“For you have known the heart of the stranger….” (Exodus 23:9)
The picture above shows my mother, Regina Ohringer, mostly hidden by the man in the white suit in the middle. You can see on the right my Aunt Lottie. They were with their parents on the SS Flandre, a French ship that in May, 1939, along with the German ship, the St. Louis, was trying to bring its Jewish refugee passengers to freedom in Cuba. When Cuba changed its mind and would not let them disembark, the ship went to Miami Beach. President Roosevelt instructed the Coast Guard to block the ship from docking. My mother and her family were forced to return to France, where a few weeks later the Nazis overran the country. Fortunately, due to the combined efforts of generous Chicagoans like Grant Pick, Sr., Sam Block (of Jenner Block Law Firm), and William Paley (of CBS) my mother and her family were able to get to America in 1941 by Pan Am flying boat.
Because of this personal history I cannot stay silent when I see what is happening to legitimate refugees who are coming to America for the same reason my family and maybe yours arrived, so well captured by the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty. If we stop being a country that welcomes the poor, tired and frightened, then we no longer are serving our famous mission that President Reagan liked to call “the city on the hill”. Obviously we are required to protect ourselves from terror. But think of the countless Jewish refugees not allowed into America during the Holocaust because they might be Nazi spies. Think of the cruel American Japanese internment camps. Have we not matured as a country in 70 years?
When, in the 1970s, my mother was well established in this country she began taking me and my twin brother with her to furnish the homes for Russian Jews who were fleeing the USSR and being welcomed in the U.S. I know in her way she was trying to give back for the belated gift of being welcomed in this country. I hope all of us feel a debt to help others, just as we or our ancestors were helped.
My synagogue, Temple Sholom of Chicago, had planned to welcome a refugee family this spring. Our Sholom Justice group will be doing whatever they can to keep us ready for the time when we can enact our plan.
In the meantime, I cannot stand by and let our country sink into cruel xenophobia. We are better than that.
Included in the poem on the Statue of Liberty are these words: A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning. Imprisoned lightning? Perhaps this refers to the latent power in each of us to redeem the world though righteous acts of kindness for others. If so I hope we find a way to release this lightning, through pressure on our government to open our gates to the needy and persecuted, and through welcoming the tired and poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
My mother has passed away but her voice is still strong. It says to me: “Take care of these people!”