Children separated from their families under Trump immigration policy echoes pain of the Holocaust

Images of asylum seekers being held in cages recall the stories I had been told by Holocaust survivors whose children had been stolen, kidnapped and, in the end, were never seen again

Donald Trump has, for the first time in his presidency, given in to world outrage and signed an executive order directing border agents not to separate children and their families seeking asylum in the US. 

Trump’s “zero-tolerance” policy on immigration has been systematically detaining and separating an estimated 2,500 kids from their parents. In announcing his executive order yesterday, Trump defended his government’s policy blaming refugees who are allegedly “using their children as a ticket” to get into the country.

But as Amnesty International and others have pointed out, families and their children escaping persecution in Central America and seeking protection in the US will still be detained despite Trump’s executive order. 

Meanwhile, there are no immediate plans to reunite children imprisoned and already separated from their families, some of whom continue to be mistreated while in custody. According to one lawsuit filed in federal court, immigrant children in one Houston holding centre are being forcibly subdued using psychiatric drugs.

My late father, who survived the Holocaust, used to tell us the story of a wise old Rabbi whose son was so deeply immersed in study one night that the son didn’t hear his baby crying in the next room. The Rabbi came down to tend to the crying child. He told his son: “You must never ignore the cry of a child. It matters more than all else.”

Since the Trump Administration’s imposition of a zero-tolerance policy, I cannot help but recall this and other stories I had been told by Holocaust survivors whose children had been stolen, kidnapped and, in the end, were never seen again. 

I came across the following passages recently.

“Nothing around me is known to me. All those around me are strangers. I have no past. I have no future. I have no identity. I am nowhere. I am frozen in fear. It is the only emotion I possess now. As a three-year-old child, I believe that I must have made some terrible mistake to have caused my known world to disappear. I spend the rest of my life trying desperately not to make another mistake.”

… The officers say, “I’m going to take your child to get bathed.” That’s one we see again and again. “Your child needs to come with me for a bath.” The child goes off, and in a half an hour, twenty minutes, the parent inquires, “Where is my five-year-old?” “Where’s my seven-year-old?” “This is a long bath.” And they say, “You won’t be seeing your child again.”

They read as though they are of the same time and place. But the first is part of a story recounted by a child of the Holocaust hidden in the Netherlands in 1942. The second is more recent, a June 2018 article written by Katy Vine for the Texas Monthly documenting the work of Anne Chandler, executive director of the Houston office of the non-profit Tahirih Justice Center, which assists immigrant women and children.

In my mind, the Nazi Holocaust was a hell that could never be repeated (and must never be repeated). The murder of 6 million Jews (among them 1.5 million children) is a 20th-century horror that seems to have no real parallel. That’s not in any way to negate the terror of other modern-day genocides.

But it was after the Holocaust that the world cried “never again” to acknowledge what was a systematic and almost sheer destruction of a people using the most barbaric techniques available at the time.

And it is this plaintive call that keeps echoing today in my mind as the world sees the images of asylum seekers being rounded up and held in cages, as ordered by fiat of a cruel, cunning (and racist) president who describes immigrants as an infestation.

Comparing the Holocaust to Trump’s America risks trivializing the horrors of death camps, mobile killing units, forced starvation, ghettos, forced labour and so much more.

But I am moved to tears and reminded of another story told in our family circle of one young boy who miraculously survived the war. He remembers clearly the day the Nazi SS took away his parents – he was playing in a nearby field when it happened. Until the day he died, he cried every time he told the story, as though it were happening then and there.

And while the scale was different, the pain he felt as a child witnessing his parents being taken away is no different than the pain of the children we are witnessing today.

Perhaps I’m wrong to believe it, but under the right set of circumstances, beneath the weight of big lies told by government – and with the refusal of democratic institutions to act as a check on presidential power – the depths to which humanity can sink is seemingly a lesson we have not learned from history.

Bernie M. Farber is chair of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. | @nowtoronto

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