Sally Horwitz would have had a lot to say about Donald Trump, terrorism, ISIS, what it means to be a refugee, and the hope and promise of America. She would have insisted that our country have secure borders and conduct extensive background checks on those seeking to enter it as refugees. She would also have great empathy for the plight of Syrian refugees who are trapped in a bloody and hateful conflict, and pray that America could be both strong and compassionate in offering many of them a safe, new future.
My mother passed away two years ago in West Bloomfield, but with the anniversary of her January 1945 liberation from the Czestochowa concentration camp and the implementation last Friday of President Donald Trump’s order indefinitely barring Syrian refugees from entering the country and restricting travel by people from seven Muslim-majority countries as a backdrop, I’d like to share her
recollections as a homeless, stateless refugee who survived the Holocaust and traveled alone — at age 17 — to America.
“It was July 16, 1949, my 17th birthday just has passed. ‘What am I doing here on this ship crossing the Atlantic?’ I am feeling despairingly alone as the Marlin Marlene plods the ocean toward the United States. Only a few Jews are on board this troopship, loaded to the bulwarks with thousands of displaced persons, mostly Ukrainians. I peer over the deck at the water’s rushing wake, thinking, ‘Would my life ever be stable?’ What is about to face me in a new country, in an unknown city?
“It had been 10 years of horror, of constant danger and ever-present death since my world had broken down. All my family, except for me and my two sisters, had not lasted out, neither had most of the Jews from throughout Europe. It had all started with the divebombing of my hometown in Poland, Zwolen. It was Sept. 3, 1939, and our first sign that World War II had befallen us. The Holocaust with its destruction of the Jewish people followed soon after. I and my sisters had amazingly been together through all the years of near starvation, disease and constant danger. From the crowded ghetto to the slave labor potato farm to the concentration camps, we had survived.
“The retreating Nazi army had abandoned us in the Czestochowa concentration camp from where we had been freed by the Soviet forces. Although we had been freed, the chaos in Poland, along with Russian despotic misrule, had hastened our need to leave Eastern Europe and its developing Iron Curtain. To reach a safe haven at Bamberg in the American Zone of Occupied Germany, we had wended our exhausting way over the mountainous borders of Czechoslovakia and Austria.
Four years later, at last, the American government had eased its immigration rules. We could enter the country, provided papers could be signed indicating that a place to live and the promise of a job was ready for us — this was done by benefactors in New Haven, Conn. As a single young woman, I had set sail alone, without my newly married sisters, from the port of Bremerhaven.
“After almost two weeks at sea, it seemed as if the ocean crossing was going to take forever. Just at the point of weariness, an exhilarating site is coming into view on the distant horizon. All on board, even the seasick, rushed to the deck. There, to be seen, was an imposing figure with an outstretched arm holding a gigantic torch. For certain, this was the fabled Statue of Liberty of which I had heard so much. A chill raced through my body. At last a symbol of welcome awaited me after so many years of being unwanted. It was telling us, ‘You are safe, you are free, no one can harm you here.’ Dusk is falling, but the ‘new world’ is beckoning with its flickering lights in the distance, too numerous to be counted.
“The Marlin Marlene headed straight for the docks in as much as Ellis Island no longer was a necessary stopover for newcomers. I cleared customs easily for I had nothing, absolutely nothing to declare.”
As a Jewish community, we have experienced trauma, pain, hatred, death and displacement. We have also endured indifference, hardened hearts and the nagging presence of anti-Semitism abroad and at home. We are living in turbulent times. Our own experience requires us to be vigilant in protecting those who are oppressed, inside and outside of the Jewish community. For we, too, once came to these shores with nothing to declare.
By: Arthur Horwitz, JN Publisher