This is my 80th Passover celebration in the United States since my family and I left Germany.
I was just 3 years old when our family lefty Germany. It was four years after the Nuremberg laws and four months after Kristallnacht, and the synagogues in ruins foreshadowed for us that the worst was yet to come. The Jews of Europe were in imminent peril.
As a parent and grandparent, I now can start to appreciate how difficult it must have been for my family to leave our town, where our family had lived for hundreds of years, to go to the New Country, where we did not speak the language, knew practically no one, and were taking the clothes in our few suitcases.
The circumstances left them no option, but it was not easy. But I know that as refugees to the United States in 1938, my parents were very lucky to enter the land of the free. Perhaps that is why I have been so bothered after watching and hearing the Republican Jewish Coalition’s convention in Las Vegas in March, where they were cheering on issues of immigration. The president of the United States was the speaker. He was quite definitive about closing the borders and not permitting additional refugees to enter the United States. At various times in history our borders have been closed, not permitting those in need to enter. The president even said “Our country is full.”
This is what was said when the nearly 1,000 passengers of the MS St. Louis were on the border between the United States and Cuba. They could see the lights of Miami, only to hear from the leadership, “Our country is full.”
The words, tone, and message of the president’s speech were very disturbing, but they were not surprising. Sadly, he has been a president who looks to shock the American people. What disturbed me more was the clapping, cheering, applause, and explosive sounds from the mainly Jewish audience, assembled on Shabbat.
How can my brothers and sisters, fellow Jews, be so cruel? Don’t they remember “be kind to the widow, the orphan and the stranger”? Don’t they remember that “we were strangers in the land of Egypt”? Do they not remember that it was their cousins who were on that boat that was turned around? (More than two-thirds of its passengers were killed during the Holocaust?)
How can we cry out as victims and then become heartless victimizers?
The night that I heard the cruel and inhumane comments and acts of my fellow Jews, I had a nightmare. In my dream, as my parents and I were walking down the gangplank, we were stopped by uniformed guards and forced to turn around and re-enter the ship. I woke up in a cold sweat. There but for the grace of God and some good fortune went I. Today, my kids and grandkids are the beneficiaries of that plan and fortune. How dare we not acknowledge that?
I am one of the lucky ones in my family. None of my father’s immediate family, including his sister and his brother, survived. They are now in the unmarked cemetery called Auschwitz.
If the gates would have been opened, perhaps their fate would be different. Let us not make that mistake again.
Justin Wimpfheimer moved to Fort Lee after living in Tenafly for 42 years. Now, he says, “I am semi-retired, so I can spend more time doing volunteer work.”