Whenever I hear the debate over whether to admit refugees from war-torn Muslim nations into the United States, my first thought is always of the St. Louis, the ship filled with hundreds of Jewish refugees trying to escape the Holocaust. We all know the story. The passengers, who had embarked from Hamburg, Germany, in 1939, were denied entry into the United States, Canada, and Cuba, for several reasons, one of which was most certainly anti-Semitism. After a week and a half of failed efforts to negotiate asylum for its passengers, the St. Louis reluctantly returned to Europe where 254 perished in the Holocaust, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
So I’ve been thinking about the St. Louis quite a bit over the last week, ever since President Donald Trump signed an executive order preventing all immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days, and banning Syrian refugees indefinitely. Christian refugees will be given priority over others of different religious persuasions when they apply for resettlement, a not-so-subtle addendum to the controversial policy, an unambiguous preference for people of one faith over another. But not everyone looks at the would-be immigrants and sees the faces of the passengers aboard the St. Louis, as I do. Some, who have far more in common with our doomed landsmen than I, see a potential threat to the United States.
Dr. Norbert Bikales of Livingston survived the Holocaust because his mother sent him from their home in Berlin to France via Kindertransport when he was nine. From his perspective as a former refugee, Bikales said the Jews of the Shoah have nothing in common with those coming from Muslim countries.
“Were they coming to commit terrorist acts here? Were they coming from a society that glorified death?” he asked. “The situation is totally different. We’re dealing with different people with different objectives and different cultural backgrounds.”
Saying that his opinion comes from overall life experience, rather than his being a survivor, Bikales insists that he believes the vast majority of Muslims are innocent victims. That some are not, though, necessitates that we take great caution with the rest, he says.
“They’re not all murderers, but they have to be looked at before they come to this country,” he said. “That’s called vetting: You have to know who’s coming in. There’s nothing wrong with that.” (For the record, there is already an intense, two-year vetting process for immigrants.)
Besides, Bikales said, there are solutions to the problem that don’t involve resettling refugees here.
“There are people suffering terribly in Syria. It’s an incredible human tragedy. But there are ways of helping these people without bringing them to America,” he said. “There are billions of people in the world in situations that are not livable, but we can’t bring all of them to this country. We have to help them with humanitarian aid.”
I was surprised to hear Bikales’ take on the refugees, having expected him to relate more to their plight, but he is not alone. Ed Mosberg of Parsippany, who grew up in Cracow, Poland, and endured the Plaszow and Mauthausen concentration camps before he was liberated in 1945, said that the Jewish and Muslim refugees have nothing in common.
“Jewish refugees were not terrorists,” he said.
A staunch Trump supporter, Mosberg said the new president’s intentions are pure, that the executive order was for the sake of the security of the American people.
“The ban is…only against the terrorists,” he said. In fact, Mosberg said that if Trump had been president in 1943, he would have bombed the railroad tracks that led his and countless other families to their deaths in German concentration camps, something President Franklin D. Roosevelt declined to do. “This president, he would prevent a second Holocaust. I hope you write this in big letters.”
Mosberg said that it’s impossible to determine which of the refugees from Muslim countries are innocent civilians and should be allowed entry into the United States.
“How many [Syrian refugees] killed Jews? How many Iranians killed Jews? Do you know?”
Other survivors I spoke to strongly disagree with their contemporaries, and said the St. Louis comparison resonated with them in thinking of those fleeing Muslim countries.
“It’s a similar situation. Not everybody is ISIS and not everybody is against the U.S. And the people who come, they’re running for their lives,” said Gina Lanceter of Montclair. There are eerie parallels between President Trump’s executive action and FDR’s ambivalence to admitting refugees before and during the war, she said. “The quota was so small and that’s why so many people died, and no one cared and now it’s happening again. It’s very scary and it’s an echo of the ’30s.”
Our responsibility to save those in mortal danger may even supersede our security concerns, she said. “There is a risk, but look how many thousands are innocent, so I feel you have to take that chance and screen them very thoroughly,” said Lanceter, who lived because her father hoisted her out the window of a cattle car on its way from her hometown of Brody, Poland, to the Majdanek death camp. She noted that even those who are not survivors should feel kinship with those hoping to find safe haven. “This country is all made up of refugees, from the beginning. All the people who think they’re pure Americans? Their ancestors were immigrants.”
Maud Dahme of Flemington disagrees with the premise that the refugees who Trump banned pose any danger.
“Of the seven countries, there are zero people from those countries who have been terrorists in this country,” she said.
Originally from the Netherlands and saved by two Christian families who hid her identity (“I couldn’t go through the war with a yellow star on my skirt”), Dahme easily relates to the refugees.
“I’ve been through a war and I know what it’s like, and these poor refugees, we tell them, ‘Sorry, you can’t come,’” said Dahme, who is on the board of directors of March of the Living. “This country has always accepted everyone, and to single out anyone because of their religious beliefs, it’s very disturbing to me. I know how these people feel. I’ve been through it, as have many other Holocaust survivors.”
Kristallnacht survivor Ilse Loeb of Monroe, born in Vienna, can see both sides. Like me, her first instinct is to compare the ban to the situation with the St. Louis.
“Let’s face it. They wouldn’t let people come in here and they could have saved quite a few if they had,” she said. Loeb’s parents, though not passengers on the ship, had all the right papers to enter the United States during the war, including an affidavit from a U.S. citizen vouching for them, but because the quota for refugees was already filled, they were trapped. Eventually they were taken to a concentration camp, Belzec, where they died.
Although Loeb, who was hidden by a Dutch couple in Holland, was clearly sympathetic to today’s refugees, she acknowledged that it is not a perfect comparison.
“In those days when the Jewish people came, they were not a burden to the United States government or anyone there,” she said. And, of course, there’s the other issue. “They’re afraid there will be terrorism in this country. It was not a question in those days.”
Their differences aside, all the survivors I interviewed agreed they weren’t blaming all Muslims for the sins of a minority.
“It’s not us against them,” said Bikales. “It’s good people against evil people, and believe me, there’s evil in this world.
“That’s one thing a Holocaust survivor can tell you.”