Last week, a work colleague courageously shared his parents’ story of surviving the Holocaust. Harold Eisenstein, a NYSUT lawyer, told how his father, David, who lived in Pruzana, Poland, was rounded up along with his wife and three children by the Nazis. They were brought to Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp in January of 1943, and separated. His father never saw them again, nor was he ever, ever able to speak about them or even mention their names.
Harold has never known the names of those siblings, or the name of his father’s first wife.
“Because of his grief, my father could not speak their names or anything about them,” Harold said.
David survived near-starvation — he weighed 65 pounds when the Soviet Red Army liberated the camp in January 1945 — and horrific hours of slave labor, including work in the I. G.. Farben chemical and pharmaceutical factories and then the crematorium.
I was not the only one in the auditorium brought to tears by his story of horror.
The Soviets helped Harold’s father recover his health, and he made his way to Germany to the displaced persons camp, Feldafing, where he endured another three years of difficult conditions. There, he met a woman, Beatrice from Chmielnik, Poland, who had spent four years in several Nazi work camps such as Skarzysko-Kamienna, the Ravensbruk women’s concentration camp, and Allach. Beatrice worked long hours in ammunition plants and survived several death marches. Allach, where Nazi porcelain and German dress swords and daggers were made, was an end point for many death marches. Beatrice was among those liberated by the Allies in May 1945. At the displaced persons camp, she married David and they had a child, Abraham, while living there. Through various connections, they were able to be sponsored and came to America, where they had two more children.
His parents never forgot the Holocaust or got over their fear of German Shepherd dogs or their anger at Polish and German people. They reacted strongly when they ran into people from Poland, because they felt they could have done more to protect the Jewish people.
Harold’s talk was on Friday, International Holocaust Remembrance Day. That same day, the president of the United States failed to mention Jewish people in a statement about Holocaust Remembrance Day — despite the fact that the Nazi “Final Solution” was aimed solely at the Jews and 6 million Jewish people were slaughtered during the Holocaust. Gypsies, mentally challenged people and homosexuals were also among those targeted and killed, though the primary focus was the annihilation of the Jewish people.
Sadness, outrage and frustration filled the airwaves and social media about the president’s exclusion of Jews on this most important day of remembrance.
Soon, the president stepped out even further onto the ledge of exclusionism. He put travel restrictions and bans on immigrants and refugees from seven different, predominantly Muslim countries. In a flash, people were detained from their trips, their lives, their families.
I joined hundreds of people at the Albany International Airport on Sunday to protest these actions. A word frequently heard in the crowd was “embarrassment.” Yes, we are embarrassed that the president of this country has enacted such hasty, harsh directives.
“No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here.” pic.twitter.com/FsdVYIsqyf
— Katelynn Ulrich (@katelynnulrich) January 29, 2017
And, yes, we are also angry. Because, thanks to people like Harold, we remember the Holocaust and we learn anew about the unbearable toll it took on people of the Jewish religion, on families, on hope, on morale, on life. We remember how sanctions of hatred often begin by targeting a certain religious group.
I don’t think anyone is opposed to screening people before they enter this country or any other ones. We want to do the best we can to provide protection. But targeting and detaining only certain religions, countries or people who have already filed documentation — no, no, no.
As Rev. Emily McNeill of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition said this morning, people who were detained, rerouted or sent back to their native countries were people who had been compiling documentation for years in order to get to America. One family had been working on coming to America for 14 years. When arriving at an American airport, they were sent back home.
“We have to stand up for our basic common values which, as Americans, include due process for everyone within our borders and welcoming people seeking refuge,” McNeill said.
There were people of all faiths at the airport yesterday. People speaking different languages. People dressed in jeans and people dressed in hijabs, or head scarves. People holding signs. Lawyers, retirees, families, children. There were women, like me, fresh from last Saturday’s Women’s March on D.C., wearing gear from that hopeful day.
Songs were shouted out over a megaphone handed from person to person, encouraging us to rise up. We were asked to keep on taking action with our lawmakers. There were people from the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, from NYSUT, from the American Civil Liberties Union. Children. And one dog, proudly proclaimed by its owner to be an immigrant as well — because, after all, Shih Tzus originally come from Tibet.
As one speaker said, unless you are Native American, “We are all immigrants.”