Over the Labor Day weekend, I read the personal memoir of a World War II child refugee. A Long Way Home, by Bob Golan was published in 2005, although it was written from the contemporaneous notes of a 12 year boy whose family was driven from their home in Poland at the outbreak of World War II. In the genre of Holocaust literature, we expect to read stories of cruelty, starvation, depravation and danger, and the extraordinary manner in which the survivors overcame the odds and lived to tell the story. Mr. Golan’s account differs from the experience of concentration camps and ghettos. and instead, he tells the story of a child refugee as his family seeks safety but instead finds anti-Semitism and prejudice wherever they go. Although the family escaped deportation to the concentration camps, they spent the war years as refugees learning to avoid and ultimately cope with extreme anti-Semitism, persecution and starvation in the Soviet Union.
The book is a compelling read, a story of courage, perseverance and the overwhelming will to live when faced with incredible deprivation, starvation, and disease. The reader experiences anger and frustration caused by the anti-Semitism endemic not only from the Nazis, but from the Polish community and the USSR. The reader learns of the horror of the refugee camps in Ukraine during the early war years, a harrowing exile to Siberia, and the trek Mr. Golan ultimately took from Siberia to Tashkent, Tehran, and ultimately to Israel, where he arrived in 1943. I don’t think my reaction of anger differs from most readers because the horrible conditions were both unnecessary and the result of cruel and misguided prejudice and indifference.
But Mr. Golan’s story wasn’t just a story from the history of World War II. I couldn’t help think of the reports I have been reading from colleagues in Artesia, New Mexico, and the stories of the women and children refugees from Central America, facing the same prejudice, deprivation, and the same barriers to resettlement and safety imposed by our own government. Our government, the home of the free and the land of the brave, is acting on the worst prejudice of the population rather than our best instincts. We are not talking about the anti-Semitism of Ukraine or Poland during World War II, the tyrannical policies of Stalin or the primitive isolation of Siberia. In 2014, it is the United States government responding to refugees from Central American, mostly women and children, by incarcerating them in a remote location and deporting them without a hearing or serious consideration of the consequences. We take only modest comfort that at least starvation is not part of the regimen in Artesia, but the crowded conditions, the isolation, and the inability of the children to attend school in an orderly, safe environment bears too much resemblance to the experience of Bob Golan as a 12 year old refugee in 1939.
Bob Golan’s hunger and fear was not relieved until he was identified by the Jewish Agency operating in Tehran in 1943, after which he was fed and clothed in safety for the first time in 4 years. We are taught that the United States is a beacon of hope, that we have the resources, the compassion, and the means to provide safety and comfort for those who reach our shores as they flee from violence and fear. I don’t understand how prejudice has permitted our government to define refugees as “illegal immigrants” in a misguided effort to deport them, and return them to violence and fear in the land they were forced to flee. I am fearful that years from now, accounts of the way we are treating the refugees from Central America today will be compared to the treatment of Jewish refugees in 1939. William Faulkner wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
But we really ought to be better than that past.
Written by Rob Cohen, Vice Chair, AILA’s USCIS Liaison Committee