Donald Trump, This WWII Refugee Exhibition Has a Lot To Teach You
At New York's Center For Jewish History, an exhibit focusing on Jewish refugees after WWII has many piercing, emotional parallels to today's refugee crisis, and the racism around it.
While the global refugee and migrant crisis has already been grabbing headlines for months, the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris complicated the issue further.
That was not true, but Republican candidates in the Presidential race have leapt, inflammatorily, on the issue, stoking fears around Muslims more generally.
The fallout from Paris will likely throw European policy toward refugees into even more chaos than before: the Polish government swiftly declared it would no longer accept the EU’s multinational refugee plan, and regional officials in Germanyhave also expressed reluctance to continue accommodating new arrivals.
Media coverage of the topic has frequently invoked history. Multiple outlets have framed the influx of Syrians and other nationals as “the worst refugee crisis since World War II.”
'After the War: Recovery, Relief and Return, 1945-1949' showcases photos, pamphlets, personal documents, and other archival materials related to Jewish refugees following World War II.
For David P. Rosenberg, the exhibit's curator, seeing the present refugee crisis through a historical lens promotes empathy.
“One of the things we see time and time again is history repeating itself,” Rosenberg told me when I toured the exhibit last week. “Looking at what’s going on today, unfortunately WWII really comes to the forefront. By trying to tell these stories, we see that refugees throughout history had the same feelings that people reflect time and time again.”
The most powerful part of the exhibit are eight original telegrams, sent by survivors of Terezin concentration camp after it was liberated.
Most are penciled in block letters, and addressed to relatives in Brooklyn, Amsterdam and Los Angeles. “WE ARE HEALTHY BUT WITHOUT KNOWLEDGE OF JULEK AND CHIL.,” reads one.
Another says, “DAUGHTER OF YOUR DEAD BROTHER MACHEL HEALTHY. WANT TO COME OVER TO YOU. PLEASE WIRE TEREZIN.”
“These are only eight from a very thick folder,” Rosenberg told me. “The first time, I couldn't get through the folder. It was very heartbreaking for me. I think the yearning to know what’s going on--with the world, with your relatives, really comes through with these.”
Rosenberg thinks about these telegrams when he reads about how vital cell phones have been to refugees and migrants journeying to Europe.
For vulnerable and traumatized people, few things are quite as important as the ability to maintain contact with loved ones.
Similarly, Rosenberg sees parallels between the present and past in the ways refugees build communities. Jewish communities and organizations were instrumental in helping resettled people thrive in their new lives--a role that Muslims are playing today.
Rosenberg pointed out a few items in the exhibit that highlight this very point.
There is an employment record belonging to a woman named Rosalie Westreich, a Polish-born Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1939 but returned to post-war Germany to aid refugees with the American Joint Distribution Committee or JDC, a Jewish relief organization that supplemented the work of UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which had been created during the war to help deal with its aftermath.
Also on display is an English-language newspaper produced by residents of a displaced persons' camp in Germany, signifying a desire to build community ties by covering camp life in a lingua franca.
The exhibition’s opening address was delivered by Atina Grossman, a history professor at Cooper Union and author of Jews, Germans, and Allies: Close Encounters in Occupied Germany.
The timing of the exhibition, and much of its content, underscore the connections between past and present.
Nonetheless, there are contrasts to be found with the ways they each played out on the ground. As the war ended in Europe, between seven and eight million displaced people were living in territory occupied by Western allies, and many voluntarily repatriated after the fighting ceased.
Within a year, only around a million remained, 300,000 of them Jews--many of whom had endured or escaped atrocities that made both returning to their home countries or remaining on German soil unthinkable.
“Everyone knew this was temporary--it was a crisis that needed to be managed,” Grossman told me over the phone. “It took place in a context where there were two dominant powers that could control and manage the situation.”
These were, of course, the allied military occupation and UNRAA.
This structure wasn't perfect, Grossman acknowledges. But having a streamlined authority over refugee issues, on defeated and occupied territory, certainly facilitated efficiency.
“What you have today is refugees pouring into different sovereign nations who are insisting on their sovereignty, even as they are united in the EU. So that’s really different,” she continued. Not to mention the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees--the logical heir to the role once played by UNRRA--is cash-strapped and devoid of real authority.
Nor, as you may have noticed, is there a military occupation in Europe unilaterally calling the shots about refugee issues. Instead, these decisions fall to individual national governments, lending the crisis ambiguity and confusion largely absent from the post-WWII era. And while many of the refugees remaining on occupied territory beyond 1946 eventually hoped to be resettled in countries like the U.S., Canada, or Israel, refugees and migrants today overwhelmingly wish to stay in Europe.
That isn’t to say the handling of the refugee crisis following WWII was perfect: a scathing report by academic Earl G. Harrison described horrendous conditions in refugee camps run by Americans: “We appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them except that we do not exterminate them,” Harrison wrote.
Grossman believes the critique goes too far: compared to today’s refugee relief efforts, she said, “there was actually less chaos, and more care and control.”
However many logistical, bureaucratic and tactical differences there may be between the crises of then and today, the emotional parallels are impossible to ignore.
For one thing, our collective moral framework for understanding refugees of conflict and persecution, and our responsibilities to them, was largely shaped by the horrors of the Holocaust.
Community-building among refugees, of course, is vital to counterbalance the other obvious parallel between the post-war experience and today’s: the anxieties about resources, and the impact outsiders will have on existing communities. While the Paris attacks have certainly exacerbated these fears, it’s worth remembering the humanitarian convictions that compel us to support refugees in the first place.
One pamphlet on display offers a succinct and powerful answer to this familiar dilemma: the cover of a booklet distributed by the JDC reads, “THE REFUGEES ARE NOW AMERICANS.”