In the wake of Kristallnacht, some Jews were able to flee Nazi controlled Germany. Yet, when the St. Louis bound for Cuba sailed across the Atlantic, they were not allowed to disembark. Eventually, they sailed back across the Atlantic where various nations took in a few hundred Jews each.
It should not be forgotten that anti-Semitism was not only a problem in Germany nor were the theories of race and religion and fitness for life*. (Have you ever wondered why white people are called Caucasian or why it matters?) The idea of a Jewish nation-state was not wholly altruistic on the part of the Gentile world even if it was a much better “solution” than that offered by the Nazis.
Although I am very pale and blue eyed, having grown up in a “mixed marriage” home in the seventies, I am not unfamiliar with racism. My mother is of british descent and my step-father emigrated from Pakistan (another European “solution” — this time for the Muslims) in 1970. One of the most frightening experiences of my childhood was my family taking a trip from Canada to the Detroit zoo. I have no recollection of the zoo. What I recall is as we drove through one part of the city my mother ducked down in the front seat and my older sister and I were told to duck down in the backseat so that a “colored man” was not seen driving with a white woman. The fear was palpable. Then, through another part of the city, my parents switched positions. I could go on but that example should suffice for now.
Everyone is familiar with the seemingly clichéd expression: one who does not know the past is doomed to repeat it.
Yet how can we forget story of the Holocaust. It is nearly ubiquitous in our story-telling and cultural consciousness. We repeatedly tell and are exposed to stories of a persecuted people being oppressed by or systematically eliminated by a tyrant with Nazi-like ideals. Of course the story is older than the Nazis, indeed, I think the description of this human tendency is one of the key themes of the TaNaKh and the Christian Scriptures. While Daniel is set in the time of Babylonian rule, it points to the very Nazi like tendencies of Antiochus IV during the era of the Greek Empire.
(i.e. Star Wars, Harry Potter, X-Men, Captain America, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Heroes, V for Vendetta, Matrix, . . . the list could go on. I have not even included the many movies or documentaries that are more historical in their depictions like Spielberg’s brilliant Schindler’s List. Right now, Spielberg’s little girl in red is a Syrian boy washed up on shore.)
What disturbs me, is that we can feel sympathy and not act? Is it that we will only act and recall this story when we are the one’s who are the victims? I have worried about some of what I see as a co-opting of the Holocaust narrative to garner sympathy for particular groups and agendas. Has the ubiquity of this narrative and its use and abuse in pop culture made us immune to it when a truly analogous situation arises?
Let us, Canadians and Americans (I now live in another “mixed marriage” of sorts and am a resident alien) do better than we have done in the past. Moreover, let us go beyond letting people in who arrive on our shores. Let us invite them into our homes as people invited stranded passengers into their homes in the wake of 9/11.
Update: see a similar argument from a Jewish perspective click here
* I am the father of a severely disabled son. See my other blog Where the Sidewalks End.