EDITOR’S NOTE: The following remarks were delivered at an interfaith protest against the Muslim ban on Friday, February 3, at JFK Airport in New York City.
I am a very old ex-refugee, and I identify with anyone who shares my status. I was born in Germany to Jewish parents. I was 8 years old when Hitler came to power, 12 when we fled to nearby Belgium, 15 when the Nazis invaded that country, and 17 when I went into hiding to save my life. I left Europe on my 21st birthday to join my father—who I had not seen in six years—in New York. The United States gave me the chance to have an education, a profession and a family of my own. I am here today to pay my debts.
I especially identify with the Syrian refugees, who remind me of my young self. With their bags and bundles, they look as my family did in 1940 as we tried to outrun the German army sweeping across western Europe. On foot, we trudged along Belgium’s rural roads choked with fellow refugees, all of us attempting to reach France, which we believed to be the Promised Land. When we finally got to the border, guards barred our way because we did not have the required documentation.
Looking back on my long life, I realize that during my first 30 years, I was mostly living among people who either disliked me for who I was, or pitied me. For many of us, pity is more difficult to bear than hate. At times I didn’t know whether people disliked me because I was Jewish or because I was German.
Sometimes when I tell my story to others, they wonder whether I am bitter. I am not. In fact, I think I have had a very good life—because for every person who wished me ill, there was someone who extended a helping hand. In Germany, there were children who came to my birthday parties even though it was dangerous for them to visit the home of a Jew. In Belgium, a fellow high-school student, Maria, volunteered to help me master French.
A few years later, four different Belgian families risked their lives to hide me from the Gestapo. Four additional families hid my mom and my little sister. We didn’t know them to begin with; they just did it out of the goodness of their own hearts. When I arrived in America and struggled with English, Izzy Farber, a coworker, gave up his lunch hour to tutor me in English composition. He taught me well. Eventually I wrote and published 14 books. One of them, At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust, is a memoir about my experience during World War II.
Being a refugee has its advantages. It makes you extra-smart. Often you have to learn another language. You get to really understand another culture and you grow very compassionate. You get very good at managing your own life, and you have many friends.
It is a cliché to say that America is a country of immigrants—that’s what makes it unique. Nobody in his or her right mind would want to change that. I stand with today’s refugees and immigrants and demand a reversal of the recent executive orders, which are unjust and not reflective of our country’s soul.