“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
That quote, so true, is sourced to Samuel Clemens, whom we know as Mark Twain. It provides a caution with respect to many unfortunate historical chapters. They never repeat in exact form as time moves on and the facts on the ground are never precisely alike.
Still, in today’s debates, we hear echoes from years long gone when mankind shrunk from the challenge and failed the moment.
What brings this freshly to mind is the latest masterwork from Ken Burns along with colleagues, Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. “The U.S. and the Holocaust” chronicles the rise of Nazism in Germany, the slow and relentless pressure on Jews like frogs in water being slowly brought to boil, and the cold shoulder that was the prevailing American attitude as the Holocaust took shape.
The three episodes are important, compelling, draining television. For those who missed its airing last month, all episodes can be streamed on the PBS website.
While group identity ought not be definitional, all of us are shaped by our heritage. That is only human. This tale has special resonance for me as it is largely the story of my family. It brought home the awful odds my grandparents faced and the very thin needle they managed to thread.
I am the first-born child of two German-Jewish refugees. My mother came from a well-off family in Nuremberg, living directly adjacent to the immense Nazi rally grounds, before moving to Berlin. Her father, my Grandpa, ran a large paper products factory before being imprisoned for refusing to hand it over to the Nazis. Lots of good that did as the Nazis simply confiscated the whole operation.
Leaving their parents and others behind to their fate, Grandma and Grandpa, along with my then 11-year-old mother and her older brother managed to get out of Germany in late 1938 when relatives in New York signed for them, guaranteeing they would not be a financial burden on their new country.
My father came from lesser circumstances. His father, my Opa, was a shopkeeper in a small village in north Germany. Through unknown circumstances surely involving the payment of a bribe, they managed to cross the border to Belgium and board a U.S-bound ship on Aug. 30, 1939, ten days before their scheduled departure.
Deep in his bones, Opa knew that there would be no American ship in any Belgian port come September. For the record, Germany officially declared war on Sept. 2, 1939, by invading Poland. My 15-year-old father and his parents beat that date by three days and literally were on the last train across the border.
An award-winning, short documentary by filmmaker Cyd Cohn tells my father’s story with a focus on his return visit to his small German hometown 30 years, almost to the day, after escaping. “Return” can be found on YouTube.
The Burns series points out the paradox of Hitler’s ambitions. On one hand, he thought Jews a scourge and wanted to rid greater Germany of them. On the other hand, his expansionist desires knew few limits and the lands he eyed to the east were full of Jews.
This contradiction gave rise to the “final solution.” Long before Birkenau saw its first gas chamber, millions of Jews and others deemed inferior were slaughtered at gunpoint in mass ditches. That is how locales such as Babi Yar and the Rumbula Forest acquired such sad renown.
But per the title, the series is as much about the American response as it is about the Nazi atrocities. The late 1930s was an anxious time in this country. The Great Depression lingered. Jobs were scarce and coveted. The drums of another European war were frightening just two decades after “the war to end all wars.”
Those factors yielded a dominant sentiment of nativism and isolationism. Unvarnished anti-Semitism was prevalent in many sectors and held sway in key government offices.
The aviator Charles Lindbergh, clearly a German sympathizer or worse, attracted a vast following to his America First movement. Ring a bell here nearly 85 years later? Father Coughlin, more radio personality than pastor, made little secret of his prejudice.
None of that made for a hospitable, open embrace or even acceptance of refugees, no matter their desperation. Consider the stunning fact that only 25 percent of American Jews then supported increased Jewish immigration.
Roughly 200,000 European Jews, including my parents and grandparents, made it past the gatekeepers and into America during those years. That was not nothing. Many of our allies were even less welcoming. But given the numbers of those who perished in the Holocaust, our policy was paltry and did not nearly answer the call.
Issues of immigration and fear of “the other” racked America long before the Holocaust, as they have since. John F. Kennedy proclaimed us “a nation of immigrants.” Except in the most strident corners peddling the poison of “replacement theory,” there can be no doubt that immigration, over the broad expanse, has enriched this country. It has made America what it is today.
None of this is to argue for open borders or unrestricted entry. That is obvious folly. Border control is a key function of any sovereign nation. For years, we have failed that test. As we have failed to distinguish between immigrant and refugee, and recognize the unparalleled urgency of the latter.
Further, no serious person suggests that our carrying capacity is unlimited. Even if our doors had been far more open as the Nazis ascended and made their intentions clear, there is no way we could have saved anywhere close to the six million who met their demise. But we could have admitted many more. And every life has precious worth.
Lady Liberty has stood in New York harbor through good times and bad. Her torch has shone brightest when our country demonstrated a generosity of spirit and honored Emma Lazarus’s poetic words that adorn her: “Give me your tired, your poor; your huddled masses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”
Will we do better when history again beckons?
Eric Sondermann is a Colorado-based independent political commentator. He writes regularly for Colorado Politics and the Gazette newspapers. Reach him at [email protected]; follow him at @EricSondermann