In my aunt’s house, in the bedroom where I’ve often slept, there’s a framed photo of a ship’s manifest that I love to stare at. The ship was the RMS Aquitania, a Cunard ocean liner with an inky-black hull that was famous for its four smokestacks; its picture hangs in the bedroom, too. I can spend long minutes looking at these photos, first the ship, then the manifest, with its clutter of blocky print that draws my eyes up, down, and across the page until they finally settle on the name I’m always looking for: Ozcar Ratowzer. The print tells me that he was a worker from the town of Bialystok in Poland. If I trace down the column labeled “race or people,” I come to the word “Hebrew.”
Ozcar Ratowzer, also known as Osher, was my grandfather. The manifest lists him as being 16, but my family believes he was closer to 19 or 20 when he boarded the Aquitania in Southampton, England, on October 23, 1920, and began his third-class voyage across the Atlantic. The journey took seven days, finally depositing him at Ellis Island, America’s “Golden Door,” the gateway to a world without pogroms or hunger or the horror of world war. There, he would almost certainly have been met by an assembly line of doctors and inspectors, who would have poked and peered at him, pried and questioned until, content with what they’d found, they would have sent him on his way with his handful of old-world possessions and the shards of a new identity. He would soon become known as Harry Ratner.
My grandfather’s journey has always moved me, filled me with overwhelming gratitude and awe, not least because I’m aware how differently it might have turned out. Ozcar’s passage to this country was far from guaranteed. A Jewish kid of conscription age, he was barred from leaving Poland legally, meaning that he and one of his older brothers, Leiser, were forced to slip over the border with Germany dressed as cattle herders, then hide in a barn overnight, buried in haystacks. Their first attempt failed: My grandfather was caught by a bunch of pitchfork-wielding German guards and sent back across the border. His second attempt was more successful, but once in Germany, he and his brother ran into a second hurdle: They were carrying fake German passports, and, family accounts suggest, the American consul had no intention of honoring them. It was only after the intercession of their oldest brother, Kalman, a Bolshevik sympathizer turned American citizen and Freemason, that the consul agreed to grant them passage to the United States. (According to family lore, the consul was also a Freemason.)
The brothers arrived safely on Ellis Island on October 30, 1920, and soon made their way to Cleveland. The rest of the family—their parents and six of their siblings—arrived on the RMS Caronia two months later, though their journey ended less happily. My grandfather’s 9-year-old brother, Joseph, had fallen ill on the boat to America, and he died just a few weeks after reaching this country.
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Still, the family was lucky. Although they didn’t know it at the time, the United States was about to begin slamming the door shut on immigrants just like them—and it would keep that door sealed for several decades.
* * *
My grandfather’s near-miss has haunted me for years—what if he hadn’t made it to this country when he did?—but the thought has been relentless these last few months. Ever since Donald Trump’s upset victory, I’ve had the sickening sense that history is reversing itself, whipping us back to a time when a noxious, state-sponsored xenophobia gravely imperiled millions of would-be Americans. It’s not that I have any illusions about the Obama administration, with its mass deportations and failure to welcome even a fractional number of Syrian refugees. But with Trump’s ascendancy—with his plans to ban Syrian refugees, suspend immigration from majority-Muslim countries, round up undocumented immigrants, and begin construction of a “physical wall”—we seem to be witnessing the rise of something at once utterly distinct and hauntingly familiar: a revived anti-immigrant regime, a nativist moment not unlike the one that seized this country a century ago.
The parallels between that earlier period and today often get lost amid more provocative historical comparisons—to Germany in 1933, for example. Nonetheless, it’s worth considering this other quintessentially American moment, which began in the years before my grandfather made his way west and which, in the words of historian Alan Kraut, “rang down the curtain on the flexible migration we’d had before.”
During that tumultuous time, the United States was in the throes of an intense anti-immigrant fervor, stoked by world war, the Russian Revolution, and a budding love affair with eugenics. Anti-Catholicism raged, anti-Semitism simmered, and Americans were gripped by xenophobia. They feared that the masses of Eastern and Southern Europeans streaming into the country would “mongrelize” the nation, undermining its Anglo-Saxon awesomeness with their crude customs and inferior intellects. They fretted that these “undesirables” would remain unassimilated “hyphenates”—part American, part something else—for years to come. They worried that they would “be a drain on the resources of America.” And, perhaps most intriguing, they feared that many of these immigrants—Jews and Italians, in particular—were, in fact, stealth Bolsheviks and radicals seeking to flip the country red from the inside.
As the authors of a famous 1920 congressional report recommending a “temporary suspension of immigration” wrote of the Jews then living in Poland: “It is impossible to overestimate the peril of the class of emigrants coming from this part of the world, and every possible care and safeguard should be used to keep out the undesirables.”
