The Banality of Refugees
Refugees are typically faceless, or nameless, or both. But a case file, one that has had me tearing up while writing this, gave me a profound appreciation for refugees.
I’m a descendant of refugees, and their files fell into my family’s possession some years ago. I’ve never been quite the same since reading the files, and part of this story needs to be shared.
Several years ago, through a connection made by my wife, my family was handed the file of my father’s family’s settlement in the United States in 1951. HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, sent us the documents. In 1954, HIAS had merged with the United Service for New Americans (USNA); USNA had settled my father’s family, and HIAS still had all the files. It’s worth noting HIAS’s motto: “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.” More on that later.
In the case files, the protagonists are my grandfather (my namesake — for those wondering why I am so proud of my name), his wife, and his brother. The story’s simplicity is what makes it so heart-wrenching, in the most beautiful and maddening ways. The simple version is it’s a tale of brotherly love. The report’s opening paragraph notes:
“A perusal of the record indicated that the family arrived 4/10/51 on agency assurance under the D.P. Act [Displaced Persons Act of 1948, amended in 1950] destined to the agency in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They were reluctant to go on, however, in view of the fact that Mr. B. has a brother in New York City.”
It’s perhaps the most touching story I’ve heard in my family, and it’s written by case workers in bureaucratic, frank language that captures the essence of each character thanks in part to its distance from them. This isn’t some version of the story told differently by each member of my family. It’s paperwork sent from office to office via Western Union, filed by people who were trying to settle hundreds of thousands of people into this country but still took time to describe seemingly insignificant details about what these immigrants wore and how they acted around one another.
In the midst of all of the write-ups, the case worker says of the brothers, “They have lost their whole family and they would like to be together since there is a great and close tie between these brothers.”
That’s the Holocaust, and its aftermath. They have lost everything. They have each other. They made it this far. They can’t be as far away as Pittsburgh and New York City.
My father and his family were refugees, fleeing Poland into the Soviet Union, traveling through Siberia, surviving the duration of World War II in Kazakhstan, and then eking out a living as DPs in Germany — GERMANY of all places! — before finding a home in the United States of America. And they could not be one state over from the other. They had to be in the same state, in the same city, because after spending so many years losing practically everyone they ever knew and everything they ever had, here were two brothers who were determined to defy even the people trying to help them.
Another favorite line in that first page of paperwork: “He saw values here which exceeded any values which the family would find in Pittsburgh.” To no disrespect to my friends (and family members) in Pittsburgh, I find solace in my grandfather espousing “New York values” well before those were such a contentious topic in the last election cycle. The values, of course, weren’t New York values per se; they were family values. They valued family first. Who knew New York values and family values were once one and the same?
The paperwork then piles up, crossing desks among USNA, New York Association for New Americans (NYANA, closed in 2008), Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), and Germany’s Director of Emigration Service. At some point, I’d love to track down the families of the individuals — Amy Zahl, Leah Lawentman, Marcel Kovarsky, Bernard Goldstein, an A. Pascoe (author of the above quotes) — who were involved in this case. They’re all heroes. They kept a family together. And I can only imagine how many other such cases each of them handled.
The banality of the rest of the files is also striking. If there’s “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt writes, then there is also “banality of good.” These case workers are people all doing their jobs, and they ultimately respect that my grandfather, his brother, and their spouses are doing their jobs. They all fought for a family. And they won. Everyone involved won. America won too, with a family that contributed in various ways to its social fabric.
And look, my family didn’t go on to found Apple or Google or anything like that. We’re just part of the hundreds of millions here who try to give more than we take, and some of us do an okay job at that. Somewhere along the line, a number of people in this country have listened to music produced by or had a polyp removed by or ate a hot dog cooked by some of those refugees who became DPs who became Americans. At one point, people like my family members were considered potential Nazi spies, and they were turned away from America. It’s easier to imagine some foreigner supposedly fleeing an enemy regime coming over here to blow us up than to cook us a hot dog. But again, it’s the banality. Most of the refugees wind up cooking our hot dogs or driving our taxis or delivering our babies or managing our offices. How boring is it that they wind up just like everybody else?
