The World Abandoned Jewish refugees in 1939; Will We Do the Same for Syria?

In 1938, Betti Oppenheim, a Jewish mother living in Nuremburg, Germany, saw the writing on the wall: her family would leave, or they would die. They applied for visas in the United States, imploring distant relatives still traumatized by the Depression to make the steep down payment required for their application. "I have two hands, and I will work," she declared, insisting that the lives of her family would not come at the price of poverty.

The visas came through, and the family escaped. Betti's 11-year-old son Henry - my maternal grandfather - later reflected on his arrival to New York: "As the vessel glided on, I saw Miss Liberty on my left, as clear as a silhouette... I felt that this was such an inviting country; a wonderful sanctuary of good will after the turbulence and heartaches of troubled European life. I fell in love with the New World at first sight."

While the Oppenheims found sanctuary in America, many fought zealously to keep Jewish refugees off their shores. Writers in the United States warned that an influx of Jews would "foreignize us;" British officials railed, "The way stateless Jews and Germans are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage."

These voices succeeded in preventing millions of other Jews from fleeing to safety - including my paternal grandfather, Lolek Gastfreund. As a child in Nazi-occupied Poland, he spent three years in the concentration camps, endured the systematic slaughter of his parents and siblings, and watched the Nazis bury his cousin Nathan alive in a mass grave, just months before liberation.

As I see the photos of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned last week on his way to Greece, I can't help but think of my cousin Nathan.

It goes without saying that there are vast differences between the Syrian civil war and the Holocaust. But as children continue to drown and families continue to suffocate in their efforts to escape, it is worth recognizing the painful echoes of our past humanitarian failures. How many children must die for the global community to protect the fleeing victims of war?

Somewhere in Syria, fleeing barrel bombs, disease and starvation, is another child whose life depends on this question. Decisive action will be needed to save him. The United States has accepted only 1,434 Syrian refugees since the start of the conflict, in contrast to the 65,000 that the International Rescue Committee has called for. The Gulf states have accepted almost no Syrian refugees, despite possessing ample capacity to do so. European countries could shoulder a larger share of the responsibility as well. And Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, who host the largest Syrian refugee populations, could substantially alleviate the desperation these families face by expanding local support systems and dismantling workforce restrictions. Driving each country to make the necessary changes will require both political will and funds; as of June, only 23% of international aid pledged to address the crisis had been provided.

As was the case in World War II, a chorus of voices is urging against refugee resettlement efforts. Most prominently, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has railed against refugees for "threatening Europe's Christian culture." It is important to think clearly about the challenges of refugee resettlement, and to recognize how these challenges differ across populations. But these realities are not an excuse to abandon or demonize those most desperately in need.

We should first acknowledge that many of these fears are overblown. On the economic front, research indicates that refugees contribute substantially to their host countries if allowed to work. My paternal grandfather built a small business in New Jersey, and my maternal grandfather became the chief psychologist at Northampton State Hospital; Steve Jobs himself was the son of a Syrian immigrant. One can only wonder about the life Aylan might have led had he survived to reach his aunt in Canada.

On the security front, while the radicalization of Syrian and North African refugees is a potent fear, this risk is ever more reason to implement proactive humanitarian policies. Inaction on the refugee crisis itself can directly fuel radicalization. Research from the Carnegie Middle East Center indicates, for example, that a humanitarian vacuum in Lebanon has enabled extremist groups to expand recruitment efforts by stepping in as leading providers of refugee aid. This is an arrangement the international community can ill afford.

While the dynamics driving today's crisis are complex, the imperative to help is blindingly clear. Aylan Kurdi did not choose to be born in Syria, just as my grandparents did not choose to be born in Europe, and I did not choose to be born in the United States. We need not accept a world wherein the lottery of birth determines whether children flourish or drown. The recent outpouring of support for refugees from Germany, Iceland, Sweden and elsewhere is a powerful testament from those rising to meet the challenge. When we look back at this moment in history, let's tell our grandchildren that we did the same.