Sound familiar? Although the specific targets have changed, some of the language and much of the vitriol spewed at immigrants some 100 years ago wouldn’t be out of place at one of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rallies, or tumbling from the mouth of his chosen national-security adviser or attorney general. Then, as now, hypernationalistic figures raged against religious minorities they deemed suspicious, scheming, and potentially disloyal. Then, as now, war abroad stirred up refugee phobias at home. And while there are differences, to be sure—while the past is never simple prelude—then, as is happening again now, the ugly rhetoric quickly gave way to ugly policy.
Three laws in particular stand out, an unholy trinity that, one by one, narrowed the range of immigrants who were allowed entry via Ellis Island. The first of these laws, the 1917 Immigration Act, attempted to do this by imposing a literacy test on immigrants, barring anyone who couldn’t read, as well as “feeble-minded persons,” “idiots,” “epileptics,” “persons likely to become a public charge,” “anarchists,” and, most stunningly, almost all immigrants from Asia. When this act failed to stanch the flow—when immigrants like my grandfather kept on coming—Congress passed the Emergency Quota Act of 1921, which restricted immigration to a mere 3 percent of the total number of immigrants from any given country already living in the United States in 1910. And when this act proved insufficient? Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, the most stringent of them all, which tightened the quotas to 2 percent of the total immigrants from a given country living here in 1890—a move that effectively slowed immigration to a thin trickle of Nordic and Western Europeans.
Over the next decades, this new immigration regime would prove devastating for would-be immigrants from a wide swath of countries. For Jews, however, it would prove catastrophic. As the razor wire of fascism tightened around Europe, scores of Jewish men, women, and, yes, children were locked out of this country—and locked into what would soon become a vast killing field. This remained the case even after Kristallnacht shattered any illusions that the Nazis wouldn’t launch a program of organized violence against Jews. And it continued even after the Holocaust began, when the United States not only refused to bend the quotas for fleeing Jews but, under the fierce anti-Semitism of State Department officials like Breckinridge Long, actively found ways to keep them out. Among the more preposterous yet effective arguments: Jewish immigrants were a potential fifth column, possible plants or spies working for the Nazis.
Even so, there were Jewish immigrants who managed to find their way into the country during these long years of exclusion. Some got lucky and slipped through the narrow bars of the quota system. Others made their way using the same means that desperate thousands use today when they find the borders of this country closed to them: They turned to “surreptitious or illegal entry,” according to the historian Libby Garland, whose book, After They Closed the Gates, tracks the long-overlooked phenomenon of Jewish illegal immigration to the United States. “There were people coming in through unguarded places on the long northern and southern border,” Garland explains, as well as via passenger ships from Cuba and Europe, on which they traveled using forged or illicitly procured documents. “There were networks of people who knew how this worked, and they would coach people.” Garland estimates that “on the order of tens of thousands” of Jewish immigrants might have slipped into the United States this way—namely, illegally—between 1924 and 1965, when the country finally replaced the 1920s restrictions.
Still, these Jewish migrants represented the minority. The unfortunate majority remained stuck in Europe, waiting as history goose-stepped relentlessly toward them. “It’s very possible that if those laws hadn’t been in place, many of the Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria, most of the Jews from Poland, would have been saved,” says Hasia Diner, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies and history at New York University.
“I think,” Diner concludes, “that one of the most significant events in modern Jewish history was the stoppage of immigration.”
* * *
It’s likely that we’ll never know the number, or full roster of names, of those refugees who sought and failed to find haven in the United States before and during the Holocaust. Yet one survivor whose story still reverberates is a woman named Rae Kushner. Eloquent and soft-spoken, with a sense of sadness but not rancor, Kushner recorded her story for the Kean College of New Jersey Holocaust Resource Center in 1982. Delivered in a quiet Yiddish-inflected accent, hers is a tale of devastation and tragedy—of a young woman whose family lived in Eastern Europe before the war and, finding that “the door was closed” to the United States and elsewhere, ended up victims of the Nazis. But it’s also a tale of stunning perseverance, in which a teenage girl managed to survive the brutality of the ghetto, the death of half of her immediate family, the white-gloved sadism of her German tormentors, and a year of fear and exposure in the vast Naliboki forest. As she said in the interview: “It’s just miracles that we are alive.”
I watched the full two-hour sweep of Kushner’s interview for the first time in December, and it has lingered with me ever since. But if it echoes a little more loudly these days, it’s because she also happened to be the grandmother of Jared Kushner, now a senior White House adviser once described as the Trump campaign’s “final decision-maker.” Jared, of course, is also married to Ivanka Trump, which makes him Trump’s son-in-law—and that makes Rae Kushner’s story, with its threads of persecution and exclusion, part of Trump’s own extended-family story, too.
