By Manferd Lindenbaum
I see the news from all over the world. I read the headlines: BORDERS CLOSED. Mothers, fathers, children and babies, all refugees, all fleeing. Even if they make it over the border, more trauma awaits them. Perhaps, in some places, a hand reaches out – a warm welcome amidst blatant animosity and xenophobia.
I know this story all too well. Seventy-nine years ago, my family was chased across a hostile border. Germany watched as 17,000 of its citizens – JEWS – were taken to the Polish border, and forced across by guns and dogs.
Under the guise of help, with horse and wagon, some Polish peasants stole some people’s luggage – a scene I see repeated today as others benefit off of the refugees’ plight.
It was October 27, 1938. I had just turned six years old. My world was my mother and father, my brother and sister, and my blind Zayda.
We walked five miles to the nearest town of Zbaszyn. Some people had money, some had connections, and fled to temporary safety. We had neither. We found refuge on the fourth floor of a burnt-out our mill, crowded together. It was called the “muhle” and it was to be our home for the next ten months. No heat nor water nor facilities, but we were together. Within 36 hours, the Joint Distribution Committee and HIAS arrived from Warsaw. They set up stations to give us food and supplies. They gave us bags to put straw in – beds, so we no longer had to sleep on the cold floor.
Two months earlier, at Lake Geneva in France, the nations of the world, (led by the United States and Britain) met at the Evian Conference to decide what to do to save the Jews. Hoping to get other countries to help, President Roosevelt had called the conference. However, the decision was made to close all borders. The Nazis took this as confirmation that they could do what they wanted. An insane search across Germany and Europe for anyone with a Jewish grandparent – first rounded up and then murdered.
I am here today because, in my darkest moments, people reached out and made a difference in my life. My story is not much different from the plight of sixty-five million refugees all over the world today. It may be hard to see – beneath a dark cloud of fear and xenophobia that is fed by falsehoods and exaggeration.
As, once again, HIAS advocates to protect refugees in America and reaches out to refugees all over the world, others are joining in. We must be active. There is great joy in making a difference.
Anyone who thinks or says that today is different, that this situation is unique, misses the point. When we deport a Syrian or a Mexican or an Iraqi, who has come here in search of safety for themselves and their children, there is no difference.
I remember my mother, Frieda, my father Otto, my sister Ruth, and my Zayda Tsvi. As my parents wanted safety and a life for their children, so too, do the mothers and fathers trying to save their families today. My family was murdered in a concentration camp. The borders were closed – no place to run. Some of my extended family found refuge in South Africa, Australia, and what was then Palestine. As they tried to save the lives of their children, they turned where they could, facing few and dif cult options. There is no difference.
Arriving at Ellis Island in 1946, I remember passing the Statue of Liberty. Has that symbol lost its meaning? Have we forgotten what it means to be America, the free?
Just like my experience 79 years ago, if we turn our backs, things will get worse. If we open our arms and embrace the refugees, we will have a better world.
In 2014, together with most of my entire family, I returned to retrace the last steps that my family took. From Grodno, where my sister, mother, and father had run to after ten months as refugees – retracing the steps to where they were rounded up, marched to Auschwitz, and murdered.
We retraced our steps to where my brother and I boarded a Polish troop ship on August 29, 1939 which took us to safety to England on the Kindertransport. My sister was not allowed on the boat. Ten thousand other children had already arrived in England on the Kindertransport. The United States said, “NO.”
One and a half million children were subsequently murdered.
We continued to Zbaszyn where we had been chased across the border, October 27, 1938.
We crossed back into Germany and instead of boarding a train like I had 76 years before, we got on bikes so we could see Germany in a new light. Eighteen strong, we biked 200 miles to Unna, my birth town. There were many events that took the darkness from my mind thinking about Poland and Germany – riding alongside my grandchildren as a testament to life.
Roland Hendricks, a German friend from my hometown, joined us the last two days with his bicycle. He is now teaching German to refugees from all over the world. He sums it up by saying, “They are us.”
I am proud of Germany’s efforts to open their doors and the one million plus refugees they welcomed.
When we arrived in Unna, we were greeted by the Minister from the Church, who took us to the Jewish Synagogue and Community Center. His empathy made a difference as did the warm welcome we received.
We just cannot stand by as families all over the world are suffering as refugees. If we volunteer and welcome them, they will keep our country great. If we follow the lead of HIAS and encompass them, they and their children will become Americans of whom we can be proud
Manny Lindenbaum escaped Europe on the last Kindertransport with his brother in 1939. Today, he and his wife Annabel, are dedicated to helping refugees find a safe, welcoming home.