Before Hitler seized power in Germany, Jewish children were tortured in schools. They were abused, maltreated, bullied, for no reason other than being Jewish. The creation of the Hitler Youth by the Nazi party in 1926 had the explicit intent of developing hostile attitudes towards Jewish children. Soon after the Hitler Youth was created bullying against Jewish children began, often in the presence of an adult, usually teachers. In time, adults, including teachers, actively participated in the abuse and mistreatment, not just with their passive complicitly, but directly perpetrating physical and psychological agressions themselves. Hitler Youth sang songs in classrooms that included lirics such as these: “Das Judenblut vom Messer spitzt, geht's uns nochmal so gut.” (The Jews' blood spurting from the knife makes us feel especially good).
"The children called me Judenschwein(Jewish pig)... When I came home I was crying and said, What is a Judenschwein? Who am I? I didn't know who I was. I was only a kid. I didn't know what I was, Jew or not Jew. There were many times when I was beaten up coming from school. I remember one teacher who had something against me because I was a Jew in his class. Every time when I must have been unruly, he used to pull me up front and bend me over and whip me with a bamboo stick." (Eric A. Johnson & Karl-Heinz Reuband, What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany (2005) page 4).
After World War II ended, and the full extent of the horror of the Holocaust became evident, many understood that the Genocide had been possible with the complicity of many who had become indifferent to the torture and violence they were witnessing, or actively participating in it. Often, what began as passive acquiescence, became active complicity. Once Hitler gained power in 1933, many of the teachers who had initially been indifferent to the abuse against Jewish children they were witnessing in school, would go on to join the nazi party and directly participate in such abuses. Jewish teachers were expelled from schools and universities. By 1936, a third of the teachers had become members of the Nazi party, a much higher proportion of party affiliation than in any other profession.
What Hitler and his accomplices succeeded in doing was to rob most Germans of their humanity, turning them into bystanders who would silently witness or cooperate with the most horrific form of violence perpetrated against a group during the twentieth century. After the horror, many Germans would rightly ask what had happened to them that had desensitized them to the atrocitied they knew were happening, making them complicit in the Genocide against the Jews.
The United States entered World War II out of conviction that we stood for a different set of values, values which included respect for life, difference and for the rights of every person. Immediately after the War ended first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, as chair of the United Nations Human Rights Commission, led the committee that drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document recognized that people have some fundamental rights simply because they are human, and served as the foundation of a global set of institutions, and of international cooperation, to advance those rights everywhere. Those rights would serve as a compass to remind us all of right and wrong should other forms of evil, such as the evil Hitler advanced and personified, resurface.
The detention last week of Rosa Maria Hernandez, a 10 year old girl with cerebral palsy on the way to emergency gall bladder surgery, by Immigration officials should cause us to ask whether if we remain silent we are as complicit as the Germans who saw Jewish children been abused in school yards and stood silent. It should cause us to ask, as the Washington Post aptly put it, ‘Is this who we are?’
The reports of her detention are consistent with other reports that ICE enforcement practices have fundamentally shifted since President Trump took office, to now focus indiscriminately on undocumented immigrants. Advocacy organizations report that children are now often targeted, and used as bait to apprehend and deport their parents. Last month President Trump ordered an end to a program (DACA) that offered exemplary youth who had arrived to the country as undocumented children, temporary reprieve. City governments, such as New York City, have found it necessary to educate the immigrant population about their rights. Catholic Dioceses have issued guidance to local churches warning them of ICE searches for immigrants and refugees. This shift in enforcement practices has caused confusion and in some instances encouraged criminals to prey on immigrant communities posing as ‘bounty hunters to turn in undocumented immigrants’. While US enforcement agents are instructed to arrest children like Rosa Maria, we must ask ‘Is this who we are?’
There are obvious differences between the torture and assassination that the nazis inflicted on the Jewish people, and the inhumane treatment that ICE forces gave a ten year old with cerebral palsy. The first and most obvious is that Jewish children were German citizens, and it was through a gradual process that the Nazi regime deprived them of their rights as citizens. Rosa Maria is clearly not an American citizen, although she still has human rights that should protect her from inhumane treatment. Another important difference is that Hitler’s violence against the Jewish people targeted an ethno-religious group, and there is not yet evidence that the changes in directives to immigration enforcement issued by the Trump administration target a particular ethno-religious group, nor is there public evidence that the increasingly vocal groups that advocate a white-supremacist ideology have infiltrated our government agencies or influenced government practices. Another difference is that, in practice, children like Rosa Maria have broken current US laws, even if they did not know it, and it stands to reason that in order to be a country of laws, laws must be enforced. But we should also know that the laws that make children like Rosa Maria undocumented were not always what they are today. Changes to our immigration laws and insufficient capacity of our immigration services to process petitions for people to remain within the law, have pushed millions of people who would have in the past become legal residents and citizens of the United States, to the edge of the law. Governments also have the discretion, which the US and other nations have exercised in the past, to regularize the situation of those who are undocumented, on humanitarian grounds. This was the rationale for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy developed under President Obama administration, which President Trump has revoked. Furthermore, immigration services have the discretion to decide how to prioritize law enforcement. Until Donald Trump took office, the priority for deportation was to target individuals who had committed crimes. It is the changes President Trump brought to immigration enforcement which now make a ten year old girl with cerebral palsy seeking medical treatment a target for deportation.
We should also remember that the full extent of the horrors the Nazis would go on to cause were not yet evident in 1926, when adults stood indifferent in school yards as Jewish children were being bullied by their classmates. We do not yet know how practices, of government agencies and ordinary people, with respect to minority and immigrant communities will continue to change in these United States in the coming years. They seem to have changed much since Mr. Trump began his campaign for the Presidency as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other Civil Rights organizations.
What I do know is that it is un-American to stand by in complicitly as a 10 year old disabled girl is treated inhumanely by forces of the Government of a nation that was created to pursue respect for the rights of all. This is NOT who we are as Americans.