“Every Knock on the Door is a Blessing from God”
-Hamid and Xhemel Veseli, Albanian Rescuers
As a teacher for almost 40 years now, I have learned to ask my students what at first seems like an absurd question. I ask it anyway: Could the United States have taken in 9 million Jewish refugees in 1938?
They look puzzled. I ask it more subtly: Could we have dramatically reduced the number of victims of the Third Reich if we had altered our immigration quotas and refugee policies in the late 1930’s and early 40’s? But then I ask it again in its seemingly absurd form: Could we have taken in 9 million Jews? And could we have added a million others to make it an even 10 million? Roma and Sinti, Homosexuals, the developmentally disabled and others deemed “racially inferior...those deemed genetic dangers to the Master Race?”
As the students get busy collecting their personal knowledge about history concerning immigration quotas, the Great Depression, the the rise of Nazism, I remind them about the tipping point occurences of 1938; that is, the Evian Conference of July, and Kristallnacht, the pogrom, of November. As they make their final list of the reasons why we could or could not have done the large scale act of rescue of 10 million people, I insist that they remember and factor in the lost recognition that Hitler actually wanted to solve the Jewish Problem, especially regarding German and Austrian Jews, through emigration. He simply wanted them to leave, albeit stateless and penniless. His plan failed because there was no one, no nation, to take the Jews in. Even the refugees who escaped westward got caught when the Reich defeated France and swept through Belgium and Holland. This was Anne Frank’s fate, for example.
When the conference on refugees was convened at Evian, France in July of 1938, all the countries present, with a few limited exceptions, proclaimed their version of “the boat is full.” No one could take in any refugees, pleading domestic and economic troubles of their own. The Australian delegates infamous statement is perhaps fundamentally true of all the nations’ excuses. When asked if Australia could take in any Jews, their official replied "... we have no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one.” Doors closed. Hermetically sealed by racism.
I go on to teach my Catholic school students about Fr. Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest, who was a propagandist of great skill---not in Europe, but on our own shores. Coughlan’s weekly radio address--broadcast across the United States every Sunday--the Christian Lord’s Day--spewed hate in classic anti-semitic terms, accusing Jews of being both rapacious capitalists and insidious atheistic communists, job stealers and trouble makers. Coughlan’s anti-immigrant, anti-semitic message fit perfectly with those notes sounded by others in America at the time. This screed was sounded all in the context of an insistent isolationism, intending not only to keep the U.S. out of war but to keep the refugee crisis at a long arm’s length. Very few of Europe’s desperate people were let in.
The infamous case of the ship the St. Louis symbolizes that betrayal. In mid-1939, unable to discharge over 900 of its Jewish passengers (who had thought they could land safely in Cuba,) the ship floundered off the coast of Florida until the Secretary of State in the Roosevelt Administration, Cordell Hull, prevailed upon the president, to deny entry. This denial was over the insistence of Eleanor Roosevelt that the ship be allowed to land and the threatened passengers given sanctuary. A third of the Jewish passengers on the St. Louis lost their lives after returning to Europe.
To mention Eleanor Roosevelt is to begin to introduce the notion of conscience. She was so incensed by her husband’s decision to turn away the St. Louis, that when she heard a year later of another ship with Jews approaching in September of 1940, this one named the Quanza, sailing from Portugal, Eleanor intervened and insisted on asylum. Eighty Jewish passengers were allowed to disembark in Norfolk, Virginia. My friend Kathy Rand’s father was one of them. He was a Czech Jew who immigrated to France, who then fled south across the Pyrenees just ahead of the Nazis.
Eleanor Roosevelt’s courage perhaps inspired others within the Roosevelt administration who became active in working against the stream of apathy and prejudice to rescue Jewish refugees. Notable among these was Josiah DuBois, a Treasury Department underling who gathered evidence that officers in the Departments of State and Treasury who were obstructing efforts by the American Jewish community and their allies to finance and facilitate the rescue of refugees. DuBois’ whistle-blowing, 18-page memo was one of the catalysts for the creation of the War Refugee Board, which, among other late but meaningful achievements, provided financing of Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg, along with his team, is credited with saving over 100,000 Jews in Budapest in the Nazis final days.
