I recently visited the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem during a trip to the state of Israel. It was absolutely surreal. The Center is somehow beautiful and horrifying, embodying both the terrible darkness of the Holocaust as well as the light of hope beyond it.
One of the most beautiful aspects of the center is a large garden of trees planted on the grounds positioned so that visitors must walk thorough it upon entry and exit. It is called the “Garden of the Righteous Among The Nations” and each tree is marked with a sign and a name.
Our guide that day explained to us that during the Holocaust when the Jewish people were being rounded up by the Nazis few people would help the Jews. In fact, she said, the general attitude amongst non-Jewish people toward the Jews was either apathy, fear, hostility, or self-focus. Even if people were moved with compassion, the cost of attempting to save a Jewish person was a large deterrent- either risking your life at the possibility of getting caught by the Nazis or the substantive cost of caring for people who had left everything behind and couldn’t support themselves. However, there were some willing to risk everything in order to save Jewish lives.
The non-Jewish people who risked their own lives to save the lives of the Jewish people during the holocaust have been designated as “Righteous Among the Nations”. Each tree in the garden represents one of these individuals. Each tree has a story.
It is quite a process to identify, substantiate, and honor these righteous Gentiles. When a Jewish party puts forward a name, a public committee of Yad Vashem, researches and substantiates the nominee according to four major criteria:
1- The rescuer must have been actively involved in saving Jews from threat of death or deportation to killing centers or concentration camps.
2- The rescuer must have risked their own life or liberty to save the Jews.
3- First-hand testimony or verified documentation by the persons rescued is necessary to substantiate the rescuers identity and role in each rescue.
4- The original motive for the rescue MUST have been to save Jews from the holocaust and for NO OTHER reason.
The criteria specifically states that other motivations that are disqualified from consideration are:
– Making financial gain from the rescue (saving people for a profit)
– Protecting Jews in order to convert them to Christianity (saving people for conversion)
– Taking a Jewish child for the intention of adoption (taking babies for self gain)
– Liberations from general resistance activities not actually geared toward saving Jewish people from the holocaust (saving Jews by accident).
The first three criteria are all ways of verifying that someone actually saved a person. The last criteria is a way of identifying why they saved a person. Our tour guide added one more specific reason people are disqualified according to motivation- sexual exploitation: demanding or acting upon some sort of sexual activity as a form of payment for the rescue.
Think about that for a moment. Once someone is verified for actually having saved a Jew from the Holocaust, they must undergo a process of motive verification with specific rules regarding what motives are acceptable. You only create rules for something when it is a commonplace recurrence. This is happening so often that we need to create rules about it. What were these rules? You cannot exploit people for money, sex, conversion, or adoption. This was happening so often that there were rules made. This was the norm. It was normal activity.
I found this incredibly offensive. Either people in that time would not help the Jews or they would only help if it was of a transactional benefit to them in some way. And yet there were some who refused exploitation and simply gave of themselves for the sake of the other- they have trees and their stories are remembered.
It is shocking to look back and believe that things like this actually happened, but the reality is that we do this today. There are many in great need and we either do not help or we only help if it is of benefit to us. We say things like, “It’s too dangerous, it’s too difficult, it’s too costly, or it’s too much time and energy.” Or we say things like, “I’ll help, but here is the deal: I’m going to need…”
In 1939, a ship named the St. Louis boarded 937 German Jewish passengers from Europe who were fleeing for their lives from the Third Reich. They were headed towards the United States for refuge. When they reached Cuba they were turned away. Next, they went to Miami and cabled President Roosevelt directly to ask for emergency refugee status. He never responded. The only responses they received were a telegram from the State Department and a Coast Guard ship. The telegram told them that they would have to get on a waiting list and qualify for immigration visas before they would be considered for admittance. The Coast Guard ship was to ensure the St. Louis would leave immediately.
This was during the Great Depression and while people generally cared about the plight of the Jews and disliked the policies of Hitler, they were more afraid of incoming immigrants competing for the already scarce jobs that existed and further weighing down the economy. The immigration quota at the time was only 27,370 people each year, which meant a several year waiting list to get in. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time showed that 83% of Americans opposed loosening immigration restrictions at the time. Roosevelt could have signed an executive order to grant emergency refugee status, but he was attempting to run for a possible extra term and wouldn’t risk his political status because of the fear of the nation and the unpopularity of the cause.
At the same time there was a bill introduced to congressional leaders in both US houses to admit 20,000 Jewish children from Germany as refugees. The bill was ignored and allowed to let die on the floor.
Whether through direct choice, public opinion, fear, complex political motivations, an unstable economy, or simply ignoring the possibility of helping- as a nation we turned away thousands that we could have helped.
It could mess up our economy. It could mess up my political standing. The legalities and paperwork aren’t in order. It will mess up our societal order and create a burden as well as competition for jobs. If we we let them in- imagine how many more will try to come?! What about border security- these are GERMAN refugees. They are the enemy. What if there are Nazi spies? So, let’s go ahead and send them back to die in the holocaust. That is definitely the safer move for us. Perhaps someone else will step up to care for them.
In retrospect these are all things that are easy to identify and speak about. It was clearly wrong and most would agree that we made a mistake. At the time, it was confusing and we didn’t have all the facts. But we do now. Hindsight is always 20/20.
I believe that we are in a time like this today.
In the midst of political/social division and much confusion, we are currently in the middle of one of the largest humanitarian crises in history. There are 65.3 million displaced humans on this planet right now. These are refugees- many of which are fleeing for their lives and desperate. We have lots and lots of reasons to turn them away and say no and to ignore them all. We have the opportunity to say no or ask, “What is in it for us?” But, we also have the opportunity to make a change from our history and stand up and do something. This moment has the potential to be an historical turning point.
In fifty years when we look back- what will we say about the kinds of people we were in how we addressed this critical moment in our history? What will we say about the kinds of people we became?
We know what those before us did. What will we do?
As it turns out, security and compassion are not mutually exclusive ideas. We can act. Will we act?
Soon, I will post a followup specifically addressing what our faith has to do with all of this.
I relied heavily on The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website for facts concerning the criteria of the Righteous Among The Nations as well as the voyage of the St. Louis. I also utilized Wikipedia and the experience of my trip to Yad Vashem and their website for facts regarding the Garden of the Righteous. I first read the brilliant line “vetting and compassion are not mutually exclusive ideas” on the Preemptive Love website in an article in response to President Trump’s executive orders.