As Rae Kushner described it in the Kean College interview, her story begins in 1923, when she was born in the small town of Novogrudok, in what was then northern Poland and today is Belarus. The daughter of a furrier—her father owned two stores, which sold men’s hats—Kushner lived what she called “a comfortable life, a quiet life,” with her parents, two sisters, and younger brother. They were not rich, she said, but the children were all educated at private Jewish schools, and her oldest sister even attended college. Although the town’s Jews numbered just 6,000, their world was nonetheless a vital one, a community filled with synagogues, schools, hospitals, and “a nice cultural life.”
By the mid-1930s, however, the family had begun to sense the first rumblings of trouble. “[W]e felt the anti-Semitism, we felt that it’s coming… something,” Kushner said in the interview. This sense that “something” was brewing was strong enough that a few of her father’s friends left for Palestine and urged her father to “sell everything” and get out, too. The problem, said Kushner, is that “we didn’t have where to run.”
“You know how hard [it] was to get a visa to Israel…,” she explained, referring, obliquely, to the British policies that restricted Jewish migration to British-controlled Palestine (and to the United Kingdom itself). “To America, very hard. If you sent papers, you’d wait for two, three years till you get a visa at that time.”
Despite these obstacles, it seems from a brief exchange during the interview that her family did make some sort of effort to get to the United States. “So your family, your father, actually was making attempts in 1935, ’36?” the interviewer, Dr. Sidney Langer, asks Kushner a few minutes into the interview. And she answers, “Yeah, he had a sister here in United States, my father. And we tried…but we couldn’t do nothing.” So they remained in Novogrudok, first as the Soviets invaded and then, in 1941, as the Germans descended on the town and “took us over.”
Kushner’s description of her family’s years under Nazi occupation is harrowing, and the full scope of what she experienced deserves to be heard in her own words, not simply mediated through a journalist. What can be said, however, is that during several years of unremitting horror, she lost her mother, her older sister, and her younger brother, along with thousands upon thousands of neighbors, friends, and extended family, as the Novogrudok ghetto was whittled from roughly 30,000 Jews to 350. The only way she, her father, and her younger sister managed to survive was by escaping from the ghetto in 1943 through a hand-dug tunnel—one through which all the remaining Jews attempted to crawl to freedom. Many didn’t survive once they made it to the other side, but, miraculously, Kushner, her father, and her sister did—and were eventually rescued by the legendary Jewish partisan Tuvia Bielski. For a year, they lived in the forest with Bielski’s brigade of more than 1,000 Jews until, in the spring of 1944, “he brought us out from the woods.” Novogrudok had been liberated by the Soviets.
In the Hollywood version of Kushner’s story, this is almost certainly where it would end: with liberation. But for Kushner and her family, like so many other survivors, the trauma lasted several more years, as the family sought a safe place to rebuild their lives. Novogrudok, once again under Soviet control, wasn’t an easy place for Jews—“we had different troubles,” Kushner said—and, moreover, “we were broken, broken down.” So she and her surviving family, along with her soon-to-be-husband Yossel (later, Joseph), decided to leave. But they again faced the problem that had thwarted them a decade earlier when, sensing the rising threat of anti-Semitism, they had contemplated leaving Novogrudok. “Nobody opened the door for us,” Kushner recalled. “Nobody wanted to take us in.”
Without a country to accept them, the family landed in a displaced-persons camp in Italy, where they lived three or four families to a room for three and a half years. They hoped to get visas to go to the United States, where they had family, but visas were not forthcoming. “We got depressed in the DP camp…,” Kushner stated. “A year, six months—but three and a half years!” It was in this camp, she added, that she gave birth to her first child.
For this lengthy wait, the Kushners could thank the enduring anti-Semitism of both Eastern and Western European countries, which had little desire to roll out the welcome mat for some of the Nazis’ most beleaguered survivors. But the United States also “shut its doors tight,” says David Nasaw, professor of history at the CUNY Graduate Center, whose current research examines the fate of displaced persons in Germany after the war. Anti-Semitism was certainly part of the equation, but so too were Cold War fantasies about infiltrating communists, among whom Jews—long associated with leftists and radicals—were all too easily lumped. “Congressmen say, over and over again, ‘They’re coming out of Poland, so these Jews are communists or spies,’” Nasaw observes.
It wasn’t until 1948, when Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, that the country began cracking open the door to these desperate immigrants. Yet even that gesture was troubled. Larded with a series of cumbersome provisions—including the somewhat inexplicable requirement that 30 percent of the visas go to farmers—the measure was considered so deeply biased against Jewish as well as Catholic immigrants that, even as he signed the act, President Harry Truman denounced it as “flagrantly discriminatory.”
“For all practical purposes,” Truman wrote in his signing statement, “it must be frankly recognized…that this bill excludes Jewish displaced persons, rather than accepting a fair proportion of them along with other faiths.”