There’s another text I’ve been thinking a lot about in light of all this history. It’s from Leviticus, chapter 19. Verses 33 and 34 are coming up a lot; I’ve seen adherents of Christianity discuss this on Twitter. The Bible states:
33 When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them.
34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.
It’s the plea to “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee,” a la the HIAS motto. Unlike a lot of other commandments, these laws have a reason behind them: you were foreigners too. And then there’s the whole “I am the Lord your God” bit to denote how serious this is.
This is a Lord your God who famously does not like to mince words, so along with ‘signing’ His name to it, it’s telling that He makes this commandment as a two-parter. First, don’t be a jerk to refugees, or DPs, or immigrants. All that matters is that if they live among you, you’re forbidden from being mean to them.
But it’s actually more than that, because you have to treat them as one of your own kind. It’s not easy, but look, your ancestors’ ancestors were unwanted guests in hostile territory, and it sucked. Oh, and you think everything’s going great now, don’t you? Mazel tov. But that doesn’t last forever, and you’ll be foreigners again sometime, and you’ll really wish you paid attention to the Biblical version of karma that was laid out so clearly here.
So, there’s that.
But then there’s a pretty curious follow-up. Keep reading chapter 19:
35 Do not use dishonest standards when measuring length, weight or quantity.
36 Use honest scales and honest weights, an honest ephah and an honest hin. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.
Why would the Bible go from this passage on respecting foreigners to one on honest weights and measures?
One reason that comes to mind is to think about the people in this situation where honest weights and measures are needed.
If I take a yellow cab ride from JFK airport to Manhattan and the driver says it’s $100, I know he’s screwing me. But if I go to Los Angeles — a city I’ve been to many times — and the driver says it’s $100 from LAX to downtown LA, I don’t know what’s right. And if I go to London, a place where I speak the language and have visited several times, I have no idea what to expect, or even what currency they’re using these days. And if I go to Tokyo or Dubai or Lagos, well, good luck with that. And if I’m in any of those cities — even LA — and I take an Uber or Lyft, I have no clue if I’m ultimately paying more or less than I would have paid a standard cab.
Why don’t I know? Because I’m a foreigner. I’m a stranger. I need protection.
In my hometown, I don’t need protection. I need to be aware of my surroundings. But I’ll probably be alright. If something does happen and it affects me in some significant way, I know who to call to try to remedy it, or I can call the people who know who to call. It’s probably not the end of the world, and if it’s dire, I at least have a leg up.
It’s the foreigner who’s more likely to be a victim. It’s the foreigner who might not know he or she even is a victim. It’s the foreigner who is much less likely to know what to do if he or she discovers they are victims.
The Bible delivers the perfect segue without a segue. It’s one of those great “you figure it out” moments in the holy books.
Want to really see how it all fits together? Look at 33, 34, and 35 again. If it just went from the “do not mistreat” commandment of 33 to the “do not use dishonest standards” of 35, there would be a connection, but it’s tenuous. They’re still foreigners you can’t mistreat.
Now, add in 34. “Love them as yourself.” Once foreigners are treated as your native-born, you’re not even worried about whether or not someone is a foreigner. Once everyone around is as if they’re native-born, then you have to look out for everyone else. You can’t think about when to literally cut corners. Everyone’s a local, so you better give them the local rate.
Oh, and you need the reminder why? Because you were a foreigner once. And, for emphasis, this is from the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt where you spent hundreds of years enslaved as foreigners, instead of them treating you like locals and giving you the local rate.
We all were foreigners once. Some of us were refugees, and some of us were opportunists. Some of us were a lot of both.
But for refugees, they might have nothing. Just imagine the possibility that some of these nameless, faceless people we’re talking about are people who “have lost their whole family” and “would like to be together since there is a great and close tie between [them].”
They spend years being vetted, before their file even gets to a resettlement case worker. They’ve been cleared. They can come.
Sure, they’ll be strangers. They’ll be foreigners for quite some time. How can they not feel like foreigners themselves?
But that doesn’t matter. We can’t mistreat them.
So what can we do?
What can anyone do?
“Love them as yourself.”