Co-authored by James T. Kenny, Prof. of International Law & Political Science
Ten year-old Ilse Hoenigsberg’s father was arrested and sent to either Buchenwald or Dachau Concentration Camp, Germany, in March 1938. She tells us, “My age was ten. I was not present when he was arrested by the Nazi Police and taken away in custody in 1938.” At that time the family lived in Vienna, Austria.
Soon afterward, little Ilse, in brown pigtails and a shy smile, set out to be on her own, was put on a train leaving her mother and sister behind. “I felt as though I was being cut out of my family,” she said. She remembers her mother as being fairly stoic about her going. Isle realized only long afterward that her mother didn’t want to show her sense of pain and despair as she sent her child away. There was only one available spot. Each child had to have a sponsor for the Kindertransport, a British-inspired international effort to save the Jewish children of Nazi-ravaged Europe.
Later Ilse came to know that her mother was trying to protect her from being taken by the Gestapo, which she sensed was an impending reality for the rest of the family. She learned her father who had been detained was surprisingly released in 1939. However, he and the remaining family members became homeless and feared for their survival in a country now committed to their destruction.
No one could or would, take them in, but the Transport had been a survival opportunity for at least one of their children, the oldest girl.
For Ilse, it was a train ride to nowhere. No one could or would, take them in, but the Transport had been a survival opportunity for at least one of their children, the oldest girl..” She eventually arrived in Holland and was placed with a couple that had no other children, a woman and her husband that wanted to help at least one of the thousands of Jewish children coming out of Eastern Europe as part of this mission of salvation.
Ilse never saw her family again. For a short while she received some letters from them through the Red Cross. “He [her father] wrote into my diary saying he hoped his words would give me courage and comfort, knowing not when or where we would meet again. During the war, the Red Cross forwarded correspondence, until about 1941 or 1942. The letters stopped and I learned my mother and sister were shipped to Therezin and later Auschwitz and murdered by the Nazis.”
Today, closer to home, sad stories of parting and loss come from Central America. Refugee children travel to the United States to escape domestic abuse, gang violence, human trafficking, or extreme poverty in their home countries. Some come to the U.S. to seek asylum, some seek life opportunities. Many of these children are deported from the U.S. without ever having spoken to an attorney who might help them attain legal status. The United Nations Refugee Agency said it is common for relatives to send children north to reunite with family members, who also have questionable legal status.
On April 24, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) sponsored a conference that dealt with the worsening immigrant child crisis at the American border with Mexico.
“Unaccompanied immigrant children arrive in the United States without parents or resources. Only a third of Central American children who travel to the U.S. alone are looking to reunite with one or both parents.”
Elva Marroquin Rosales, heard nothing for weeks about the condition of her two young children Angel and Dulce. Some relatives wait longer. In Elva’s case she eventually heard from an official in Texas that her children were crying and disconsolate in a detention center where they were being held. She was greatly relieved when she first heard the news, but was unsuccessful in quelling the fears of her loved ones. While she tried, the line went dead and she had no information or even a telephone number for the detention facility, she lamented.
“My children were heartbroken, sad, tearful, crying beyond comparison, begging me to take them out of there. Their begging was so distressing because I couldn’t run to get them.
What circumstances impel parents to consign their children away from home?
No matter what fear, pain and sorrow, deep sense of loss sears a parent’s heart, they are compelled to save their children from what they know to be inevitable danger.
In 1936 Nazi Germany and 2013 Central America, parents have said this same goodbye to their children to save them from what was sure to be the horrors facing the family at home.
For the Hoenigsbergs, the decision and action taken to send their child away were Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) a violent pogrom of the German Nazis perpetrated on the Jews.
Great Britain responded to the persistent efforts of refuge aid committees, most notably the British Committee for the Jews of Germany and the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany. It created a means for children under seventeen to enter Great Britain from Germany and German-annexed territories (namely, Austria and the Czech lands) to come to England. It was funded largely by private citizens or organizations that paid for each child’s care, education, and eventual emigration from Britain.
Nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig joined the exodus to Great Britain. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust.
So what is a parent to do? Life does not always offer simple black or white choices in this distressing type of separation. This is no less true of those in Central America as it was during the 1930s Kinder Transport. Families immured in the violence and brutality of Central America, face one of the humanities’ most agonizing set of choices, i.e., to risk the loss of their young loved ones or to keep them at their sides which may be as, or even more, dangerous.
The sufferings of these children and families is critical and needs, in our national priorities, to transcend partisan politics. In a June 18 opinion piece in the Washington Post, Harold Meyerson reminds us that historically refugees have come to America because they have feared for their lives or those of their loved ones.
The parting with children is not often the product of frivolous decision-making, nor does it demonstrate the lack of a parent’s love. In many instances, it is the very manifestation of that love. America has traditionally welcomed refugees and it needs to continue this practice. We are left with his insightful truth, “Sending them back poses a threat not just to them, but, even more fundamentally, to our nation’s raison d’etre.