Despite such hurdles, the Kushners finally did make it to the United States, in 1949. They settled in New York City, worked hard, had a family, made a life for themselves. They pushed on. Still, their difficult and tortuous journey to this country seems to have stayed with Rae Kushner years after she’d put down roots, first in Brooklyn and later in New Jersey. As she lamented toward the end of the Kean College interview, during one of the rare moments her voice rises with a sense of betrayal: “For everybody [there] was a place…but for the Jews, the doors were closed. We never can understand this. Even our good President Roosevelt, how come he kept the doors so closed for us, for such a long time? How come a boat [the SS St. Louis] went for exodus on the water and returned back to be killed? This question I’ll never know, and nobody will give me the answer.”
* * *
We don’t need the horrors of the past to validate the outrages of the present, to tell us that today’s swirl of xenophobia, locked borders, and scapegoating is wrong. Their injustice is self-evident. Still, as a pathologically cynical president resurrects some of the worst demons of this country’s past (and injects new energy into others that never died), history remains a powerful prod for thinking and acting in the present. It’s among the reasons a group of more than 240 Jewish historians, drawing on knowledge both scholarly and personal, vowed in a public letter issued shortly after the election “to resist any attempts to place a vulnerable group in the crosshairs of nativist racism.” And it’s why a dozen Jewish organizations declared in their recent open letter to Donald Trump that they are “committed to defending our country’s identity as a land of refuge.” To their ears, as to so many others, Trump’s attacks on refugees and immigrants smack all too painfully of the past, appealing to an old form of prejudice, resurrected and displaced onto a new era of migrants.
“The blatant discrimination that we’re hearing right now, that’s very much like what we were seeing in 1921,” says Mark Hetfield, the president and CEO of HIAS, a refugee advocacy and resettlement agency that was founded in 1881 to help Jews escaping the pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe. “I really thought that part of [this country’s] history was behind us and that we would no longer discriminate—certainly not so openly—on the basis of religion, and we wouldn’t turn prejudice into policy like we did in the 1920s. But here we are talking about doing that. I never thought I would see this in my lifetime.”
Hetfield has been in the refugee trenches for more than a quarter-century, most of the time at HIAS, and his work for the organization has given him a broad lens through which to view today’s Trump-enhanced nativism. Founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS is well known among American Jews as the primary agency that aided Jewish refugees throughout the 20th century—including the Kushners and my own family. In recent years, however, the organization has shifted its focus to aiding refugees from all religions and backgrounds. As Hetfield explains: “The way we describe ourselves is that we used to resettle refugees because they were Jewish; now we resettle refugees because we are Jewish.”
It’s in the service of this new mission, Hetfield says, that he’s been startled to hear the kind of dehumanizing charges once hurled at Jews now being flung at Muslims, Mexicans, and other refugees and immigrants. “It’s heartbreaking to hear the rhetoric today,” he admits, lamenting the demonization that has cast these groups as a kind of “faceless threat” invading from the south and east.
When I asked Hetfield how we can properly respond to this moment—and how Jewish experience should inform that response—he was quick to answer, citing both text and history. He spoke of the ancient commandment to “love the stranger as yourself, because you were strangers once in the land of Egypt”—a notion so “integral” that it gets repeated, in one form or another, 36 times in the Torah. And he spoke of the long Jewish experience of seeking refuge in foreign lands. “We have such a long history of having to flee places, such a long history of persecution.… So for us to say, ‘OK, we’re safe, now they can close the doors’—it’s just morally reprehensible to think that way.” His conclusion: “We have to speak out and say it’s unacceptable.”
Ninety-six years after my grandfather arrived from Bialystok, the story of his journey—of his illegal but impeccably timed emigration from Poland—remains defining yet largely invisible to the world around me. As do so many stories from that era. Once maligned, we descendants of last century’s “undesirable” immigrants are now unquestioned Americans, waltzing through this country as journalists, lawyers, social workers, real-estate developers, and, yes, White House senior advisers. That my grandfather was once part of that class of foreigners dismissed as “filthy,” “un-American,” “abnormally twisted,” “physically deficient,” and “potentially dangerous in their habits”—to quote that infamous 1920 congressional report—has largely been forgotten. The old slurs no longer follow us.
But they do follow others, slapped on by the president and his supporters, who have smeared today’s immigrants and refugees as “rapists,” “murderers,” carriers of “tremendous infectious disease,” and a “Trojan horse.” And now they’re turning those smears into policy, using them to justify orders that break up families and exclude vast, diverse, and often desperate groups of people. For those keen on exclusion, such justifications will seem convincing. But as surely as the anti-immigrant policies of the early 20th century would prove both baseless and destructive, today’s acts will unleash cruelties and consequences against the would-be immigrants of our own era that we will long regret.