As we await a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on the legality of President Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban — which would bar people from five Muslim-majority countries from visiting or immigrating to the United States — I pray the Court will reject as unconstitutional the president’s claimed right to ban people from the United States based on their religion. To accede to that bogus and bigoted claim would take America back to a darker era that lasted from 1924 to 1965, a time when America abandoned the bright promise of the Statue of Liberty and limited immigration mainly to Protestants from northern Europe.
America’s fateful rejection of diversity and openness during the 1930s and 1940s had tragic consequences for hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees searching for a haven from Nazi persecution. Indeed, Jews then desperately seeking to escape Europe and reach safety in America were subject to the same cruelties and rank bigotry today besetting Muslims, Latinos and other refugees seeking to arrive here.
Allow me to share the story of my late mother, Helga, a Berlin-born Jew who at the age of 14, in September 1938 fled across the German border into Belgium with her own mother, Elli Ringel. Once safely across, they fell in with unscrupulous smugglers — like today’s “coyotes” — whom they needed to guide them 50 kilometers to the city of Liege, because if the Belgian police apprehended refugees in the border region, they would return them to Germany. The smugglers extorted far more money than originally agreed upon and threatened to rape my grandmother. Elli and Helga walked for three nights on rugged mountain trails, sleeping in farm houses during the days, until they reached Liege.
They moved on to the southern French city of Nice, but in June 1940, the German army marched into Paris and Gestapo agents flooded the south of France. My mother and grandmother moved like trapped animals from port to port trying to find a boat out of Europe. On one occasion, they spotted a Gestapo agent who had spied on them back in Berlin sitting in a café.
Fortunately, he was reading a newspaper and didn’t notice them. Finally, they managed to purchase laissez passez visas to the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, which allowed them to get out of occupied France and make it to Lisbon, Portugal.
Helga and Elli applied for refugee visas at the U.S. Embassy in Lisbon and waited for nine months, but eventually had to face reality. The United States was refusing to relax even slightly its stringent quota on Jewish immigration, and they were stuck on an endless waiting list. Finally, with rumors abounding of an imminent Nazi invasion of Spain and Portugal, they adopted another strategy: depleting their savings to purchase visas to Ecuador and booking passage on a refugee ship bound for New York, with transit tickets on to South America.
When they reached New York Harbor in April 1941, after a perilous passage across the Atlantic through U-boat infested waters, immigration authorities allowed Elli to enter the city with representatives of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), while Helga was held as surety on Ellis Island. She stayed there for a week, celebrating Passover in a new land of freedom where it was unclear she would be allowed to stay. Yet their strategy ultimately paid off; after several days, HIAS found a New York judge named William Ringel who signed an affidavit that he would serve as guarantor for Elli and Helga.
My mother went on to live a happy and productive life in America until her passing in 2005, working in advertising, raising three children and contributing to the cause of good government through a decades-long involvement with the League of Women Voters. Yet in 1940-41, she was literally nobody to U.S. officials who cared more about upholding a strict quota on Jewish refugees than in saving her life and those of countless other Jews, many of whom ended up being liquidated in Auschwitz.
Just as modern-day Muslim refugees fleeing violence and terrorism are themselves often wrongly stigmatized by Trump and his supporters as potential terrorists and purveyors of an alien culture, Jews were scapegoated by the “America First” crowd of the 1940s as un-American interlopers who threatened to dilute the country’s supposed Christian character. At this pivotal moment in American history, the justices of the Supreme Court should reflect deeply upon America’s shameful abandonment of the Jews.
They should consider, too, that if they uphold the president’s cruel Muslim ban, they may literally be condemning to death refugees fleeing persecution or violence in countries like Syria, Somalia or Yemen.
What could be more un-American than turning our backs on people in desperate need of succor?
Walter Ruby is chairman of the Greater Washington-Muslim Jewish Forum