The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion With the U.S. turning its back on refugees, my family’s history seems impossible to repeat

The Ehrlich family in Obodovka, Ukraine, circa 1914. Ettl, the author's grandmother who later escaped to the United States, is fourth from the left in the back row. (Picasa/Courtesy of Gershom Gorenberg)
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Before dawn, in a Ukrainian village on a day in May 100 years ago, an 18-year-old Jewish woman and a 20-year-old Jewish man had a hurried marriage ceremony. Then they fled. A gentile neighbor had warned them that there would be great trouble for the Jews of Obodovka that day.

The bride’s name was Ettl. The groom was Itzik. The neighbor was right. Four of Ettl’s brothers and a young nephew were among the Jews murdered in the next hours in the village. Their wedding anniversary also became the yahrzeit, the annual day of mourning in Jewish tradition, for most of her family.

I write about this for two reasons. One reason is that Ettl and Itzik became my grandparents and May 2019 marks a century since they began the journey that would bring them to safety in the United States.

The other reason is an article recently published in this newspaper. It said that last year the United States accepted exactly 62 refugees from the Syrian civil war.

I was 11 when I noticed the photograph under the glass of my grandparents' coffee table. Who are these people, I asked.

That’s my family, my grandmother said. She pointed to a girl, perhaps 12 years old, standing in the center, and said it was her. There were six young men in the picture, two with wives, one with a toddler. These are my brothers, she said.

But then they are my great-uncles, I said. How come I don't know them?

The story came in shards, leaving me much to piece together, and much unknown. My father, an engineer who had an easier time with calculations of aerodynamics than words, said little of this history.

In 1919, amid the chaos of civil war, with nationalists battling Bolsheviks, pogroms took place across Ukraine. According to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust remembrance center, “peasant gangs” machine-gunned 250 Jews in Obodovka. As best as I can remember, my grandmother’s version — based on what she’d heard from her own mother — was even harsher: One brother was hung, another made to walk on hot coals.

Ettl and Itzhik, meanwhile, traveled west. Smugglers took them in a small boat across a river at night into Romania. My grandfather would tell me that my grandmother fell out of the boat, that the smugglers wanted to leave her, that he held on and dragged her to the far shore. He worked for three years as a house painter to buy passage to America. Ellis Island records show they arrived in October of 1922. She may not have known yet that she was pregnant. My father was born 7½ months later.

Once, when I was a teenager during the Vietnam War, I said harsh words about the United States at a dinner table with my grandfather.

"Always remember that America gave us a place," he said.

He was right. The immigrants who came when he did, and their children, also gave a great deal back. My father volunteered for the Army Air Force in 1942. After the war, as an aeronautic engineer, he spent most of his career at Lockheed Martin’s top-secret Skunk Works. He told me he would have preferred to design rescue helicopters and wind turbines. Instead, he made his mark in defense projects.

That’s merely one immigrant family’s contribution. Could anyone really count how much was invented by the fiercely driven immigrants’ children of my father’s generation, how many medicines were developed, novels written, melodies composed by them?

My grandfather left something else out: The gates of America were squeaking shut even as they arrived. Nativists in Congress wanted only immigrants who fit their fair-skinned picture of proper Americans. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act virtually closed the United States to immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, and much of the rest of the world.

For Jews in particular, this was a calamity. There were other countries of refuge, but as anti-Semites gained power in Europe, havens kept closing. Britain throttling Jewish immigration to Palestine in 1939 removed the last hope for all but a few.

The nativists who wrote the 1924 law impoverished America’s ideals. Besides that, how could one begin to measure what would have been given to America by the immigrants who never came, and instead became ash in Europe? In every way, the law made the United States much less than it could have been.

In the decades after World War II, new laws opened the United States again to immigrants, with special provisions for refugees — those who could prove they were fleeing persecution. In the last year of the Obama administration, America accepted 85,000 refugees. Given the magnitude of the world refugee crisis and the size of the United States, this is not an impressive number. Over 4 million Syrians had fled civil war in their country by 2016. The United States took 12,587.

Then came President Trump and his virulent nativism. The president wants “more people from places like Norway,” not from “shithole countries,” certainly not from Muslim countries. Last year, the United States accepted 22,500 refugees — among them, those 62 from Syria.

I read those statistics and I translate them into the faces of my grandparents. I think about what America is losing in its spirit, and what the refugees from Syria and elsewhere could bring — were the gates only to open.

And I consider with a certain fury the president’s idea of greatness. For the truth is: Trump is making America less again.

Read more:

Max Boot: I was a refugee. I know Trump is wrong.

The Post’s View: Trump is turning his back on refugees — and America’s tradition of compassion

Roya Hakakian: I came to America as a refugee. You took me just as I was.

The Post’s View: Refugees are part of America’s fabric and its promise

David Miliband: On refugees, the Trump administration is competent and malevolent