Millions of people have read Anne Frank’s diary to understand the horrors of the Holocaust. But the fate of Frank and her family is also a disturbing reminder of what can happen when the U.S. turns its back on refugees.
On Friday, people around the world commemorated International Holocaust Memorial Day, including President Donald Trump, who then rolled out drastic plans aimed at restricting refugees.
A number of Jewish organizations have spoken out against Trump’s actions ― the parallels between the experience of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe during the Holocaust and Syrian refugees today are hard to miss.
While Frank, a German refugee who died in a Nazi death camp at age 16, is now widely idolized, Americans at the time may have viewed her with the same indifference they currently feel toward refugees from Syria and elsewhere.
Frank was a teen when she wrote her now-famous diary, an evocative chronicle of the years her family spent hiding from Nazis in Amsterdam. They were eventually discovered and sent to death camps. She, her sister and her mother all died.
Her father, Otto Frank, survived, and later published his daughter’s writings. For decades, teachers have used Anne Frank: The Diary of A Young Girl to teach the value of tolerance and the dangers of hate.
Frank’s life could have turned out much differently. In 2005, historians discovered a trove of documents showing Otto Frank’s desperate attempts to gain asylum in the U.S. Over several months in 1941, he wrote letters asking a prominent American friend and a couple of relatives to help get visas for him and his family.
“It is for the sake of the children mainly that we have to care for,” he wrote in one letter. “Our own fate is of less importance.”
Frank’s American contacts campaigned to government agencies on the family’s behalf and put up thousands of dollars, but increasingly restrictive U.S. immigration policy meant the arduous process eventually failed. Jews in the occupied Netherlands faced growing persecution, and several months later, the Franks went into hiding.
Their story reflects the experiences of tens of thousands of others who were denied visas to the U.S. and were later killed.
At the time, most Americans opposed taking in more Jewish immigrants, and authorities suggested that refugees posed a national security threat ― President Franklin D. Roosevelt said some Jews seeking asylum could be Nazi spies or saboteurs, according to historian Richard Breitman.
In a painful reminder of the consequences of anti-refugee policies, Jewish educator Russel Neiss tweeted on Friday from the perspective of Jewish refugees whose names appeared on the passenger list of the St. Louis ocean liner in 1939.
The ship, originally bound for Cuba, carried hundreds of Jews who were fleeing Germany. When Cuban authorities turned away all but a couple dozen people, the 908 remaining passengers sent a telegram begging U.S. authorities to allow them entry. They were denied.
Turned away and forced to return to Europe, 254 of the ship’s passengers were murdered in the Holocaust. The Holocaust Memorial Museum has collected their stories online.
Trump issued a benign statement Friday morning to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day. His pledge to “make love and tolerance prevalent throughout the world” followed months of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslims fear-mongering on the campaign trail and a surge of hate crimes after his election.
A few hours later, Trump signed an executive order he said would establish “new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America.” Details of the final document were hazy, but a draft sought to ban Syrian refugees indefinitely, reduce the number of refugees admitted overall, and suspend admitting people from certain countries.
Here’s what Neiss had to say about plans to turn refugees away:
Nearly 500,000 Syrians have been killed in the country’s ongoing civil war, and more than 11 million have been displaced. Last year, the United States admitted fewer than 13,000 Syrian refugees, who underwent a long and complicated vetting process to enter the country.
Anne Frank’s stepsister Eva Schloss is an Auschwitz survivor. Last January, she condemned the world’s treatment of refugees and said Trump was “acting like another Hitler by inciting racism.”
“The experience of the Syrian refugees is similar to what we went through,” Schloss told Newsweek.
“We haven’t really learnt anything,” she said.