Refugees

StLouisHavana.jpg

MS St. Louis, in her home port in Hamburg

Claire, who’s 88, has lived in Forest Hills since shortly after she moved to America in 1951.  I had this conversation with her just now, right after I’d thought I’d solved everything to my own satisfaction in my own mind.

“Claire, may I ask you something?  There’s something I’m trying to think through and I’d like your opinion on it in particular.” 

“Yes?”

“The Syrian refugees…”

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Jewish refugees aboard the St. Louis, in Havana Harbor, before they were refused entry to Cuba.

“I stop you right there, and I tell you, I know what you are thinking, and it is not the same.  Because the refugees that came from Europe, they were Jews, they were running.  These, these have ISIS with them.”

“They’re running away from ISIS!”

“Yes, many are, but it is true that ISIS is still coming in with them.  They falsify documents, they are very smart… I would be afraid to walk in the streets.  In this country, you do not know the meanness of people.  You do not know what people are capable of.  It is a pity for the innocent ones, but the fault of the suffering of the innocent ones is with the guilty ones, not with Americans.  Even if eighty percent are innocent, what will it be with the twenty percent who are infiltrating?  I will be afraid to come to Starbucks.  I do not want to be afraid again.”

I don’t want her to be afraid again either.

When she first got to Auschwitz she was assigned to be an outside worker.  They were set to filling in holes with dirt– she thinks they may have been bomb craters, holes with loose soil all around them, that they had to fill up.  And within twenty minutes, as Claire was bending down with her shovel, another worker was standing up quickly, and the other worker’s shovel handle smacked her just above her eye.  “I put my hand up, to the place,” she said, “and my hand was full of blood.  I started crying.  I thought I had lost my eye.”

The SS guard, a woman because Claire was in the female half of the camp, said “what are you crying for, animal?  You will die in this way or in another.”

“This is the cruelty of people,” says Claire.  This is how people can be, and this is what she sees in ISIS.

“We cannot change anything.  The main thing is to be in America.  I hope they will not bring ISIS in here, because, you know, Americans are not experienced, they can be fooled easily… He will have to let some in, Obama will have to let some in.  As long as they don’t come to New York.”

I can’t stand hearing her say this, but I can’t say anything in response; she is eighty-eight, and who am I to say anything to her?  She has the strongest sense of self-preservation of anyone I know; the strongest sense of the fragility of civilization; the keenest awareness of the good of civil peace in a multicultural liberal democracy; the most vivid awareness that this peace cannot survive if there are people who are determined that it not survive.

I don’t know what to think.  I know that what ISIS is is something like what had hold of that SS woman guard.  I know that we can’t imagine that, we can’t really believe it. I know we could become its victims.  And I know we could become it.

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