| Benjamin Rudski |
To be honest, at first, I did not want to write this article. I usually like to keep quiet, hiding behind my satirical quips, not wanting to offend either side. In this polarised world, I did not want to be a polarising figure, but rather one who could bring a little levity to some of the more serious events in the news. But then I realised that, as somebody born in the United States, as a Canadian, as a lover of freedom and democracy, and most importantly, as an observant Jew and the grandson of a refugee, I could not remain silent.
My last name is Rudski with an “i” and I hate when people spell it with a “y.” My mother tells me how proud I have to be of that “i” because it means that I am of Polish, not Russian descent (no offense to the Russians out there). Three million out of three and a half million Polish Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, slaughtered for no other reason than the fact that they were Jewish, or of Jewish descent.
My grandfather, or “Zaidie” as we call him, was five years old when the War broke out. The Germans and Russians invaded Poland. His town found itself on the German side of the dividing line. My family already had visas to move to the United States, but my great grandfather could not pass the physical test and could not make it back for the re-evaluation. Victims of a world whose arms were not open to Jewish refugees, they were forced to look elsewhere.
In the middle of the night, my great grandmother dragged her husband, father and five year-old son (my Zaidie) across the Bug river into the Russian half of Poland. From there, they were deported to Archengelsk, very far north, as slave labourers. My great great grandfather died within weeks. The other three managed to survive. This was quite a miraculous feat.
After the War, they realised that they could not continue living in Stalin’s Soviet Union and there was too much anti-semitism for them to go back to Poland. They box-car hopped across the Russian border and made their way to a displaced persons’ camp in Ally-occupied Germany. My Zaidie remembers happiness for the first time. He was warm, had food and could go to school. He was almost thirteen years old. My family members were among the lucky ones. Had they stayed in Poland, they would certainly have been gassed at Treblinka along with the rest of their family. Instead, they came to Montreal as refugees and slowly rebuilt their lives.
On International Holocaust Memorial Day, Friday, January 27, President Donald Trump signed an executive order cutting off refugees from seven Muslim countries: Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Somalia, Syria and Libya. He claimed that this was for security reasons, citing ineffective screening processes. Refugees from Syria will be cut off indefinitely, the others stand at a ninety day temporary halt.
My family and I watched in horror as people were detained and turned back, two steps away from the freedom that they had so long awaited. Like Jewish refugees before the Holocaust, they were at the port, but denied entry. We were horrified at the rapidity with which this order was implemented and at the lack of sympathy and empathy with which it was being applied.
I could not believe that they would prevent a sixty-eight year-old woman from war-torn Yemen, somebody’s mother, maybe even a grandmother, with a proper visa and diabetes from entering and being with her son, who had sponsored her. I do not understand how they could prevent a biochemistry doctoral student’s wife from Iran with a proper visa from joining him while he carried out his studies. Worse yet, the first two Iraqis detained had been translators for the United States Army in Iraq. They had risked their lives and those of their families to help the Americans. They were granted very special visas for their heroism and help. These visas did not move the authorities at the airport. I am proud to say that it was a Jewish congressman, Jerry Nadler, from New York who went to negotiate, and succeeded in obtaining, their release into their Promised Land.
This executive order is deplorable. A blanket ban is never the answer. The people fleeing these countries are leaving for a reason. Among them, there are students, parents, children and grandparents, searching for a better and safe life. There are doctors, lawyers and other professionals, looking to be able to practice in peace. The people from the region are just like everybody else. They are my family seventy-one years ago. Like my Zaidie, too many of the children from the seven countries have known nothing but war. Denying them their “American Dream” will not make any of us safer. In fact, it will make us more vulnerable to hate and more vulnerable to the Islamic State. For once, I must agree with the Iranian government. The executive order is “an insult to the Islamic world” and “a gift to extremists” (CNNpolitics, Jeremy Diamond and Steve Almasy, “Trump’s immigration ban sends shockwaves”, 29 Jan. 2017). I must, however, differ on one point. It is not just an insult to the Islamic world. It is an insult to humanity. It is an insult to all who love democracy, freedom, justice and human dignity.
On this seventy-second anniversary of the Liberation of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, it is important for all of us to stand together and remember the horrors that hatred can unleash. This hatred begins with words that are met with silence and can all too quickly escalate. As a Jew and the grandson of a Polish Jew who was never meant to survive past the age of five, I could not remain silent. We cannot remain silent. There is a Biblical proverb that life and death depend on the tongue. Silence will lead to death. Words can lead to life if they are used properly. We must also remember that if one person saves a life, it is as if he saved the entire world. Closing the doors to the United States again can only endanger the survival of worlds.