Friday, June 28, 2019

Detention Centers or Concentration Camps: A Disgrace, Inhumane and a Blot on US Conscience


Most of my relatives on my father’s side killed by Nazis and their collaborator thugs never made it to a concentration or extermination camp. My father came to America in January 1939, two months after Kristallnacht. His family was rounded up in Ottynia and surrounding shtetls in what is now western Ukraine. Back then it was part of Poland. They were transported to Szeparowce Forest near Kolomya to be slaughtered and buried in mass graves. 

My mother came from Łódź in 1921 when she was four. Not surprisingly, she never talked about family left behind, family she never really knew. I’m sure they existed, only to be interned in the Łódź Ghetto, the second largest ghetto after Warsaw’s. Its victims included 210,000 Polish jews. Tens of thousands died in the ghetto. Tens of thousands died in the Chelmno extermination camp or in Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

A ghetto under Nazi rule was a defacto concentration camp. Unsanitary conditions. Meager food provisions. Overcrowding. Restricted egress and ingress. Involuntary confinement. Illness often resulted in death. 

If many if not all of those conditions appear strikingly similar to what asylum detainees, particularly children, are experiencing along our southern border with Mexico it is not surprising that activists are labeling detention facilities as American concentration camps. 

Throughout our centuries-long history Americans have not been inclined to view repressive conditions of non whites as problematic. Too few demonstrated against the sardine-like packaging of captured Africans in the holds of slave ships bound for North America and South America. Visit a historical plantation outside Charleston, SC, and you’ll see accommodations were not much better for slaves that survived the ocean crossing.  

Native Americans did not fare better. They were restricted to less than optimal land. If their land later proved valuable they were physically displaced, even in violation of treaty or a favorable Supreme Court ruling. Donald Trump’s hero of a president, Andrew Jackson, disregarded a Supreme Court decision in favor of the Cherokee Nation and marched them in a trail of tears to the Oklahoma territory. To this day life on a reservation—even with new-found gaming income—is not what one would covet. 

Japanese Americans were forced to live in so called internment camps during World War II. George Takei of Star Trek fame spoke out from personal experience, having been interned in two camps with his family from the age of five. He agreed concentration camps have sprouted up along our southern border (https://mol.im/a/7164365).

Here’s another person who knows evil when he sees it: Ben Ferencz. He is 99 and the last surviving prosecutor of Nazis at the Nuremberg trials. Trump’s family separation policy is a “crime against humanity,” he says (https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/trump-border-crisis-nazis-nuremberg-trial-ben-ferencz-family-separation-migrants-un-a8485606.html).

Let’s be clear. Though deaths have occurred, there is no government program to kill undocumented immigrants, be they outright illegals or asylum seekers. But there is also no viable program to deal in a humane way with those crossing our border. The answer is not to build a higher, impenetrable wall. 

As my friend Rabbi Robbie Harris posted on Facebook, “These detention centers may not be ‘concentration camps’ in the sense that the Jewish people suffered under Nazi Germany. But they are in any case a disgrace, inhumane, and a blot on the conscience of the United States of America. So it probably does not matter in the end what we call them.”

Sometimes it takes a face, or a body, to aggregate the rage and compassion felt by strangers around the world. So it was when the body of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, Syrian of Kurdish background, washed ashore after he drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in September 2015 as he was trying to flee his country’s civil war. Earlier this week 23-month-old Valeria and her father Oscar Alberto Martinez Ramirez drowned trying to cross the Rio Grande from Mexico, the last leg of their journey from El Salvador.

And, of course, the face of Anne Frank is well known. A victim of Nazi persecution, Anne did not die in a gas chamber. She died from typhus contracted from the unsanitary conditions in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp (here are two stories on conditions in the Clint, Tex., border station where children are being detained: https://nyti.ms/2Iw1fEH and https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/inside-a-texas-building-where-the-government-is-holding-immigrant-children).

On Thursday Gilda and I, with her cousins from Israel, spent three-plus hours at Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage walking the special exhibit, “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.” 

I’ve been to many Holocaust memorials, in America, Israel and Europe. New facts always reveal themselves. New images. 

One such image chilled me. It was from 1928. Hitler was at at outdoor event. He was standing next to what became known as the “Blood Flag,” so called because the swastika banner was bloodied during the failed Nazi coup of November 9, 1923, in Munich. He wasn’t just standing next to it. He had a tight grasp on the lower quarter of the flag.

I don’t suspect Trump of knowingly emulating Hitler when he caresses the American flag at his rallies, but his oratory of demonization and dehumanization of his enemies, real and imagined, powerful and weak, is a page right out of Hitler’s playbook. With a melding of such images in my mind, how could one disagree with Washington Gov. Jay Inslee when he said during the Democratic presidential debate Thursday night: “The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump, and there’s no question about that.”

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