To mention Raoul Wallenberg is to mention another exemplar of conscience. He was a member of the Swedish Embassy staff in Budapest and, using funds channeled through the American connections of the War Refugee Board, was, in the final months of the war, able to fund safe houses for Jews, and provide Swedish protective documents to them. According to witnesses, Wallenberg was even able talk down the German officer in charge of the final liquidation of the Budapest Ghetto, pointing out to him his fate being on the losing end after the war. Wallenberg’s skills were seen as either so threatening or so intriguing to the Soviets that he disappeared somewhere in the their vast Gulag and we still do not have the details of his fate. The example of his conscience remains to inspire us.
My friend Livia Grunfeld is eternally grateful to Wallenberg for her life. She came to Mercy High in January to speak about her experience with him in those harrowing “last days” in Budapest and described in detail her rescue by Wallenberg and his team. Her gratitude to them is immeasurable.
There were many other righteous diplomats during the war. They include the names Sugihara, Lutz, Bingham, Fry, Perlasca, Duckwitz, Rota, Vohich, Radagales, Ulkumen. These were men who were representing their home countries (some unofficially) in Nazi occupied Europe who, usually against orders, used their ability to issue official paper--transit visas, protective orders, passports, etc. to save thousands. With my students, I call them “Paper Weapons” and they become part of our exploration of how non-violent weapons were and could be effective against the Nazis.
A diplomat rescuer whom I have not mentioned but to whom I am particularly drawn is Aristide de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux. Thousands of Jewish and other refugees made their way into the southern zone known as “Free France” which was of course controlled from the city of Vichy by a collaborationist government--it was not a safe place for Jews to stay. De Sousa Mendes, after a weekend of solitude and discernment in the Bordeaux consulate, open his office to 30,000 emergency visas to people fleeing the Nazi’s, at least 10,000 of them Jews. He was assisted by Rabbi Chaim Kruger, who collected and bundled the Jewish refugees’ documents to assist the consul’s office. De Sousa Mendes was disobeying the direct order of the fascist Portuguese head of state, Antonio Salazar. Summoned back to Lisbon by the dictator, de Sousa Mendes was stripped of his position and banned from all employment, including the law, for which he was trained. His 15 children were barred from attending universities in Portugal and the family lived in poverty, helped only by the small Jewish community there who provided the family food and paid their medical bills.
My friend’s father whom I mentioned earlier as landing with the Quanza in Norfolk, Virginia, was carrying a passport signed by Aristides de Sousa Mendes.
After we have wrestled with this historical analysis, it is pretty clear to my students that yes, we the United States, and certainly other nations of the world, could have taken in 10 million people or more. Most of them have come to see clearly that our closed doors were more about closed--even poisoned-- hearts. We study how immigrants have always added to rather than subtracted from their communities. Our hatred of immigrants was irrational and biased.
I then ask my students: “And what about now? How many can we take in?” Then we begin the analysis of what relevance this Holocaust history has to the people from Central America, like the ones on caravan to the border. What light does that mostly dark time shine on the splitting up of families, the children separated from their parents, on the asylum aspirants waiting like criminals in jails today? These immigrants from countries like El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala where we Americans, through our Cold War and other manipulations, supported violence and created chaos which is still gripping those countries and devastating those homelands from which they now seek to flee. Then we see these hounded, desperate people facing a country al norte, the United States, that looks a lot like the faces of the world at the Evian Conference in 1938. Our current president recently even used the language: ‘We are full’--flatly stating there is no room for those requesting asylum. The current administration has added to that refusal the threat to charge refugees money that they do not have to apply for asylum? Can betrayal have a more sinister countenance?
Beyond our borders, on other shores, what does Shoah history say about the refugee crisis where today we have more refugees in the world than even during World War II? How does the history of the Shoah interpret the closed doors in Europe, where more and more countries are rejecting the most desperate of Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, East Africans? And what does Shoah history suggest to us about the persecution of Muslims in Asia, from Rohingya in Myanmar to the Uighurs in China to the Muslim minority in India? As we must chart the real resurgence of antisemitism in our world, do we not also have to acknowledge that hatred of Muslim by Hindus and Buddhists in Asia, as well as by many populists in Europe, Australia and the United States--is an equivalent menace across our globe? In our focus on extremist Islamists, only a fraction of Muslims in the world, we have succeeded in demonizing all Muslims everywhere. And Muslims are paying often with their lives for our demonization of them. They are increasingly victims of our betrayal of them, and are force to languish in limbo as persecuted ones desperately seeking safety on shore they will never reach.
