Historical Analogies and Separated Families


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November 2, 2020

Historical Analogies and Separated Families

By Daniella Doron

  • child parent separation
  • child separation
  • Democracy
  • History
  • Holocaust
  • WWII

The Nazis tore apart Jewish families. They pursued the work of separating families because they perceived Jewish lives as having no value, and their family unit as carrying no integrity and sanctity. The history of family separation is a story of unspeakable emotional pain, as family members often bid a permanent farewell to their loved ones in confusing and terrifying circumstances. It is also a story that sheds light on the value systems of governments and societies, on their worst and best moments. It allows us to think through how governments can become perpetrators of familial separation in some cases, but in other cases sources of refuge to those family members, including young children, forcefully separated from their kin. 

The history of Jewish familial separation is not only a story of Nazi occupied Europe, but also one of the United States. American efforts to facilitate the exit of Jewish children out of Nazi Germany were set in motion soon after the Nazi’s ascension to power in April 1933 and continued in fits and starts into 1944. These child migration schemes were largely coordinated by Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, as they identified the mounting risk to Jewish families and the multiple barriers put in place by receiving nations against widespread Jewish migration. They hoped that children, if not their parents, would appeal to American’s sympathy, and could potentially circumvent some of the red-tape erected by the State Department. At different stages of the Nazi era these agencies and their teams of dedicated European and American social workers partnered in the emotionally taxing work of locating potential children and negotiating with their parents for a familial separation. They also engaged in the logistically complicated work of arranging visas, affidavits, transportation out of Europe, and identifying willing host families in the United States. The Department of Labor has a role in this story too. Its Children’s Bureau approved the housing arrangements made for the refugee youth and was partly involved in their placement. The families, for their part, chose familial separation. But it was not a voluntary choice. It was a choice made under duress and despair.

This is not a redemptive history. Approximately 1,000 children made their way to the United States over the course of the Nazi years. But this figure was dwarfed by the much grander ambitions of Jewish agencies and some American politicians. The 1939 Rogers Wagner Bill proposed to bring 20,000 Jewish children to the United States but it died on the floor of the Congress. It was opposed by nationalists and antisemites, who campaigned against a large influx of Jewish migration no matter the age of the asylum seeker. At one point during the war, child welfare agencies almost successfully arranged the migration of 5,000 Jewish youth out of deplorable conditions in Europe, though this plan was eventually abandoned due to shifting wartime conditions. Further, the experiences of Jewish child refugees in the United States was decidedly mixed. While some children landed in loving families, other families regarded these young refugees more as live-in help than children to be sheltered and loved. 

And yet other Americans saw opening the doors to child refugees, separated from their parents, as in the best tradition of American values. Eleanore Roosevelt campaigned for this cause. Secretary Francis Perkins, of the Labor Department, attempted to harness her formidable political power to convince the State Department to loosen its restrictions. Quaker groups were especially active in this effort, as they sent their employees to Nazi occupied Europe, including the internment camps, to rescue young Jews and bring them to American safety. And Jewish agencies mobilized in the name of Europe’s youngest Jews. Confronted with a prevailing anti-immigrant sentiment, Jewish and non-Jewish agencies developed strategies to champion refugee rights and navigate the American xenophobic waters. The compelling symbol of unaccompanied children and families willing to endure separation became a critical tool in their arsenal. And yet in bucking the national mood and opposing the politics of the majority of mid-century Americans, this advocacy work served to cement, not question, their American national identity. In aligning themselves with Jews abroad and advocating the cause of child refugees, they saw themselves as preserving what they defined as an imperilled American civic life.

The history of familial separation lays bare a society’s values. But this historical story also raises larger questions about the utility of historical analogies. In the last decade, immigrant organizations, editorialists, and even former refugees have repeatedly raised the story of Holocaust-era Jewish refugees, including the refugee youth who made their way to the United States, as a cautionary tale of the consequences of turning a blind eye to the suffering of those seeking asylum. This story serves as moral leverage and can hold political power. But historical analogies don’t always neatly align, and it is precisely the historical differences that must be equally foregrounded in order to arrive at a better understanding of our own circumstances. For instance, at the mid-century, the issue of familial separation emerged on the American national stage, but with substantial variations from our contemporary debates. Refugee advocates, both Jewish and non-Jewish, faced a conundrum. While not their preferred option, they championed the feasibility and propriety of familial separation in their argument for opening America’s doors to Europe’s most desperate and vulnerable individuals. Those who opposed loosening immigration restrictions, however, used the sanctity of the family unit as cause to maintain America’s restrictive refugee policy. They argued it was cruel to separate families and thereby Jewish families must remain – together – in Europe. 

Our own situation has seen an inversion of these familial and national politics. In contemporary American society, refugee advocates cite familial separation as a violation of human rights and an example of the Trump administration’s betrayal of American national values. At the mid-century, familial separation enabled survival; in contemporary times it is experienced and decried as abuse. One government involved itself in separating families because it saw these families as worthless; segments of another government and society saw protecting those victims of familial separation as in keeping with its own gloried history. And thus teachers, newspaper editors, and refugee agencies must keep our eyes peeled and our ears pricked to the divergences between the separated families of yesterday and today, as we remain ever mindful of the psychic and physical toll of familial separation for all who are intimately involved. 

Daniella Doron is Senior Lecturer, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation; throughout her academic career she has been invested in the history of childhood, the history of the family, and the question of national belonging.

Image created by artist Kenan Aktulun; the images come from each of the families. (Fortunoff Video Archive).

This contribution is part of the larger forum engaging artists and authors, from very different places and writing in very different genres, in a conversation on “the uses and disadvantages of historical comparisons for life.” The idea initially arose in response to the American presidential administration’s family separation policy on the southern border. A short documentary film, The Last Time I Saw Them serves as a point of departure. The intention is to provoke a discussion that could be an Aufhebung of the ‘is Trumpism fascism?’” debate: what can and what can we not understand by thinking in comparisons with the past?

Read Marci Shore’s introduction to the project here. Find the Table of Contents listing all contributions here

The project is a collaboration between the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale University, the Democracy Seminar, and the Transregional Center for Democratic Studies (TCDS) at the New School for Social Research


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