(for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 19:13)
German author Anne Voorhoeve’s beautiful YA novel, My Family for the War begins in 1938 Berlin with Franziska’s best friend Becca leaping five feet from a window to a nearby tree. Why? Because she and Franziska have taken upon themselves the goal of mapping every hiding place and escape route in their neighborhood. Franziska’s family has been Protestant for two generations, but the Nazis consider her Jewish and thus subject to the same deprivations and random attacks by former schoolmates endured by the Becca and all the others.
The book details Franziska’s teen years, beginning with her family’s decision after Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) to send her on the Kindertransport to live with a foster family in England. They turn out to be an Orthodox family who teach her, among other things, what a mezuzah and a Seder are.
It’s a wonderful coming-of-age story, but–why am I still thinking about this book? I reviewed it already, for Friday’s issue of the Sewanee Mountain Messenger (www.sewaneemessenger,com).
I think because it remains a question to me why Britain allowed in so many refugees (10,000 children were brought in on the Kindertransport before the outbreak of war closed the borders), when the United States not only kept its doors shut to them, but new policies under President Hoover and upheld by FDR in the 30s made it so difficult to get into America that the rate of immigration from Germany actually dropped to 10% of the allocated quota.
Now, I totally understand why the presidents and Congress were reluctant to encourage immigration. The Great Depression was still raging, and there was huge resistance to the prospect of competitors for what few jobs there were. Some Americans were in such desperate poverty that they pushed their own children out of the house to fend for themselves. (Read Irene Hunt’s amazing No Promises in the Wind, a YA novel I reviewed for the Messenger on 2/3/12). And even when the Great Depression began to ease, our habit of fear did not, and the country remained staunchly isolationist. No wonder Congress voted down the Wagner-Rogers bill of 1939, which sought to temporarily go around immigration policy to admit 20,000 Jewish children.
It was a nice idea while it lasted.
Yet Britain did relax its immigration policy to do just that, after religious leaders appealed to the Prime Minister and Parliament to grant temporary refuge to children fleeing Nazi persecution.
I wonder: where were our religious leaders? And–where were our hearts?
Does anybody else see any echoes here of our recent border crisis, when those thousands of Latin American children were riding the “Train of Death” to seek refuge? (I do understand that since summer, the numbers have dropped dramatically.) Here we have again a country reluctant to take refugees in, a president somewhat ignoring a politically unpopular issue, a Congress–well, last year’s Congress didn’t do much of anything, anyway: not sure why resolving the immigration crisis would have been any different.
I know I’m hugely ignorant about all that’s at stake here. I have friends in the border states who inform me in no uncertain terms of their special concerns. If our lawmakers haven’t been able to come up with a working policy towards immigration, I’m certainly not about to try.
But–it does seem like we the people of the United States do bear some responsibility to at least think about the whole issue. To talk about it, and without the usual “I’m conservative/You’re liberal/so I’m not going to listen to you” and vice versa stalemate. I’m with Pope Francis: people of different opinions and beliefs need to be able to dialogue. About this, as about other matters.
The Kindertransport began only because a few people cared enough get the ball rolling and because a whole lot more people offered to take thousands of children into their homes.
I’m not at all suggesting that we’re in a similar situation here.
But–what do we care about?