History often teaches us good lessons if only we’re wise enough to learn from them. Some lessons affirm our American greatness; others give us pause for shame. As the country debates, too harshly it seems to me, whether and how to accept Syrian refugees, I’m reminded of another time, nearly forgotten now, when we shunned those abroad who were desperate for refuge.
During the war years of the 1940s, the Nazis created a monstrous system for exterminating European Jews. In the West, as evidence of their network of death camps accumulated, President Roosevelt dithered in response, giving little more than lip service to any rescue initiatives. By August of 1943, even First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt urged her husband to devise a plan to rescue the European Jewish community. The President replied: “I don’t think this needs an answer at this time.”
And so the gas chambers and crematoria continued their terrible work.
Honest scholars of that era don’t rush to judgment on Roosevelt, observing that he was clearly consumed with strategies to end the war as soon as possible – and surely that’s a reasonable explanation. But it’s still not an acceptable excuse.
Even prominent members of FDR’s own political party, men like Mondale and McGovern, while passionate in their esteem for Roosevelt, felt he had made two great mistakes during the war – mistakes in which even members of his state department were complicit. They were the internment of Japanese American citizens and his reluctance to liberate the death camps and accept refugees here.
Now some 70 years later, Americans are dithering again about granting sanctuary – this time to Syrian refugees. As did the Jews of World War II, they too number in their midst women, children and the elderly.
But as the New Year dawned, a Vermont event struck a bright spark of hope for me, when my wife and I went to a concert featuring Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – the one that concludes with the magnificent choral Ode to Joy – performed by the Green Mountain Mahler Festival orchestra and chorus. All the musicians and choral members donated their talents for the event, with revenues from the overflow crowd benefitting the Vermont Refugee program.
As I sat there enjoying the glorious finale, I thought to myself how perfect it was that a performance of great music in tiny Vermont could reach out and help care for people so very far away and so desperate for refuge, displaced from their homes through no fault of their own.