“These are times that try men’s souls.”
Those words were penned by Thomas Paine during the American Revolution. There are eras where people’s characters are tested and this seems to be one of those times.
When you look back at history, you see many examples of people who went against the tide, against popular opinion and stood for what is right. The New York Times recently promoted a Ken Burns Documentary on PBS about Martha Sharp, a 33 year old Unitarian and her husband. The article is titled, ‘Would you hide a Jew from the Nazis?”
The Sharps made the brave decision to help smuggle Jews out of Germany and occupied France in the midst of what would be known later as the Holocaust. They didn’t know that they would be heroes. In fact, they didn’t know if they would survive, because others lost their lives for lesser actions. However for their bravery they were honored by the Nation of Israel with the title ‘Righteous Among the Nations’.
Martha Sharp returned to France, and journeyed to Vichy to plead for permits (laissez-passer) for a group of children -9 of them Jewish- to leave the country, which she eventually received. On November 26, 1940 this group left France, including the three Jewish Diamant sisters (Amalie, Evelyn and Marianne), and Eva Esther Feigl, all of whom, thanks to Martha Sharp’s efforts, were armed with US visas. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1926, Eva Feigl had fled with her parents in 1938, and arrived in France. Arrested as “enemy aliens,” the Feigls desperately sought ways to leave the country. Luckily for them, the Sharps were able to add Eva Esther to this group of children, and take her out of the country. Her parents stayed behind.
We look back at these stories and call these people heroes -and of course they are! We’d like to think we’d be that brave, but would we really? However, their example is relevant to our present times and our present choices. What are the challenges that try our souls now? One of the first things to come to mind is the plight of people fleeing war and chaos, which has resulted in the so called ‘Refugee Crisis. ‘ History is going to judge how the world, and specifically our nation, the United States responded to this. Sadly, I believe we are going to be judged harshly. Our response to the refugee crisis has been tepid at best. And our governments’ modest efforts to increase the number of refugees we resettle have been resisted and criticized by many. The Governor of Texas recently announced that the State of Texas will be withdrawing completely from Refugee Resettlement program. Edward R. Murrow once said that “We are not descended from fearful men.” I hope we will be able to continue to say that. History is not kind to the leaders who turned their backs on Jews who were seeking to flee the Nazi onslaught, most famously when the SS St Louis was denied entry to Cuba and the United States, which resulted in people who were returned to their death. Are we going to be remembered as those who turned their backs on people fleeing for their violence? Or are we going to be remembered as those who stood up for the oppressed?
“We are not descended from fearful men.”
-Edward R. Murrow
I was asked by a reporter what I thought of the Refugee crisis in Europe. I replied, “a more interesting and relevant question is what is our response to the refugee crisis on our border?”. In 2014 over 68,000 unaccompanied children fled the unrelenting gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. They came here for refuge. Our government’s response was the Rocket Docket, where children were handed blank asylum applications and given only days to find a lawyer. It’s the most unjust thing I’ve ever seen as a lawyer. Thankfully, many of you stepped forward and we were able to provide free legal assistance to hundreds of children. This year we watched a lot of those kids get their green cards. But thousands were not so lucky. They went to court unaided, unrepresented and alone. Today our state government turns its back on refugees. There will be history books written about this time. How will we be remembered? Will we be the examples future generations will look at and say, ‘Would we be willing to have done what they did?” I am proud of what we do at Human Rights Initiative. And the only reason we are able to stand on behalf of people fleeing violence is because of you our donors and volunteers. You won’t have to look back with shame on these times. You will know that your souls were tried, and passed the harshest test of all, the test of history.