Speaking of Muslims, perhaps the most dramatic story of righteous rescue of Jews during the Shoah was achieved in the majority Muslim nation of Albania. Allow me for a few minutes to take you across the thresholds of the homes of the Muslims and Christians of Albania, where up to 2000 Jews were beneficiaries of the tradition of radical hospitality, the “promise” known in that culture asBesa. Albania embodies a form of rescue done not in government halls or at the desks of diplomats, but in homes.
Albania at the beginning of World War II, had a Jewish population of 200. At the end of the war, the Jewish population was close to 2000. This is the great reversal of the “Devil’s Arithmetic,” a term used to describe the record keeping of the Gestapo and its executioners as they sought to account for the ending of every Jewish life. The astounding ten-fold increase in Albania could be labeled then “Angels Arithmetic,” but that would be misleading because these mostly Muslim, mostly poor, in all ways marginal, Albanian rescuers were very, very human. Their humanity is staked on one measure: hospitality. They had a radical ethic of hospitality; any stranger that came to your threshold was welcomed to the point of defense of their life. You crossed into an Albanian home and you were fiercely protected as family. This is the tradition of ‘Besa’ which can be inadequately translated as “fidelity” but includes a degree of startling inclusion that the world rarely gives to the stranger. They did not pass through these homes after a meal and a night of rest. They stayed. They were not hidden behind walls or in basements but they were given Albanian names, wore Albanian clothes, ate Albanian food, slept in Albanian beds, and learned Albanian words to protect them.
The Nazis directly occupied the country and tried to round up the Jews they knew were hiding there but the network was close to airtight. Angels’ Arithmetic: 200 to 2000, definitely the only country in Europe to have more Jews at the end of the war than at the beginning.
As an interfaith group like yours can appreciate, there is a faith journey behind the powerful interpretation of this Besa ethic. Albanian Muslims are Sufi, specifically a Sufi group founded by a monastic order called Bektashi. Their origins are in Turkey where they were persecuted by the religious establishment in the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and into the early 20th Centuries. The Bektashi leadership fled west and found refuge in Albania among Sufis who had come earlier. These Muslims were ready to put their history of persecution alongside the persecuted Jews, ready to apply the best of their Muslim faith, now wedded with Besa, this ancient hospitality mandate of Albania. These Muslims were ready to perform the most extraordinary righteousness of all: a fierce rescue of the despised that inspires all of us to carry out this radical hospitality towards those on the margins in our own lives times.
Two weeks ago, on April 23rd in Washington DC, a Jewish congregation, Adas Israel, hosted two women who are descended from an Albanian family that rescued two Jewish families in their homes. The Albanian Ambassador to the United States was also there. The Jewish periodical, Moment,co-founded by Elie Wiesel, describes this event in commemoration of Yom HaShoah, which also was organized to gather support for a Syrian refugee family, whom Congregation Adas Israel is sponsoring. These Albanian children of rescuers said:
“Our parents were devout Muslims and believed, as we do, that every knock on the door is a blessing from God. We never took any money from our Jewish guests. All persons are from God. Besa exists in every Albanian soul.”
In the refugee crisis we face today, this is a resource upon which we can draw. Each one of us has full possession of it, though it often lies dormant unused. Yet it is the surest of all gifts; it is our version of Besa. It goes by the name of conscience. The Catholic tradition, as it renewed itself in the Second Vatican Council, articulated a profound understanding of conscience. In the document Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope,) the Council says:
In the depths of his conscience, man detects a law which he does not impose upon himself, but which holds him to obedience. Always summoning him to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to his heart: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of man; according to it he will be judged. Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a man. There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.
This compelling description bears repeating at least in part and with inclusive language. We listen to it with people like Eleanor Roosevelt, Josiah Debois, Raul Wallenberg, Aristide de Sousa Mendes and the Albanians in mind:
Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a [human being.] There [one] is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in [one’s] depths.
In this voice, we heara call to open our hearts and hearthsto those the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus called: “....the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to be free.” This Yom HaShoah, may the memory and the call to conscience of Eleanor Roosevelt, Josiah DuBois, Raoul Wallenberg, Aristide de Sousa Mendes and all the precious people of Albania who practiced Besa, be a blessing to us all.
May we close with the words of de Sousa Mendes: “I would rather stand with God against Man than with Man against God.” May we all find where that standing place is. And then act from there.