2016 2nd place: Sarah Taekman

Annual Holocaust Remembrance Essay Contest

School: Chapel Hill High School

America’s involvement in the Holocaust is almost always deemed “lacking”; the U.S. did not become involved in Germany until around 1945, when the Holocaust was wrapping up and millions were already dead. We wondered–what more could we have done to help those being persecuted? Why didn’t we act before it was too late? The approach our country has taken to repent for this inaction is education; we devote months in school to learning the build-up of the genocide, the important players, why six million were murdered–and no one did anything to stop it. Yet while we focus on the past in order to prevent future bystanding, we fail to notice a very similar situation unfolding in front of our eyes–the Syrian refugee crisis. With more than 250,000 dead, 4 million migrating out, and 8 million displaced within the country, the people of Syria are desperately seeking help from foreign countries. And while the causes of the crisis are not the same, America’s treatment of today’s Syrian refugees closely mirrors America’s mindset in regard to its Jewish immigrants in the 1930’s and 40’s. America’s targeted ignorance and xenophobia towards Syrian refugees is a situation found earlier in our country’s history during the influx of Jewish immigrants seeking shelter from the Holocaust, mirrored in our rejection of their religion and a lack of emphasis on their situation.

Recent hardships Americans have suffered have made us less receptive and more suspicious of foreigners–Islamic ones in particular. Numerous terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS worldwide, such as in Paris and San Bernardino, California, have served to further ramp up a feverish Islamophobia that has been in the works since 9/11. As ISIS gains a wider presence, the American public begins to generalize about all Muslims, claiming they are extremists and dangerous to our country. This public outcry against Islam is mirrored in our history by a distinct rise in American anti-Semitism in the late 1930’s. Arguably, the cause was different: anger over American suffering during the Great Depression was directed at the Jews, who seemed to be prospering in spite of everyone else. While the tension never reached anywhere near the hatred the Germans were inflicting on European Jews, several anti-Semitic politicians were at the fringes of American politics, and Jews were constantly equated with Communists. Americans wanted nothing to do with Europe, much less their problems and Jewish refugees. As the warning signs of a mass-scale state-sponsored genocide, such as the Nuremberg Laws and Kristallnacht, came into play and European Jews began trying to escape persecution via immigration, the U.S. State Department made it more and more difficult to obtain entry visas, citing it as “national security.” By the start of the Final Solution and the U.S.’s entry into World War II, the stream of Jewish immigrants was virtually non-existent. Public hostility towards certain religions, both then and now, has drastically cut down the number of refugees admitted into our country.

It seems as though we hear something about the crimes and terrors enacted against the Syrian escapees every day–a bombing, a boat full of refugees abandoned at sea by their smuggler, a family torn apart. We should be scrambling to help, correct? But as we hear act after act, the stories blend together and we simply grow numb to them–a little murder is no longer remarkable to us. We’ve seen firsthand that it takes highly horrific stories–like Aylan, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned while escaping to Turkey and washed up dead onshore–to spur American interest in foreign refugee aid. It begs the question: with all the terrible acts committed during the Holocaust, why did the U.S. act not earlier? For the same reason we’ve been losing interest in helping Syrian refugees–we grew used to the horror stories, and over time there was a lack of emphasis on the atrocities committed by the Germans. While earlier acts of violence, such as Kristallnacht, gained front page news coverage and recounted the destruction of Jewish houses, businesses, and synagogues, coverage of the Final Solution itself was rather lacking; reports were on pages 6 or 7 in newspapers, did not always establish the ethnicity of those being killed, and used sterile and inhuman words like “exterminate”. There was a detachment from others’ suffering and the notion of distance from their problems–the fact that the conflict was an ocean away was emphasized, and a vast majority of Americans felt that the war and the Holocaust didn’t affect them, so why should they care? While rumors of death camps travelled overseas, it wasn’t until the liberation and documentation of the camps that Americans began to grasp the true horror of the Holocaust. Because neither the Jews, nor the Syrians directly impact our lives, we found–and still find–it more difficult to bring ourselves to action.

Lack of empathy, downplaying horrific acts, and alienation: these factors isolated us from the suffering and murder of 11 million in Europe. Horrified and ashamed of our inaction, we collectively swore to prevent mass suffering on such a large scale from ever occurring again and to help those in need. But we’re already struggling with this pact. As the death toll rises and more Syrians seek refuge in America, we’re reluctant to let them in. Out of fifty states, only ten have declared they will take in Syrian refugees. Most states cite their rejection of refugees to be for the protection of their current residents–but from what? Syrians driven from their homes? Families looking for somewhere–anywhere–to go? People tired of running? Refugees who have lost everything and are fleeing to America to protect the only thing they have left: themselves and their families? It brings to mind memories of the not-so-distant past, when the Jews, stripped of their rights and humanity, came to us seeking help–and we greeted them with barred doors, leaving them to their demise.

So, as Americans–will we decide to learn from our mistakes? Or are we doomed to repeat them?