican governors (and some Democrats) are refusing to shelter Syrian refugees for no better reason than that they are largely Muslims, and the death cult ISIS identifies as the same religion (though they are no more Muslims than Ted Cruz is a Christian).
It is our responsibility if the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty mean anything to us at all to follow the example set by France in continuing to take in ISIS’ enemies. Failure to do so will ensure that we create new enemies who will surely remember the time they begged the United States for help and we said “no” — just like we did to Anne Frank.
After all, we mourn Frank’s death and study her life — but never do we think that, had we intervened, we could have prevented the former.