Commentary: I was a Dreamer (class of 1949)

By Esther Safran Foer

I was born in Europe after World War II to parents who were both Holocaust survivors and who met and married at the end of the war. Their entire extended families had been murdered. My parents were among about 300,000 Jewish survivors who had lost everything — their families, their homes and their past — after the murder of 6 million Jews. Once the survivors had made their difficult way to refugee camps, they had no place to go. No country in the world wanted Jewish survivors.

Esther Safran Foer

“None is too many” was the response given by a high-level Canadian government official when asked how many Jews should be accepted into the country during the time of the Nazi persecution of the Jews. The U.S. government, no better or worse than others, opposed nearly every attempt to help Jewish refugees. There was virtually no option for us to leave the graveyard of Europe.

This period immediately after the war is an often forgotten epilogue of World War II.

We wanted to go to Brazil, where my mother had a large family who had moved there long before the war. My mother’s uncle, Solomon, in Sao Paulo, wrote that he had arranged everything, including a place to live and a job, and that he would put up the money for our transportation and all our needs. Brazil didn’t want us. Brazil was letting in Nazis, but, according to Uncle Solomon, there was “plenty of anti-Semitism here, and they don’t want to do anything to help the Jews.”

After the war had ended, when the Communists were on the verge of taking over Poland, my family smuggled across the border from Poland into Germany, in a false-bottom truck. My mother had to put a cloth in my mouth, so that I wouldn’t make any noise on the most dangerous parts of the journey.

We ended up in a Displaced Persons Camp in the American zone of Germany.

A former German prisoner of war camp in Ziegenhain was our first home. Ziegenhain is the backdrop for my earliest memories. Or perhaps, these are my earliest memories because I have photographs — photographs where I look happy and loved — and I surely was. But now, as I look more closely and analytically at those pictures of me on a tricycle or wearing my oversized white rabbit coat, mugging for the camera, I see in the background rundown barracks, watchtowers and barbed wire fences.

I learned as an adult that the DP Camps had to be opened so quickly at war’s end that they were filthy. In more than a few cases, there was outright contempt for the Jewish refugees. In the beginning, refugees were being given even less food per day than German prisoners of war received. In Ziegenhain, we slept in unheated barracks on army cots.

Gen. George Patton, who oversaw camps in the U.S. zone of southern Germany, wrote in his diary that he believed the Jewish DPs were “a subhuman species without any of the cultural or social refinement of our times.” Patton was eventually dismissed of his command by President Harry Truman.

A former commissioner of immigration was sent to investigate the reports of poor treatment of Jews in the DP camps. He reported in late 1945, “We (the Americans) appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except that we do not exterminate them.”

Our own family was finally given permission to come to the U.S. under the Displaced Persons Immigration Act of 1948. The act was blatantly anti-Semitic, limiting immigration to refugees who had arrived in Germany by December 1945, a condition that was almost impossible for most Jews, who were known to still be making their way from the east. President Truman said he signed the bill “with very great reluctance” because by its provisions, most Jewish refugees could not qualify. My family could enter only by creating falsified documents, which changed the country and date of my birth and certified my nonagricultural father as “a 1st class farmer.” While limiting Jews, it has been said that the act permitted about 10,000 former Nazis to come to the U.S.

Uncle Solomon in Sao Paulo wrote to my mother a few months after we arrived in the U.S. in late 1949: “I am very very happy that you eventually have found a place to end your wandering, but it is still a foreign land. There is also anti-Semitism in the beautiful good land of America.”

In a general way, this is a background that I share with millions of Americans, who came at other times and by other means. I arrived in 1949, as a toddler, to this special land that didn’t especially want me but was, nevertheless, willing to fold me in and give me all the opportunities to experience America’s promise.

I grew up as a proud naturalized citizen. I raised a family that is contributing to this beautiful country in many positive ways. America’s promise has not always been kept to all its citizens and is now being offered to fewer and fewer immigrants.

My specific experience colors how I view the immigration issues that the Biden administration will now have to confront and reshape. When I look at the last four years and our treatment of immigrants, I can’t help but see myself.

Limitations on number of certain immigrants: That was me.

Incredible amounts of bureaucratic hoops that confront everyone who wants to come: That was my parents.

Walled off from the United States: That could have been me but for ambitious, persistent and resourceful parents.

Children separated from parents: That could have been me … but it wasn’t.

Living in uncertainty every time that I need to answer the question of when and where I was born: That was me.

I am possibly even the kind of “Dreamer” who theoretically could be tossed out of my country by the Trump administration’s recently established denaturalization section in the Department of Justice.

My family was fortunate in its ability to emigrate to America from a former POW camp. It didn’t have to turn out that way.

I understand that a country needs to set priorities for how many and which foreigners it will admit. But the last four years demonstrate that a country also needs compassion.

There is no good reason we cannot have realistic yet compassionate policies that fully recognize the human dignity of every person who dreams of becoming an American, even of those we can’t or won’t accommodate.

Esther Safran Foer, who lives in Washington, D.C., was the CEO of Sixth & I, a cultural center and historic synagogue. She is the author of “I Want You to Know We’re Still Here” and will participate in a conversation about her book in a virtual presentation Tuesday via Delaware Division of Libraries and co-sponsored by Seaside Jewish Community and Browseabout Books. For more information, go to © 2020 Esther Safran Foer.