“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
Kendra’s grandparents were both Holocaust survivors. Her grandfather, Felix, spent two years living in a Swiss refugee camp at Diepoldsau before escaping to the Dominican Republic. Her grandmother, Martha, left Germany for Britain, and then also made her way to the Dominican Republic.
Of trying to leave Austria in 1938, Felix wrote:
Standing in line in Vienna for days, for months, in order to receive a valid passport was nothing unusual. Thousands of Jews, foreigners, or simply fearful people did it. Every week there was new information: those with Czech ancestry had to wait until next week; those with relatives in Poland had to re-apply; passport photos larger than so many millimeters had to be re-made. Just constant harassment. The situation got worse, and when we heard the rumor (everything was a rumor!) that the Swiss border should be closed in a few days, we had enough, said good-by to our parents and friends, and one evening took a train ticket across the country to Dornbirn. Belongings: one handbag with one change of underwear, a camera, the equivalent of $10.
This is what it is to be a refugee – leaving everything behind except what you can carry.
After two years, Felix had the opportunity to leave the Swiss refugee camp. He was eager to do so, because as a refugee he was not allowed to gain employment in Switzerland. Though he and his fellow refugees found many ways to teach and entertain each other, most were craving the opportunity to leave the camp behind. The Dominican Republic offered him the hope of starting life anew. But why there? Because the U.S. did not allow Jewish refugees at that time, for fear one of them might be a Nazi spy.
In July of 1938, a poll in Fortune Magazine showed 67.4% of Americans were against allowing German, Austrian, and political refugees into the United States. A year later, a Gallup’s American Institute of Public Opinion poll showed 61% of Americans were against letting in 10,000 Jewish refugees (mostly children). It wasn’t until 1944 that America began taking in Jewish refugees. By that time, millions of European Jews had been killed.
Jews like Kendra’s great-grandparents – Rudolph and Risa Bauer (Felix’s parents).
Felix actually secured visas for them to flee Austria and join him in the Dominican Republic; but they kept finding reasons not to leave. Because even when your entire world is falling apart, and your people are being massacred, leaving is still sometimes more terrifying than staying.
They never made it to the DR. Instead, they died in the concentration camps, along with most of their extended family. Felix was an only child. He was left with no one. (This story is why I took Kendra’s last name, and our kids are all Bauers…)
Martha’s family fared slightly better, with many escaping the Nazi regime. Her brother, Rene, was not so fortunate. He tried to escape Germany, and made it as far as Bosnia, where he was shot by the Nazis on October 13th, 1941.
Martha and Felix met in the Dominican Republic, married, and had Kendra’s dad, Boris. They eventually immigrated to the United States when Felix was offered a position to teach at Erskine College in tiny little Due West, South Carolina.
Ten years after he fled Vienna, Felix reconnected with his life-long friend Johann Zelenka. They exchanged letters, including this one, from Johann:
The following is not easy for me to write; I want to continue where fate ripped us apart.
1938, for many a year of desperation and misery, persecution, oppression; -for others, hope and light, and the end of the constant anxiety for the acquisition of the daily bread; secession from destitute, and the promise of a better way of life. How little we knew at that time of life what need and misery truly are. If we had seen it then, many would not have faced the destiny of the persecuted ones with such callous indifference. One must experience in one’s own life persecution to fathom its impact.
As you know, I was a member of the illegal N. S. D. A. P. (National Socialistic Workers Party of Germany –the Nazis). In front of you I have no reason to gloss over anything. The reasons — like those for many former socialists — of various kinds. As far as it went for the stability of the finally reached position, at last to earn a living for oneself, aspiration for financial independence, all these had the greatest impact. Even today, I have to reproach myself, that it was paltry and egotistic.
The first chilling frost fell on this illusion when the various persecutions started. First of all, according to program, the Jews. This was not only a cheap point of the program, but it also had financial remunerations. This kind of politics had been proven throughout Christian history to be most popular. In the beginning, being already brain-washed, I tried to shrug them off as unfortunate isolated incidences as occurring before by Heimwehr and other obscure illegal formations. When, after thorough accolades to the freedom fighters of the February revolt, the Socialists were persecuted, it dawned on me for the first time that the action had been organized from above. Today it is clear to me that it all was the prelude to war.
Now I am coming to a sad chapter in your life and in mine. It started with your last visit in August 1938 to say good-bye. How deep my hurt was I could see in the faces of my parents. For the first time we all felt the numbing shame that throttled us, and which would never leave us again. To lose a friend whom we respected for his worth and whom we loved, because he was hunted down was more than we could take. When you refused to enter our home in order not to hurt us with suspicion and had left, we broke down, realizing the maelstrom into which we were sucked. Your decency of being concerned with our well-being in the hour of leave-taking from your roots your family, and your youth was overpowering to us.
Johann, despite his growing disillusionment with the Nazi party, was swept into military service, and eventually ended up as a prisoner of war. Finally freed in 1947, he returned to Vienna. He describes life after the fall of the Nazis:
The system left after the chaos: authorization papers for food and clothes, rationing stamps, standing in unending lines, the fight with the official incompetence, – this takes our time. We all have completely forgotten what peace is, what privacy means; it returns mercifully slowly to us, so that we won’t be overwhelmed by it. Sometimes
my sister-in-law tells her children fairy tales: “once upon a time, we went to the Konditorei, and bought chocolate and cookies, just for pennies, as much as the children wanted.” Time consuming are the chores for which there is no professional help: tailoring, repairing shoes, electrical repairs, plumbing, etc. Every saving means a step toward a civilized living.
Looking back at the actions of the government and military leaders, including Hitler, Johann wrote:
Today, I certainly realize that all these puffed-up activities had to be introduced by macho underlings to develop the right climate for the upcoming conflict. Hitler was a master of working with the self-esteem of the otherwise deprived masses.
Today, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Trump signed an executive order, stating, “I hereby proclaim that the entry of nationals of Syria as refugees is detrimental to the interests of the United States and thus suspend any such entry.” His reasoning, “We want to ensure that we are not admitting into our country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas. We only want to admit those into our country who will support our country and love deeply our people.”
Trump’s latest actions are too reminiscent of a time when fear kept us from doing the right thing, at the cost of millions of innocent lives like Risa’s, Rudolph’s, and Rene’s. Yet so many people are turning a blind eye… not able to believe that we, Americans, could be anything like the Germans of the late 1930’s.
Though the Holocaust is in our recent past, it seems we have already forgotten its lessons. Refugees and immigrants have always been a vital part of American history, Felix and Martha Bauer included. Though the majority of America didn’t want Jewish refugees, that didn’t stop the Bauers from embracing their new homeland when they arrived. They loved this country, and would be distraught at the way so many Americans have turned their backs on fellow human beings. Ignorance and fear is no excuse to turn a blind eye to suffering.
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.” – Primo Levi, Holocaust Survivor