An immigration lawyer and Holocaust survivor were recently in town sharing stories of resilience and endurance. Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, delivered the annual Elie Wiesel Memorial Lecture last week at Boston University. At the beginning of the month, Holocaust survivor and author Eva Schloss was in conversation with journalist and second-generation survivor Jeff Jacoby.
HIAS, which recently came to attention in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings, was founded in 1881 as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Established on the Lower East Side of New York, the organization was premised on the idea that Jews would help other Jews fleeing pogroms. The goal was straightforward: to shepherd fellow Jews through the immigration process and resettle them across the United States.
The illustrious history of HIAS and its most recent directive—to help all refugees regardless of religion or ethnicity—had been celebrated at congregations all over the country on the Shabbat of Oct. 27. The Tree of Life synagogue was among the over 400 congregations participating in National Refugee Shabbat. The man charged with murdering 11 of the synagogue’s congregants specifically cited the work of HIAS as one of the reasons for his rampage. The organization’s tagline sums its goals: “Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.”
Hetfield said in his remarks, “It’s important to note that Pittsburgh was not only an anti-Semitic attack, but it was an attack on Jews for helping refugees.”
Schloss’ story began in Austria, where she was born in 1929. She told her multigenerational audience of over 700 at Brown Middle School in Newton that hers was a happy childhood, initially disrupted when her parents moved the family to Holland after the Nazi Anschluss. The first couple of years in Amsterdam were relatively calm and happy until the Nazis marched into the city in 1942, sending Schloss’ family into hiding. At the time, she and her family had a nodding acquaintance with Anne Frank’s family. Both Schloss and Frank were 11 years old when they first met at a city playground. Schloss’ mother wed Otto Frank after the war.
During his presentation, Hetfield shared a timeline of Jewish immigration against the backdrop of United States policies. With the implementation of stricter and blatantly discriminatory immigration quotas in 1921, HIAS became more international. Emissaries from the organization went to Europe to help Jews navigate visas and the attendant bureaucracy. Through World War II, HIAS continued to aid refugees and helped negotiate safe passage to Latin America and Shanghai, where Jews could find temporary refuge.
There was no such reprieve for Schloss and her family. They divided up out of necessity after her brother, Heinz, was required to report to a labor camp. Schloss went with her mother, while Heinz and their father hid in a home outside Amsterdam. Schloss recalled: “Father said being separated gave us a better chance of surviving. It was the first time I realized we were in danger.”
A Dutch nurse eventually betrayed Schloss’ brother and father, and the entire family was deported to Auschwitz. But first, Schloss, only 15 years old at the time, was detained and beaten by the Nazis to give up her Dutch protectors. Just a young teenager, she was stoic and silent in the face of violence and the threat of death. Schloss asserted how the Nazis dehumanized their Jewish victims before sending them to their deaths in gas chambers. “We were no longer treated like human beings,” she said. “The women were forced to take off their clothes in front of the Nazi guards. They shaved our heads and tattooed us like cattle.”
Hetfield made a similar point in his lecture: Dehumanization and abandonment have continuously devastated refugees. However, in 1948, the founding of the State of Israel and the establishment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were meant to ensure that “never again should people be trapped inside of a genocide as Jews were during the second World War.”
HIAS continued its work, showing up at key political conflagrations to help fellow Jews expelled from Arab countries, Hungarian Jews after the country’s revolution in 1956, Cuban Jews after Cuba’s revolution in the early 1960s, in the 1970s for the mass migration of Russian Jews and Iranian Jews after the 1979 revolution. By 2000, HIAS had assisted 400,000 Soviet Jews to begin new lives in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
After 2000, HIAS transformed itself into an organization that assiduously worked on behalf of American Jewry to help all refugees. Hetfield observed that the Torah exhorts us to welcome the stranger 36 times. “No other commandment is repeated that many times,” he said. “There’s a reason for that—it’s the hardest one to remember and follow.”
Schloss asserted: “What happened to the Jews in the 20th century captured the hearts of people all over the world. Survivors keep the memories alive. We remember all of our history. Think of Passover, the story of the liberation of our people. We remember and are proud of who we are. We are so important to the history of the world.”
In 2015 HIAS had another renaissance. The image of a 3-year-old Syrian boy washed up on the shore of Turkey galvanized the Jewish community and the world to do something about the refugee crisis. Hundreds of congregations joined the HIAS welcome campaign. Hetfield noted that under the Trump administration, the ceiling for admitting refugees, especially Syrian Muslims, has been continuously lowered.
Both Hetfield and Schloss said that today’s Germany has been exemplary in taking in millions of refugees. “Contrast that with American policy,” said Schloss. “Anti-Semitism is not just limited to Jews.” However, she emphasized, “We should not be afraid.”
In his lecture, Hetfield pointed out, “We will continue to help refugees not because of who they are, but because of who we [Jews] are.”