Early the morning of March 24, 1944 a German patrol pulled up to a home on the outskirts of in the Polish town of Markowa. The Germans had been alerted by a local police constable to the fact that eight Jews, comprising members of two different families, had secretly been given shelter by Josef Ulma, a prominent citizen and the town librarian. The Germans surrounded the home, and after extracting the Jews shot all eight of them in the head on the spot. Not satisfied with this bloody deed, the Germans turned to the Ulma family themselves. For hiding Jews in defiance of German martial law, Joseph was shot. The fact that Jospeh’s wife Wiktoria was his eight months pregnant, failed to soften the Soldier’s hearts and she was shot as well. Finally, the Nazis turned their attention to the UIma’s six children, now weeping loudly and profusely at the sight of their dead parents. Methodically, mercilessly and in cold blood they were shot as well. The eldest of the Ulma children was eight years old. The youngest was but two.
In the aftermath of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, that left some 129 mostly young Parisians dead, there is a great deal of talk on the Right of sealing borders and of turning would-be refugees away to seek asylum elsewhere. The fact that the attacks were carried out by citizens of North African decent, and perhaps by Islamic radicals who may have infiltrated Europe via the Syrian refugee route underlies this logic. And the horrific nature of the attacks makes these calls appealing even to people who would ordinarily be repelled by Europe’s xenophobic nationalist parties. In America the calls to seal borders are at least as loud, and just as indiscriminate. To cite just one example, yesterday New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that if it were up to him, the United States would turn away even a boat filled with orphaned toddlers. The wealthiest nation in the world, he explained, does not have the resources to care for them. Meanwhile, as of this count, 28 governors (all but one headed by Republicans) have made it clear that Syrian refugees are not welcomed in their states, and, perhaps pressured by the dynamics of a rather unusual and unpredictable presidential contest, even “moderate” Republican canidates like Jeb Bush are suggesting that if America is to take in any refugees, then we should turn separate the the Muslims from the Christians, and provide shelter only to the latter.
Left of center pundits, meanwhile, are appalled at this sort of talk, and hardly an article is written that doesn’t reference the SS St. Louis, a ship full of Jewish Refugees fleeing Hitler’s Germany that in 1939 was first turned away by Cuban authorities and then U.S. authorities in Florida. The passengers, many of whom have heartbreaking tales of scraping every penny they could find to buy a ticket, and leaving family behind in hopes that they might be able to earn enough money in their new homes to send for them, were forced to return to Europe where scores perished in Hitler’s concentration camps. The analogy is an apt one, since the horrors that families fleeing ISIS and the Civil War that has enveloped Bashir Al Assad’s Syria are not unlike those that Jews experienced in the dark days of World War II. Atrocities from all quarters in that conflict are appalling. Indiscriminate bombing and shelling of populated areas by the Assad regime is a daily occurrence, and life under ISIS’ cruel implementation of Sharia law is a harrowing existence. Torture and executions are every day affairs, bodies fill the streets and mass graves are common. ISIS is a Sunni extremist organization, and despite American news reports of a genocidal campaign against Christians, the true target of ISIS’ wrath are Shia Muslims and followers of other non-Sunni sects who ISIS view as apostates deserving of death.
There is one problem with the SS St. Louis analogy, however, that liberals largely fail to mention and that seems to animate much of the antipathy to refugees on the Right. Popular antagonism to accepting large numbers of Jewish refugees during the Second World war was largely economic in nature. As Ishaan Tharoor, writing in the Washington Post notes, surveys of American attitudes towards Jewish refugees in 1938 revealed that 67% of Americans did not want to accept large numbers of refugees largely because in depression era America, economic resources were already stretched thin. But Republican opposition to admitting Syrian refugees seems more concerned with the possibility that in admitting thousands of Muslims we might be admitting scores of potential future terrorists as well (to be sure, the GOP has a long history of xenophobia and a blanket skepticism of non-European immigration, but I think it would be a mistake to conclude that concerns over potential future terrorism are a red-herring, or just an excuse to justify the party’s perennial anti-immigrant policies. At worst, such concerns are just one more reason why Republicans as a whole dislike immigrants). In 1939, no one wanted to bar Jews entry into the United States because they feared that these scores of Jewish refugees might include secret Nazi sympathizers among them. But the worry that current or potential future militant Islamists might be nestled among Syrian refugees is a not wholly unwarranted concern.
It is for this reason that I have begun this piece by citing the sad case of Joseph and Wikctoria Ulma and their six children. Not only does this awful moment in European history remind us that radical, Wahhabist Islam hardly holds a monopoly on unspeakable evil, but it seems to me that the Ulma family’s terrible sacrifice for a just and noble cause carries a hopeful lesson that should speak to us just as loudly as the shameful legacy of the SS St. Louis. It is a message that we hear time and time again, in popular media, in academic lectures, in Churches and Synagogues throughout the country. It is a message so common that it’s become trite. We hear it. We mouth it. We pretend to agree and acknowledge it. But when the time comes to live it, we all too often fail. And that message is this: doing the right thing is not always easy. It often carries risk. It can go against our selfish interests, and can even run counter to our natural instinct for self preservation.
When he was seeking the GOP nomination in 2008 Senator Fred Thompson had a proposition he liked to repeat, that he felt showed the greatness of this nation: “This country,” Thompson said, “has shed more blood for the freedom of other people than all the other nations in the history of the world combined, and I’m tired of people feeling like they’ve got to apologize for America.” Thompson’s statement is a tribute to an America that is built on the bedrock principle of sacrifice in the name of freedom and justice, not just for our-selves and our own, but also for the well being even of our distant neighbors. It is also a stamen that, in the context of our current debate over Syrian immigrants, one has to wonder just how much of it still holds true. For really, just how much sacrifice is the average American willing to make if he refuses to give shelter and succor to the homeless victims of a genocidal regime, women, children, weak and elderly, on the off chance that a small handful among them might want to do this nation harm?
Josef Ulma did the right thing. He sheltered eight Jews and paid for his brave and principled actins with his life, as well as that of his whole family. We celebrate the Ulmas, and rightly regard them as heroes and Righteous Among the Nations. If you have ever wondered how you might have acted had you lived in Germany during the second World War and been faced with the opportunity to shelter a Jewish family, then this moment in history is bestowing on you the opportunity to provide some semblance of an answer to that question. Oh, it’s an imperfect answer to be sure. For even if you find the courage to agree that we should take in the desperate Syrian refugees who huddle at our borders, objectively and statistically, the personal risk that you are undertaking is infinitely smaller than the risk that the Ulma’s took. Even if there are future terrorists among the 10,000 refugees that the Obama Administration has committed to accepting, the truth is that in a nation of 300 million, your chances of being killed or wounded in an attack are, for all intents and purposes, negligible. So answering “yes” to the question of whether we should accept these miserable souls is no guarantee that you would have shown the courage of the Ulmas under similar circumstances. But the converse does not hold. If you can’t even find the courage to offer aid and succor these miserable souls, given the infinitely low risk, then I think that there is very little question how you would have answered your Jewish neighbors when they came knocking on your door, in harried desperation, seeking shelter from the Nazi militants who sought to do them harm.